Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Dos and don'ts for Erasmus students and future prospects

Now that I have finished my year abroad I feel that it is only right for me to give my opinion on how best to make the most of your Erasmus year (or similar), and to give my thoughts on future prospects for Erasmus students. 
Let's start with the dos
Speak the language - try to make friends with local people and meet up with them regularly to practice the language. Remember that these people, whether they be classmates or people you meet on nights out, can become friends for life and can open up doors for you whilst on your year abroad and in the future as well. If you don't speak the language enough you will regret it. Even if languages isn't your main study in your country of origin, it is my personal opinion that you shouldn't waste the opportunity that you have been given. If you're surrounded by the language and don't learn it then you may as well have stayed at home as far as I'm concerned. 
 Live with nativesit is important to live with people who speak the language you are trying to learn because that way you speak it every single day. Living with a mix of Erasmus students can also be a good idea as long as there's at least one person who speaks the language natively in the house and that language is the one "majoritarily" spoken. 
Watch local television and radio - these days with the Internet it's pretty easy to watch the telly and listen to the radio online but if you're in the country it's even easier! Turn on the TV or radio every morning when you're getting ready or eating your breakfast because I promise it will improve your language skills leaps and bounds. 
Socialise - Get out of your flat and have fun as much as you can. You don't want to be cooped up inside and not venture out apart from when you go to university. If you are in a place where it rains a lot then that may be difficult but don't let that stop you. Invite friends round or go to someone else's place. The social aspect of Erasmus is one of the most important. If you want to you can meet people from all over the world and you can even learn their language if you so choose. Take advantage of being away from home. Try new things - food, drink, take up a sport or other hobby. The world is your oyster!  
Study - make sure you actually get some studying done because unless you're one of the lucky few that doesn't need to attend class or pass any exams (what a waste of time and money!) then you'll need to pass to the host institution's standards. This tends to be a bit harder in France as far as I can tell, but if you're in Spain you still need to pull your weight and not all tutors will take into account the fact that you're not a native. If your home institution allows it, you should try to take some classes that are slightly different to what you usually study. For example, I study business and languages and in Murcia I took classes on exportation/importation, tourism, translation and interpreting. Although they were still related to my area of study, they allowed me to broaden my knowledge of business and languages and to discover areas that I hadn't had the opportunity to study before.
Take note of new vocabulary on the go - at the start of the year I bought a tiny wee notepad to write down new words that I learned, words that I saw and didn't understand and words in English that I thought of and didn't know/remember how to say in Spanish. Do this from the very first day because when you arrive you'll be setting up bank accounts or buying phones and many other things which will undoubtedly teach you new vocabulary. 
Travel - try to explore the country as much as possible. For many, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity so save us as much as possible to make sure you have money to travel. You can't go to every city in the country, but you can pick the ones that you think are most important or of most interest to you. The local Erasmus groups should coordinate trips to various cities at a reduced price so go with them and see what's out there.   
Take photos - don't forget to buy a camera before you go. You have to take your own photos and capture your own memories instead of taking other people's from Facebook. You could make a collage when you get home and put it on your wall - a task I have pending still. 
Manage your money - first of all you should gather as much money as possible before you go abroad so that you can live comfortably and enjoy yourself as well. You should try to  make a list of everything that you intend to buy each month with a rough cost guide and then adapt that after the first month. I did not do this and I struggled some times - I wasn't the only one. Take into account the fact that your first month may be more expensive if you need to buy things for the flat. 
Get a job - my advice to any student studying abroad is to find a job when you are away. Any extra money you can get your hands on will only allow you to do more things during your year. I got a job tutoring English through speaking to people and spreading the word that I wanted to teach. In Spain there is a website that you can use to find pupils searching by region: http://www.tusclasesparticulares.com/ (clases particulares = private classes). 

