Teaching in Saint Pete: “Spanish on fire”

Prospekt Magazine continues its series about people who live and teach their mother tongue in St. Petersburg. Why did they come here, what did they find and what can they advise you?

Español_5Iban Mañas left sunny Barcelona for gloomy St. Petersburg six years ago. Since then he has been teaching the language of Cervantes to students in the University, trying at the same time become fluent in Russian. Back in 2000 he started learning Slavic languages but in those days he could hardly imagine himself living here.

One day Iban found a university collaboration program at Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “I applied thinking that they will never give it to me, because I don’t have enough teaching experience… but they did”, he said. And then everything began.

With the job offer and support of the Spanish Foreign Affairs Ministry Iban came to Russia. After three years his contract with the Ministry expired, resulting in a salary reduction. The standard University salary is not big at all and Iban confirms that all his colleagues have to work second jobs to make their living.

“I decided to stay, because of the experience, because life here recompenses everything with its cultural richness, even if from the economic point of view it is not the best option”.

Apart from at the university Iban works in different language schools around the city, teaching not only devoted linguistic students but people interested in Spanish culture for different reasons. “Spanish is on fire now in St. Petersburg”, said Iban. “Not so much because of Spain, but because of the economic level of Latin America”.

Recent agreement between one of the biggest Russian banks Gazprombank and Banco de la Nacion Argentina, cooperation between Russia and Venezuela in the oil sector and growing import from Latin America open a lot of doors for Spanish-speaking specialists.

Russian students

“Russians are very interested in language and in culture”, said Iban. “And in most cases they are hard workers and are not afraid of difficult tasks. Even those who are going to language school for entertainment take it seriously and want to learn the language”.

The importance of Soviet teaching traditions was the first thing Iban noticed at the University. “In Spain we are using a lot of dynamic activities, when a student stands up and speaks a lot, and I arrived here and realized that it’s not the same, but what surprises me is that this method is working as well, because Russian students have very good grammar and lexicon”.

Iban sees his role as showing students the language that is actually used in Spain, because even having a great grammatical and lexical background they often “speak like people did in the 19th Century, or in the old novels”.

Respect and closeness

Iban’s way of teaching differs a lot from other Russian teachers in his department: “first of all, the age of professors here is normally 50-55.  Secondly, because of the attitude, they say to me “tu” [“you” instead of Spanish polite form “Usted”] and we have different ways of understanding things, there is constantly a cultural exchange between professor and students. That is why native speakers are needed”.

“Students treat typical Russian teachers with a lot of respect, using Vy” [polite form in Russian language], but professors and students usually end up having relationships based on respect, yet very close at the same time. There is a lot of formality, but they understand each other. In Spain relations are less formal, but on a personal level, maybe not so close”.

Iban doesn’t look like a typical University professor: a young guy in casual clothes with a tattoo on his neck. “Of course some students relax when they see me”, he said, “but on the day of the exam they suddenly remember that Speaking is a compulsory subject and Iban gives out the marks”.

Despite his age and closeness with the class he doesn’t have any relationships with his students outside the classroom. “Some people go to drink beer with their student, but I don’t”, he said. “I even don’t share my Facebook or Vkontakte with them”.

What can a native speaker do?

Iban passionately tells the story of when a Russian professor came to his University in Barcelona and taught him Russian.

“You learn a lot, because it is not just theory and exercises, it’s always the professor speaking and you are always listening and analyzing” said Iban.“The cultural difference is also important, to have a conversation with a person that has another point of view, there is a concept in Russian ‘mirovozzrenie’ [world view], that can’t be translated to Spanish and to have different ‘mirovozzrenia’ makes you grow personally.” He tries to do the same for his Russian students, be a person who not only speaks Russian but also thinks in the language and lives in the reality this language describes.

Kolobok and dachas

With a Russian name like Iban, it is surprising that he is not attracted to parts of Russian culture. “I don’t like Ivan Durachok, nor Kolobor, I am not interested in these things, but I am passionate about the language,” he explained “I don’t live a Russian life, I went once to dacha and ran back because of the horrible feeling I had. I don’t understand why you have to go to one place to suffer, a place without a shower, why you should put yourself through such a drama”. Some parts of Russian culture do match his personality. Being a little bit colder than the average Spanish person, he finds Russian attitude very comfortable.

Tips from Iban

Feel comfortable in what you are doing

Use only techniques you personally like. “If I bring a game of cutting pieces of paper I will feel uncomfortable and the student sees it”.

Arouse the student’s interest by any means necessary

“You have to do anything apart from being a clown. Say curious things, get closer to students’ tastes, get to know them, what they read, why they are here, paying money for the class.”

Make competitiveness less important

“It is very Russian to compete in class, to show off what you know. I am trying to downplay it, to show that everybody make mistakes, even the most talented student”.


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