When I finished Spanish A’Level last year, I would never have imagined that just eight months later I would be acting as a translator, teacher and languages specialist in a rural village in El Salvador, Central America. Yet, somehow, here I am!

This surreal turn of events all began one evening in August, when I had felt particularly productive and decided to Google opportunities for young people in international development. Armed with free time, internet and a cup of coffee, I stumbled upon ICS and the rest is history. 

To give some context, El Salvador is a beautiful country where only a tiny minority of the population speak any English. Therefore, with the exception of some blessed cognates such as ‘pizza’, ‘chocolate’ and ‘mango’, the most common response to English is mild confusion and the question of “¿Qué?” (“What?”). 

So, upon arriving in our community in Santa Catarina, what were our team of 10 British and 10 Salvadoran volunteers to do?

Our answer has been a mixture of intensive language learning, co-dependence, teaching and confidence building. It’s been intense, but the team’s enthusiasm to learn and to help each other has been invaluable in our progress. The combination of lots of hand gestures and endless patience has meant that by now all of our team can get by (more or less!) speaking in a foreign language on the other side of the world. 

An English class

Language has been a constant, underlying and vital element of our project working with the youth of Santa Catarina. All our group discussions, workshops, talks, classes, bio-construction, data analysis, community relations… none of this would be possible without the ability to express and discuss our ideas.

Indeed, one of my key learnings from this experience has been the value of communication. Although I was confident with speaking Spanish before we arrived, I have realised how a little of the local language goes a long way when you are living and working in a whole new community. From asking your host mum how her day was, to not accidentally declaring that you’re pregnant (‘embarazada’) when you were trying to say you were embarrassed (‘avergonzada’), there are a hundreds of ways in which an additional language helps you to make the most of your ICS experience.

So, I have two main pieces of advice if you are considering ICS or a project in Central America. 

First of all, go for it! You will learn a huge amount both about yourself and a whole new culture, as well as developing lots of new skills. 

As for my other piece, get started on learning the language before your placement. It may seem like a lot to organise alongside your fundraising, but once you land, a basic understanding of phrases, pronunciation and tenses will be invaluable. Everyone’s language skills will improve once you are all immersed in the community, but if you will be able to progress much faster if you already have the foundations of the language. That being said, ICS is accessible to everyone. Even if languages are not your forte, you will have plenty of support and guidance to help you throughout your placement.

National and UK volunteers in a language exchange session

As a starting point, here are some of our group’s favourite free apps and resources to learn Spanish:

- Memrise: www.memrise.com - Great for vocabulary lists, learning by repetition and offline learning

- Duolingo: www.duolingo.com - Interactive languages learning with a set curriculum 

- SpanishDict (app): Free mobile dictionary which works offline. Available on iPhone

- Linguasorb (app): Lists the conjugations of the most common Spanish verbs in all the tenses you could possibly need to hold a conversation. 

ICS is an incredible opportunity, hence, make the most of it! If you get into a languages-learning habit in the weeks leading up to your departure date, you’ll feel a lot more confident when you step out of the airport into the buzzing, humid life of Central America.

So, good luck - or should that be “buena suerte”?

Written by ICS volunteer Isabel Rose Scavetta