Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Studying Spanish in Kharkov

What do you think about studying a foreign language?
How about studying two? 
What about living in one foreign country and studying another foreign language that's not even spoken in that country?


Despite this nagging little you-really-ought-to-be-focusing-on-Russian/Ukrainian voice in the back of my mind, I signed up for a semester at El Sol language school here in Kharkov. It hadn't been easy to track them down. I first spent several months contacting a thousand ubiquitous language schools, inquiring about their Spanish classes. These inquiries usually consisted of an awkward telephone conversation in Russian (ack!!!) and a disappointing conclusion: we offer beginning Spanish, and only beginning Spanish. I was starting to give up hope when August's языковая ярмарка turned up El Sol. No wonder I hadn't heard of them- there's no web page, no street sign, only a phone number and 3 rooms in a residential apartment building. But what they lack in advertising, they make up for in quality.

The school's director and Spanish teacher (Olga) suggested I try out both the conversation club and the actual class. During the conversation club, we snacked on sweets and tea. Olga acted as a guide to our discussions. Two other girls were there that night, including a wannabe flight-attendant with killer command of Spanish. The time passed quickly and Olga then invited me to check out the following morning's Intermediate class. "The class," she said, "is focused on learning new vocabulary and grammar, not just talking." I went to the class and sure enough, heard a million new words that morning! That convinced me to sign up.

It was interesting to be in these lessons. Finally, I didn't feel as frustrated as I recently have when communicating in a foreign language. In Russian, even after all these years, sometimes my ability to communicate totally bombs. In Spanish, this rarely happens. No Russian was allowed in the classroom but occasionally English would sneak in (not me, I swear!). Olga is an engaging teacher. She'd make an excellent judge, btw, as she's got an opinion on everything and a fairly serious demeanor. She'd probably intimidate me outside of the classroom, but I really enjoyed the way she taught the class; it was like a breath of fresh air compared to my school's methodology. And, you know?- it was effective. I learned! My own students can benefit from this too. I'm yearning for a change after 1+ year teaching the same mandatory material, and she gave me a ton of new ideas and motivation.

There were two other conclusions to this experience. I wanted to give it another shot before confirming this... and it's true. I just don't like being a student in a class. It's glamourous at first- new pencils! new notebook! fresh ambitions!- and then it's just same old, same old. I love being on the other side of the table as a teacher but as a student my personality shrinks and I become a brat, even if only in my own head. There's no other way to put it. Second, as a foreigner I became a spokesperson for the US during every class- "What do people eat? Why do care homes for the elderly exist? How come so many people are overweight? Was 9/11 a government hoax?" This happens anytime someone leaves their home country, so I shouldn't be complaining about it. It's par for the course. It's just that sometimes I feel unprepared to answer questions generalizing 310 million people. Sorry, Americans, I try to make you look good :p You never realize how much you don't know about your country until people start asking you questions about what it represents!

There was one hilarious and enlightening incident. A native Spanish speaker happened to wander into our clutches and found himself seated at the table, getting drilled on grammar and vocabulary. "Quick- what's the difference between [editor's note...oh man, I can't even do this, so I'm just going to throw a bunch of terms together] the pluperfect subjunctive continuous and the imperfect subjunctive vocative irregular?" Yeah, I know those aren't real things but she might as well have asked him those exact words, for his face froze up in shock and horror. He began trying to explain the minutiae to us. It amazes me how differently teachers and native speakers look at the world. Teachers have to examine everything, take it apart, and try to put it back together in working order. They need logic. Native speakers are like poets- they can't explain the mathematical equation behind the language but they can instantly create a flawless product. This incident reminded me of the time I observed another English teacher's class. Let's call her Lady N. Lady N is a Ukrainian who has a FIERCE grip on English grammar. During her classes she said things like "Nobody is a negative subject" and "'Introductory it' is used when the subject is an infinitive phrase" and amazingly, the audience would respond with nods and mmm-huhs!

For real!

I can make the sentence "It's easy to rob banks these days" but I could never find the words she used to describe the formation of that sentence, the introductory It.

Also, test yourself on these:
  •  What's the difference? "What I want from you is to...." and "What I want is for you to...."
  • Diagram and explain: as though, as if, I wish, I'd rather, if
How'd you do?
Lady N did those off the top of her head!

Anyways, speaking of teachers, Olga's command of Spanish is incredible. She put to rest any reservations I had about having a non-native speaker as a teacher. In fact, perhaps native speakers are overrated? Maybe I'd better find a new job :p

The room we used for class was always like a soothing oasis after the grey city streets.

True to Ukrainian form (ремонт!), the rooms are currently being redecorated and upgraded. Each room now has a large flat screen tv, a coat rack was just installed in the hallway, and I'm sure more surprises are arriving soon. Compared to your average language classroom in Kharkov, El Sol looks more like a spa resort. Ugh, and I have to go back to my icky old chalkboard next week....

If you're looking for a language school in Kharkov, save yourself some footwork and give El Sol a try. They offer English, German, and French in addition to Spanish. I hope to continue taking Spanish again in 2013 but my work schedule this semester precludes it : ( And again, I still struggle with that being a student thing, but my experience here was sweet enough to make me reconsider.

School address: ул. Космическая, 27, 132 (a short but complicated walk from метро Научная, you'd better get directions). Phone: +38 (057) 761 29 95, +38 (063) 761 29 95, +38 (050) 704 40 22, ask for Olga.

PS: Another big plus was the price. The conversation club (2 hours a week) is 200 uah a month. $3 an hour. The actual class is 800 uah for a semester (4 hours a week, 2 months). That works out to $3/hour as well, plus you're given a clever workbook to use or ignore at your leisure. Class has a max of 9 students but of course, there are usually fewer than that in attendance.


  1. Why is it that you find Spanish so much easier than Russian?
    As a former teacher, I hate being in a language class, too. Even the best teacher bores me after a while. I do so much better on my own when it comes to language learning - I am the best judge of my learning styles.
    Native v. non-native - what counts is a command of language and a talent for teaching, that's all. I wouldn't say native teachers are overrated, but being a native speaker of any language does not qualify one for teaching it (and I don't mean formal qualifications here). In fact, I think non-native teachers even have an advantage - they already learned a foreign language themselves so they know what it's like!

    1. Very well said about native vs. non-native instructors!

      Spanish is a lot easier because it's so similar to English in vocab and grammar. I can learn things more quickly. Those Russian declensions... wow. But the hardest part is motivating myself to learn them. Why not say "Я не помню твой адрес" instead of "Я не помню твоего адреса"? Forcing myself to use the proper endings is difficult.

      You are working with a language tutor these days, right? How's that going?

  2. Yes, especially when address is inanimate! I have stopped private lessons for reasons stated above. She was one of the best teachers I ever had but I still do better on my own after a while. Or maybe I just give up....

  3. thank god i just found this page! i've been searching for a while now for a Spanish course in Kharkov! there was one peruvian man in the school where i work and it was a free saturday club, but he had no clue about teaching and only wanted to teach the basics! not useful at all. Think i'll give these guys a call!

    1. Hola Andrew, so glad you found it useful :) Hope things work out for you there!

  4. Teaching is in English to Spanish right??