Craplingua: my experience working for a Spanish start-up

A fresh-faced, optimistic graduate with a summer full of savings in one pocket and a handful of hope in the other, I had moved my life to Spain to start my first ‘real’ job. Having secured myself a job at a language-learning app called Taplingua, I landed in Madrid ready to begin at the start of September. By the end of October, I was fired. As I walked out of the office and into the afternoon sun, jobless, poor and humiliated in front of the team, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Let’s scale back and have a look at how it all went wrong.

First, a bit of background.

After I graduated, I found myself with no job, nowhere to live and no money. So I moved back home to the Isle of Man and got a job in a local restaurant washing dishes as a way to save money while I looked for something better.

This job at Taplingua was the first one I applied to. I got the advert through uni and it seemed perfect: professional experience, 6-12 month contract and opportunities to write and use my language skills. The only downside was the pay: 1,100 euros a month wasn’t exactly wonderful, but I’d been told that Spain had a cheap cost of living – even in the capital. So when they offered me the job, I decided to go for it. A few months in Madrid in a vaguely creative office job, what could go wrong? Well, a lot, it seems.

 

Owen's grad picture
Owen on graduation day

 

Looking back, I had a few warning signs. Let’s list them, shall we?

  • One day in: my colleague and fellow Bristol graduate Zoë (pronounced ‘Thoë’ with the Spanish lisp) told me the job gave her  ‘bad vibes’. I told her give it a chance and wait it out. We’ll see how that turned out.
  • Two days in: an intern was fired for having head lice. He didn’t want to pay 80 euros to get them treated, so they fired him. He wasn’t replaced.
  • Three weeks in: Andrea and Daniela, both full-time workers, were fired because they were not native English speakers (I’m not sure what the ‘official’ reason was, considering that this is an illegal reason under EU discrimination laws). With the direction the business was going in – appealing more and more to English-speaking markets – they were no longer needed. They were convinced to sign a document declaring that they quit voluntarily. They were given no notice and had to leave within an hour. Daniela has since moved back to Costa Rica because she couldn’t find another job in Madrid quickly enough.
  • One month in: Zoë, up until that point my rock in what was looking like a very unstable working environment, was fired. Apparently she was ‘bringing the team down’ (she wasn’t) and ‘not invested in the business’ (what does this mean?). We were both still on our two-month trial periods, so they didn’t need to give her notice – we had been told that the trial period would be one month long, but when we signed the contract it said two and I was scared to question it. She was told at 9am and left immediately. I had to get her lunch out of the fridge and bring it to her flat after work.

So, you can see there were signs.

At this point I wanted to quit in solidarity, but I hadn’t been paid yet due to complications with my Isle of Man bank account. I didn’t trust our bosses to pay me if I quit (would you?) and I couldn’t afford to not have that money, so I stayed. In the end, I worked out I couldn’t afford to quit at all until I had another job lined up, so I spent my evenings looking for that.

As a side note, I was right to worry about being paid: another intern who left in December was not paid for her last month of work. When she came into the office to question it, she was just told to leave by Cristina and Santanu, our bosses and the company’s married co-founders. She called Cristina, and she didn’t answer. She got a lawyer to call her, and Cristina pretended not to speak English (she got a PhD in Chicago). Eventually, after a lot more hassle, she was paid a month later.

The same morning that Zoë was fired we were treated to a bizarre team-building breakfast  complete with pastries galore, and the vegan option for me: some grapes. They reassured us that ‘we were all a team’, going round the group and listing all of our best assets as workers. We were assured that we were valuable to them (strategically no mention of the vice versa) and that our jobs were safe. We, of course, believed them wholeheartedly! They had given us no reason not to trust them! Right?

 

Owen and Zoe
Owen and Zoë

My last 3-4 weeks working for Taplingua were the worst. At the guilt-trippy “don’t hate us because we fired your friends” breakfast, Cristina and Santanu had told me that I was a good writer. Which is true. I knew I was writing well, because my colleagues (fired and not fired) had told me. The main part of my job was writing video scripts, sample dialogues and exercises as part of English lessons for Spanish businesspeople – incidentally, hardly any of the Spanish and French writing and translation that had been advertised – and I couldn’t help but do it well.

Still, I was miserable. I was channeling all of my creative energy into underpaid work for a company I didn’t respect. Two people who fired some of my only friends in this new country were profiting off my work. But I couldn’t afford to quit, and leaving Madrid didn’t feel like an option. In a hit of cruel irony, I told everyone I knew (and some people I didn’t) about the job when I’d got it. I had had an answer to the dreaded question ‘what are you doing after graduation?’ I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t fail.

Two months in, I stood up to Santanu for one of my colleagues. He was telling her off for distracting the team by constantly getting up (to get cups of tea, go to the toilet and fill up her hot water bottle to soothe joint pain). Being a part of said team, I told him that I disagreed. He took me outside and fired me on the spot.

I soon learned that they had planned on kicking me out later that day – the last day of my trial period, purely by coincidence I’m sure – but Sanatanu’s fragile male ego clearly couldn’t handle being reasonably spoken back to. Apparently they’d been unhappy with my work since the beginning, and had nearly fired me with Zoë only a month in. I tried to explain to Cristina that I had moved my whole life to Madrid for this job and that she’d told me a few weeks ago that my job was secure, but she wouldn’t listen. She told me ‘this is just how thing are in Spain’ and that if I didn’t like it I should go back to the UK. She repeated at me that I had read the contract and I should know that it was completely legal to fire without notice within a trial period. When I asked her how she had managed to fire Daniela and Andrea without notice when they were full-time employees, she refused to answer and made me leave the room. I’m no Spanish legal expert, but you can read of that what you will.

Originally, I had wanted to exaggerate the details of this saga in order to tarnish the name of Taplingua. In 2020 they have next to no social media presence, and I wanted this article to be the first thing people found when they googled the company name.

I wanted to ruin their business. But then I realised that their management skills would probably do that on their own.

I wish I could say that I learnt a lot in this job, but I didn’t. I wish I could say that it was worth it for the ‘life experience’ but it wasn’t. A few months and many failed job interviews later, I left Madrid penniless, disappointed and underwhelmed. 

 

Owen Atkinson, Features Editor 

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