Last Friday a lovely señorita tried to teach me how to dance salsa. Have you ever heard the saying, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig”? Trying to teach me, with legs like sticks, as the Spanish say, to dance is very much like that. Except I wasn't annoyed, just frustrated as I have never been able to dance – as my embarrassed children will testify.
Actually, the evening wasn't primarily about dance. It was about speaking English.
Two years ago I wrote about the Madrid English Speaking Group. That's not a snappy title, but what you see is what you get. An evening of English Speaking where those with a will to maintain or improve their English skills can come and practise. Oh, and drink a lot of beer in the process. Speaking is such thirsty work!
That article celebrated our first anniversary. Last week, after another one hundred meetings, we reached our third birthday and we seem to be as popular as ever. Nearly fifty people crammed onto the mezzanine floor of the Restaurante Salmantino and for ninety minutes discussed, debated, presented and listened to my terrible jokes.
My jokes don't get any better, which might be why the inmates are taking over the asylum.
For a long time I was frustrated by the lack of confidence in their speaking skills of our Spanish members. They came every week, collaborated, orated and related many a tale in various levels of English, but they happily allowed only the native English speakers to lead the evenings. It was amazing what we had them do: Solve puzzles, answer riddles and quizzes, tell short stories, play grammatical games of my own devious design and converse non-stop for the allotted hour and a half of the meeting and then, with no prompting from me, continue to natter away in English until the bar owners kicked us out. But when I suggested that one of them could actually run the meeting and come up with devious schemes of their own, they would all shake their head a tell me, very fluently, that their English wasn't good enough.
But I thought that if they wouldn't run an entire evening, perhaps I could persuade someone to take over for a part. This succeeded and if anything demonstrates that the Spanish can sometime be a little sadistic, this was a wonderful example. She led us in an exercise on Phrasal Verbs! The Spanish hate phrasal verbs, considering them a particularly torturous part of the English language. And here was one of their own subjecting them to an English Inquisition!
Actually this practise in grammar is very unusual. We have found out that no one wants a lesson on Friday evenings. We sincerely want people to have fun while using their English. I think we succeed as it’s the sound of laughter that predominates.
Perhaps it was a desire for revenge, but this opened the way for others to follow. Now, as well as having had evenings totally led by Spaniards, we have also had a Frenchman, a Dane and a Bulgarian. We believe in equal opportunities.
And last Friday it was a lovely Spanish lady and a Danish gentleman who not only instructed us, in English of course, how to dance salsa, but also gave us the history of the dance. As a discussion we broke into groups and had to come up with our best and worst dance experiences and then representatives of each had to relate these to the entire audience.
For many people, making a speech or presentation in their own language to a large audience can be daunting. Last Friday I watched as a dozen Spaniards did just this in English.
A year ago this would have amazed me, but now it is a regular occurrence. It takes a lot of courage to get up in front of so many people and throw caution to the wind and speak. Remember, there are several very fluent, native English speakers present. Our wonderful Spaniards know they will make mistakes, but they still do it.
One volunteer leader told me before the meeting that he was so nervous he had hardly slept during the previous two nights and that his knees were literally knocking. Afterwards he was so, deservedly, proud of himself he offered to do it again. That's confidence!
A great benefit of this is that now us guiris learn a lot about Spain and it culture from our Spanish leaders. Apart from learning to dance, we have heard stories of experiences on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, a walking holiday in Finland, Spanish food, music and traditions.
I know it does wonders for their confidence in English because they tell me so.
But the English Speaking Group of Madrid is more than just a place to practise language skills. Judging by the smiles, the laughs, the cries of welcome that ring out when attendees arrive, it is a place to make friends. International friends. We have had visits from people from all over the world. We have a reputation of being somewhere that English speaking visitors can come to meet people in Madrid without any language barrier – and our native members take full advantage of that.
Shortly after I wrote the piece two years ago a gentleman arrived whose ability to converse in English was, to say the most, limited. To see him now you would not believe it was the same man. His easy use of English is amazing. His confidence inspiring. I would be lying if I said that it was only his attendances on Friday that have led to his now amazing confidence with the language, he has worked very hard at achieving the skills he now has. But I like to think that we had a hand in what he has achieved.
And he is not the only one.
Since then the membership has evolved. We have lost some and gained more. Some come every week and other less regularly. Our ages range from 21 to really quite ancient. We are not a club, there is no charge, except for the beers you consume. I like to think the Madrid English Speaking Group just provides a happy place that those who wish to improve can come without fear of feeling silly, without worrying that others will disparage their use of English. In fact, like the man in the last paragraph, I am happy to see those with a low level, but with a desire to improve, come along and try their best. And I get a real kick out of watching them improve. (And if you think your language skills are poor, you should hear my Spanish!)
And I would like to add that several ladies have commented they feel safe coming to our group, which is not always the case when attending venues where strangers meet.
The Bar Salmantino has changed owners and name. It is now called the "Rincón Santa Cruz"
Who - The Madrid English Speaking Group.
Who - The Madrid English Speaking Group.
Where – Rincón Santa Cruz, Calle Santa Cruz de Marcenado, 13.
(Nearest Metro – San Bernardo, Lines 2 & 4.
When – Every Friday from 20:00 until they kick us out.
Contact – firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
We also have a virtual presence on line. Join our group on Facebook or come along to the forum. For reasons best known to the creator of both they go under the name of “La Tienda de las Lanas”, which means “The Wool Shop” as he claims it is a place where people go to talk. You can find the forum here .
There's an advertisement on the right showing where we are. If you want to improve your English, now you know where to come. If you only speak English and want a friendly evening in Madrid, then you will be very welcome.