And now the all important don'ts:
x Don't speak the language too much...- Yes, it sounds like a silly thing to say. However, one thing that REALLY got on my nerves while I was abroad was anglophones speaking to me in Spanish. Saying a few sentences or choice words Spanish was done often amongst my friends there but we never had full conversations in Spanish unless there were Spaniards present who didn't speak English. Language is meant to facilitate communication and I think that speaking a foreign language between your friends doesn't really help you to learn too much as you pick up each other's mistakes. Another point I want to make is that in order to make friends that speak the language you're learning, you may often need to give in and speak your native language for a while. In my experience, these things need to be an exchange otherwise people tend not to want to talk to you. If they aren't learning your language then you have no problem. I would say 70-30% Spanish-English would be a could percentage as a rough guide as to how much of the language you should speak. You will be in their country and one day they will have, or will already have had the opportunity to do the same in your country. 
x Don't live with people who speak your own language - I do think that it is a good idea to make friends with people from your own country because if you ever need some support or a break from the foreign language, then it will be there for you. However if you live with them then they become a crutch and you end up speaking your own language more than the one you're trying to learn. Pointless isn't it? You can still have your friends close, just don't live with them for the love of God! It's not as scary as you think. I remember being worried about living with people I didn't know and who didn't speak my language but it's an amazing experience and teaches you a lot. It's not as hard or as scary as you think before going, trust me.
x Don't party too much! - it is important to find the balance between partying and studying. I saw a lot of people going out every night and getting drunk. While being abroad gives you an amazing sense of freedom, don't go overboard! You don't want to get to the end of your year and realise that you don't remember half of what happened.
x Don't study too much! - my lecturers at Strathclyde University were always saying to us before we left that we should remember that Erasmus is not a holiday but a year of study. I completely agree with that but if you study too much then you miss out on so many amazing opportunities. Especially if you are in Spain, get out of the house and enjoy the weather. Why not study outside when you get the opportunity? 

Future Prospects
If you have studied abroad then you are automatically a more attractive candidate to employers than someone who has not. There are many jobs out there that are being advertised with foreign languages due to the global nature of the market especially in big cities like Edinburgh and London. Aside from the language aspect, employers actively recruit students who have spent time abroad due to the cultural skills that you can build up whilst away. You will probably find that you come back from your year a better and more well-rounded person and employers are very interested in that. Therefore, when you get home, reflect on your year and on what you have learned, put your Erasmus experience on your CV and start selling yourself as an intelligent, well-educated and cultured individual. 

Friday, 13 July 2012

Short Interview - James Nellaney

I am now back in Scotland after a wonderful year in Murcia, Spain. The same has happened to me with this blog as I'm sure has happened to most of us with one thing or another, that I started well and with the best of intentions on posting regularly but the frequency of my posts grew increasingly further apart. So I plan on writing a few more posts to share my experience for all those who are interested. I will eventually upload the interview I conducted in Catalonia and then share some more travel experiences and my general thoughts on Erasmus and how it can benefit a student and not only enhance your employability, but also turn you into a more open and well rounded person. 

For now here is a short questionnaire I sent to my Scottish friend James who also spent this last year abroad with me in Murcia: 

1) Where did you go for your Erasmus year?
- Murcia.

2) Why did you pick Spain over France?
- Spanish way of life appealed more to me than French. I also felt that at the time, my Spanish was weaker than my French and so it made more sense to go to Spain.

3) Why did you pick Murcia over the other cities? 
- I'm not going to lie - I picked Murcia because it had the best weather of all the cities available. It was also a bit smaller than some of the other choices and I felt this would help me adapt a bit better.

4) Was the place what you expected of it?
- To be honest, I didn't really know what to expect before I came out, but Murcia was genuinely the best place of all the cities I visited in Spain - it's like a second home.

5) How has your level of Spanish improved?
- Immeasurably. It could still improve though.

6) Did you find it difficult to adjust to life in Spain? How was it different to your life in Glasgow?
- At first, it was really difficult to adapt, but this was more down to homesickness than anything else. After Christmas, I feel I was more settled and I definitely made the most of my time.

7) What did the locals think about you being Scottish? Did they know much about Scotland?
- The majority of the people I met said the same two things about Scotland: 1) Scotland has bad weather, but is a lovely country. 2) Scottish people are very difficult to understand.

8) If you could do the whole thing all over again what would you do differently?
- I'd try and become more involved in Erasmus activities from the start, I was a bit too focussed on improving Spanish and only talking to Spanish people at the start. The Spanish will come if you go to university etc., but the Erasmus people are the ones you end up spending the majority of your time with.

