Speaking English Qualifies

Sheila Bean | Article and Photos

A week in the European countryside, room and board provided. What’s the catch? Ya gotta speak English.

During the past year, I’ve volunteered at two one-week English-immersion programs for adults — one was located four hours outside of Madrid and the other two hours outside of Munich. To volunteer, you needn’t be a teacher; you won’t be teaching formal lessons. You simply need to speak fluent English and be excited about talking to strangers all day. And I mean all day.

Each day begins with breakfast and continues well into the evening, with a two-hour siesta in the afternoon — a chance to rest, catch up on emails, or do as you please. Spanish meals are served at 9:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m. (one hour earlier in Germany), and mealtime conversations are vital English practice.

A big chunk of time is spent on fifty-minute one-on-one conversations. You can go for a walk and generally shoot the breeze, but also touch on explanations of a specific phrasal verb, such as “give in,” and an idiom, such as “the elephant in the room.” There are small-group discussions, phone conversations based on a scenario (for example, recent travel), and conference calls based on a scenario (for example, damage control for a company that goofed up). The day includes trivia games, short plays, skits, songs, or other entertainment. Volunteers might teach a Celtic dance or share photos of their job in Antarctica. Students present topics ranging from cyber security to mindfulness.

The entire week is organized and hosted by two Diverbo administrators. Your days are mapped out for you, and your job is simply to listen and talk — in English. All English, all the time. Even the language learners must speak English to each other.

But back to the meals! The food is ample, carefully presented, and professionally served. Breakfast is served buffet-style. Two choices are offered for dinner, and maybe lunch, too (plus wine and dessert), and the kitchen caters to a host of dietary restrictions. In this part of Spain, ham is a regional specialty, but you don’t have to choose the ham. In Germany, look for Bavarian specialties such as pretzels, strudel, sausage, venison, spätzle, and dumplings.

You’ll be housed in a comfortable, not-fancy room in a hotel or villa. Diverbo offers a variety of programs throughout Germany and Spain, generally in a secluded spot so that learners can blanket themselves in English. My Spanish program (called Pueblo Ingles) was located near a fascinating medieval town, and my German program (Englischhausen) was set in a hushed, forested natural area.

During my weeks, every participant — student or volunteer — was friendly and interesting. The students were quite fluent in English, and understood sophisticated grammar terms, but they wanted to improve their usage and pronunciation. For example, a Spanish “v” might sound like a “b,” and a soft “c” or a “z” might be pronounced as “th.” German students complained about the English “th,” which they were tempted to pronounce as “z” or “s.” And all of us say our “r” sound differently!

To volunteer, check out the Diverbo website well in advance, and apply online. Once your application is accepted, you choose the location and time of year. Some programs are eight days long; others just six. The Madrid-based company, Diverbo, has been in business since 2001. You could also explore similar programs, such as Vaughan Town and Angloville.

You pay for your airfare and any accommodation and meals until you hop on the Diverbo bus. Once you’re on the bus, all meals and accommodation are provided.

There might be fifteen to eighteen Anglo volunteers and fifteen to eighteen students. I met Anglos from England, Scotland, Trinidad and Tobago, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Greece, Germany, and the United States. Lots of accents and regional expressions! My two cohorts had all sorts of professional backgrounds, from a lawyer to a surgical nurse to a project manager, and we ranged in age from 22 to 77. A few were repeat volunteers. One had volunteered for five programs this year!

The students also represented a range of professional backgrounds — from an airline executive to a biologist to a manager in a debt collection business. Many needed to improve their English skills for work with international clients or colleagues, and their employer had paid for their immersion experience. A few had paid their own way, and taken holiday time, to boost their English in hopes of getting a promotion or a different job. One woman was boning up on her English to present her PhD dissertation.

Both programs were intense educational experiences for me, too. I learned about language acquisition, and about different cultures and professions. The bonus? I made great new friends from around the world.

And Bob’s your uncle!

Sheila Bean taught with the Calgary Board of Education for seventeen years, including three years at City Hall School. Since retiring, she has taught at Stampede and Jube schools, and has dabbled in journalism (her previous career). She volunteered for Diverbo in Spain in October 2022 and in Germany in March 2023 and looks forward to connecting with her new Diverbo friends around the world.