9) Now that you're back home, are you finding it difficult to settle back into the life you left in Glasgow?
- At this moment, its strange because I still haven't fully realised I won't be back in Spain for a while. The worst thing for me will be adapting to the Scottish weather again - it never rained at all in Murcia! It will also be strange working again - I enjoyed the sense of freedom Erasmus gave me.

10) Sum up your experience in one sentence.
- The best year of my life. 

Do you have any similar experiences to share? Contact me and I'll post your thoughts here on the blog. 

Friday, 9 March 2012

2nd Semester and a trip to SALAMANCA!

Well it's been ages since I last posted an article and I feel very guilty about that. I've been finding it very difficult to find the time to do things for myself here in Murcia that are non-university related and when it's time to relax, it's not time to write articles :P Anyway, despite the moody tone of that last sentence, I'm really enjoying my second semester at uni here in Spain. Now that we're into March the weather has started to significantly improve and we're now into the 20 degree territory...happy days! 

Being home for Christmas was fantastic. Seeing my friends and family again after many months was a great help although I was lucky to have had a couple of visits from friends during the first semester. Glasgow was all lit up with Christmas lights and this year I managed to make a trip to George Square to take a ride on the ferris wheel. I'd love to say the cold was a welcome break but I would be lying, I'll definitely miss the good weather when I leave Murcia. 

Over the past few weeks I've been juggling university work with parties and trips. I've been to London and Salamanca and this weekend I'm off to a town called Elche, which is next to Alicante in the southeast of Spain, to have a guided tour and go ice skating! Such fun! 

The trip to Salamanca was something I will never forget. The city itself is beautiful and there are hundreds of choices for food, drink and entertainment. The local gastronomy is excellent and, for the most part, very cheap. One day we had a deal for 3 tapas dishes and a drink (beer, wine, water) for 4 euros (picture below). You can't beat that, can you? 

The reason for the trip was to celebrate 25 years of Erasmus (Click here for a news report on the event
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uC2iTX3UzHQ) and over 1000 erasmus students from all over Spain participated in the event. We did tours of the city, ate, drank, partied, competed with other cities in various games, did a flash mob in the Plaza Mayor (see video) and had a Gala dinner with music and dancing with all of the students gathered in one hall. I am so glad I went on the trip organised by the local ESN Murcia group (Erasmus Student Network) and I would definitely recommend a visit to Salamanca to anyone, young or old. 

Monday, 26 December 2011

The importance of learning languages: where the UK is going wrong!

I am currently reading an article for a class on English-Spanish translation for Tourism and Leisure and it inspired me to vent some of my anger on the topic of the importance of language learning. Here is the link to the article (written in Spanish) for those of you who are interested: http://www.tesisenred.net/bitstream/handle/10803/10435/cap3.pdf?sequence=6 

The article talks about how crucial it is nowadays to learn foreign languages for business, especially in the tourism sector, whether the reason for travelling be a holiday or to conduct business. They say that English is the most widespread language used for communication within the business sector and that this is now reflected more and more in the Spanish education system. To me this seems to be true not just of Spain, but of many countries all over the world. 

Why is it then that the British government feel that we Brits should not learn foreign languages? They might not say it in so many words, but the huge budget cuts in languages in universities up and down the country speak volumes. At Strathclyde University they have reduced the number of languages students can take with the IBML degree (International Business and Modern Languages) from 2 to 1. At Glasgow University there are proposed cuts of Polish, Czech, Russian, German, Italian, Portuguese and Catalan due to budget cuts and a lack of interest in the languages. I personally cannot comprehend these moves. Budget cuts may be inevitable but if the government were to give more importance to language learning and encourage students to learn languages like Polish, then the courses would be more popular. This article from the Independent speaks about such cuts and points out that more than 50,000 Polish people came to the UK in 2010, yet only 500 students gained qualifications in Russian and Eastern European Studies (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/higher/glasgow-university-could-scrap-language-courses-because-of-budget-cuts-2270634.html). 

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to work out that learning foreign languages and gaining some cultural awareness will improve our employability and competitiveness in the workplace. The UK expect its migrant workers to have a certain level of English coming into the country, but we Brits can offer very little in return to other countries, which is quite frankly sad and embarrassing. And we claim to be a multicultural society?

Studying in a Spanish university has given me the opportunity to view so-called 'Great' Britain from the perspective of a foreigner. They are all extremely surprised that I can get by speaking in Spanish, yet we are not in the least bit surprised when a foreigner can speak to us in fluent English! In my opinion, the government should try to encourage more of us to learn foreign languages and from a younger age as well. Maybe that way students could graduate from High School with the ability to say more than "j'ai un chien" after at least 4 years of studying French. That's not going to get you very far now, is it?

In conclusion, learn languages people! I guess this article is slightly pointless as most of you who are reading this will be currently studying one or more foreign languages. But if you are not, maybe you should? Food for thought =) 

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Less than a month til Christmas!

I can't believe I've been in Spain for more than 4 months now! I've gotten so used to life here and it feels very normal now. I don't seem to miss home as much as other people do, but I do have my days and I can't wait to get home now for Christmas to spend time with my family and friends in Scotland. I'm really looking forward to the food, drink and Scottish music at new years! It has been very refreshing to come to Murcia and experience a new way of life and I certainly don't have many complaints, but being away from your home does make you realise the advantages of you own country.

So what have I been up to? I went to visit Alhama again where I hoped I would understand the people a bit better. Unfortunately I can only see a slight improvement on that front but I've been told not to worry if I can't understand people outside of the city. Maybe after 2 semesters here it will get a lot better. I also had my first trip to the cinema here! I saw 'Un Golpe de Altura' (Tower Heist) starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy - dubbed in Spanish of course. It was quite strange to see Eddie Murphy's facial expressions and expecting a strong and familiar American accent to come out, but hearing a standardised Spanish accent instead. Nonetheless it was still very funny and I would recommend it!

I also took another trip to Cartagena where I saw more of the city itself and visited the beautiful port they have. Needless to say the weather wasn't quite as good as it was in August. Took some more pictures of cool parts of the city and had ruedas con chocolate in the evening, which are like 'churros', basically a donut but in more of a cylinder shape. (Photos to the side and below)

Mazarron was another stop on my list of places to visit in Murcia. It is usually buzzing with people during the summer but when I went, it was deserted apart from the occasional group of English people taking a walk along the beach. This was actually quite an advantage as I got to take some lovely pictures without people getting in the way.

I have now went to several 'intercambios' in Murcia where people meet up to share their languages. Usually these take place in local bars where the flow of alcohol keeps your confidence level up. Mind you, some people overdo it and end up lacking the ability to speak even their native language! I would really recommend these to language students or anyone interested in improving their spoken skills. Take a pen and paper along with you to write down vocabulary you learn and to write things down for other people. Exchange numbers, email addresses and arrange to meet up on a regular basis if you are serious about making an improvement in your language abilities. I have met some extremely interesting and talented people from these events and I recommend taking advantage of these events in your own country as well as whilst abroad.

This post wouldn't be complete without a final and very British note about the weather. Recently it has been getting a lot colder. The temperature varies between about 13 and 21 degrees, however a few days ago it was 26 degrees and it felt like the height of summer again! If this is the late Autumn weather in Spain then I'm not surprised that so many Brits move here permanantly. I'm sure it'll be a shock when I land in Glasgow on the 19th of December when it's minus goodness knows how many degrees.

Having a great time here. I hope people are enjoying reading this and if anyone needs any advice or wants to share experiences, send me a message!

¡Hasta luego!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

¡Háblame en castellano!

Many people outside of Spain do not know that more than one official language exists within the peninsula. In fact, there are 4 official languages in Spain:

1) Castellano (Castilian Spanish) – a language that has evolved greatly since its birth from Latin in around the 9th century. It has many influences from Arabic and increasingly English. Spoken by roughly 41 million speakers in Spain. 

2) Catalán – a language spoken by almost 3 million people as their day-to-day language in Catalonia but understood by almost 6 million. The language (and its variations) is spoken in Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands and small areas of France and Italy. The Catalan lexicon is closer to its Latin routes than that of Castellano.  For example, in Latin the word for ‘key’ – ‘clavis’ – becomes ‘clau’ in Catalán but ‘llave’ in Castellano. One interesting pattern (at least for me) is the letter ‘F’ in Latin and Catalán becoming the letter ‘H’ in Castellano at the start of a word. For example: 

facere (latin)
--> fer (catalán) --> hacer (castellano); [English = to do]
--> fill (catalán) --> hijo (castellano); [English = son]
--> formiga (catalán) --> hormiga (castellano) [English = ant]

Usually French, Portuguese and Italian follow many of the same routes as latin whereas Spanish has evolved somewhat more. 

3) Gallego – from the region of Galicia in the Northern Spain, its roots also stem from Latin and it shares many similarities to Portuguese, as Galicia was once part of Portugal. It is spoken by between 3 and 4 million native speakers.

4) Euskeraotherwise known as ‘Basque’. Spoken in the Basque Country in the North of Spain (and also parts of Southern France) by roughly 665,800 people (614,000 in Spain and 51,800 in France). The origins of the language are hard to trace as it has little comparative similarity to any other language.

5) Valencianospoken in the Valencian Community. Officially considered a dialect of Catalan although some people in both regions would like to think they are different languages. In the region of Valencia there are around 1,300,000 people who speak it as their mother tongue and 3,500,000 who understand it. Sadly it is gradually disappearing from the cities of Alicante and Valencia where the majority of the population speak primarily Castellano. 

(As mentioned before, other variants of the Catalan language do exist - e.g. Majorcan – but for the purposes of this article I have only explained those dialects spoken in Catalonia and Valencia.)
After having spent 3 months in Spain, I feel like I want to share my own opinion on certain issues. Any criticisms and comments are welcomed! I have had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know some very special people in the regions of Catalonia, Valencia and Galicia and they have opened my eyes to the ins and outs of the issues that are raised about the Catalan language and other minority languages in Spain. It seems to me that many Spaniards have a problem with being spoken to in Catalán in Catalonia, Valencià in the Community of Valencia, Gallego in Galicia or Euskera in the Basque Country. Here is a link to a very interesting video where Cristina Almeida (a Spanish politician and lawyer from the east of Spain) speaks about her views: 


Sorry to the English speakers who cannot understand Spanish. Basically, she speaks about her intolerance for the typical attitude of Castellano speakers who say “speak to me in Castellano” when they go to a region that has a different language as its mother tongue. I share the opinion that if you go to any part of the world, not just within Spain, then you should be prepared to try and speak the language of that country, region or town etc. If you don’t want to do that, then don’t travel! If it is a matter of conducting business, maybe you can get by on English or, in the case of Spain, Castellano. But surely it's a little closed-minded and insensitive (to put it lightly) of people to go to a place and expect to get by in their mother tongue, or to expect to be spoken to in their mother tongue when it is not that of the people they are interacting with?

If the tables were to be turned, and, say, a person from Galicia used to expressing themselves in Gallego on a daily basis were to travel to Madrid to study, would you expect that person to say “speak to me in Gallego” just because it is their native language or their language of preference? I don’t think so.  Even in the 3 months that I have been in Spain, I have managed to pick up a few words and phrases in the variations of Catalan that exist, and I have even managed to follow conversations, replying to questions I am asked in Spanish. So I see no problem with
native Spaniards being spoken to in Valencià if they decide to travel to a region where it is spoken. It is fair enough if the native to the area decides they are comfortable enough to speak in Castellano. If you cannot reply in the language you are being spoken to in, use your own, but people should not insist on being spoken to in Castellano in the way that they often do.

I fully intend on learning some Catalan while I am here, in spite of the people who think I am crazy. Many think that it is pointless for a foreigner to learn Catalan if they can already speak Spanish. Well, to those people I’ll say this: if I want to learn Catalan, Valencian, Punjabi or Ancient Greek, ¿a tí qué más te da? What does it matter to you? I am choosing to learn it for the same reason that I have learnt Spanish and French; I like languages! I enjoy being able to understand and communicate in other languages. It allows you to discover other cultures and meet new people, so surely there can’t be any harm in that?
What's your opinion?

Saturday, 17 September 2011

1st few weeks in Murcia

The first few weeks in Murcia have been amazing. I’ve been trying to keep a diary as often as possible so that I can look back on what I did and tell other people about my experiences. Saying goodbye to my friends and family was a strange experience and I was quite sad to be leaving them, but I knew that I was going to love Spain and that I’d be back at Christmas anyway. My mum and dad hired us a car at Alicante airport and we drove from there to our apartment at Los Riquelme Golf Resort, 20 minutes drive from Murcia city centre. Getting there wasn’t easy as it was in the middle of nowhere and we actually ended up in the city centre of Murcia first because we took the wrong road from the word go. The night I arrived I used my UK phone to call some people to organise flat viewings for the next day. I was very nervous to speak for the first time over the phone in Spanish but I’m gradually getting the hang of it. When I tried to buy a mobile that day I was told I needed my passport, so we decided to go the next morning before meeting my friend Alberto who lives near the city centre. He came with us to view three flats, helping me with any translating and guiding us around the city. I was very thankful for the help, as I know that not everyone would have had that kind of help when they first arrive.

To cut a long story short, I decided on the second flat I saw that day, which was great news as it meant we didn’t have to spend any more days searching for flats and we could relax a little bit. The next few days were fairly relaxed. We had a lovely meal in a restaurant at a place called Los Alcazares on the coast of Murcia, giving me the opportunity to practice more Spanish with the waitresses! We also met up with some friends for breakfast (shout out to Juan Antonio and Jose Luis!) and then went with them at night to Cartagena in the south of the region to visit the typical touristic things and then had tapas and ice cream for dinner. The city was beautiful I would highly recommend that you visit it if ever you’re in Murcia. It was also a really good opportunity for me to practice my interpretation skills I received a couple of calls from my friends in Gerona (Adriana), Madrid (Diana) and Valencia (Roger), which I really appreciated as it reassured me that I had some nice people that were just a phone call away if I needed help or just a chat.

Some advice: if you go to another country and buy a foreign phone, make sure that they don’t rip you off with the tariff! I found out that I was paying around €1,38 for calls until my friend Alberto phoned them and managed to get them to change it. Setting up a bank account was also a problem. I went to Santander to set it up and was told that having a passport was no longer enough to set up an account. I was told I should bring them my matriculation documents from Murcia University to prove my reason for being in the country. That proved to be a problem for me a I wasn’t able to matriculate for another few weeks. I advise that you have a Cash Passport (Thomas Cook) that allows you to load money before you go away and allows another person at home to have a copy as well. That person can also load money on to the card, which is good for students who want their parents to send them money J.

For the next four days I stayed in Alberto’s town (Alhama de Murcia), which is a 30-minute train journey from Murcia city centre. The reason for which being that there was not yet any electricity in the flat and if I had stayed in the city I would have been all alone. So I spent 4 nights in a €25 per night hotel and met up with Alberto and his friends every day. I learnt so much Spanish over those few days as I was speaking Spanish pretty much all of the time with his friends and family and their accents were quite difficult to understand. After those 4 days I went back to the flat to find I didn’t have any hot water yet! I had a horrible night’s sleep, as there was no air conditioning either. The next day I walked to the supermarket (36 degrees by the way!) and bought myself a fan. That night I slept better.

I made a few trips to Alberto’s house to stay with him over the first few weeks. I was very glad of having some good company and they really took care of me, stuffing me full of food J. I was even able to share some Scottish ceilidh and traditional music with Alberto and his mum, showing them videos of me playing ceilidh music, and letting them hear Eddi Reader’s version of Auld Lang Syne (which made me feel extremely patriotic!). In exchange, his mum let me hear some typical Spanish music that she likes.

The final highlight is going to see Pablo Alborán (Spanish singer from Malaga) in concert in a park in the city centre. He was amazing and I even knew some of the words to his songs. I got a lot of strange looks from the natives who obviously didn’t expect to see a ‘guiri’ (foreign person) at a Spanish language concert, singing the words as well! I must have been the only foreigner in the place.

In conclusion I’ve been having a great time and I’ve learnt so much already. I’ll post again soon with an Interview in Catalunya!