Antonio Olarrea

Excellence in Teaching Award

Antonio Olarrea likes to tell little jokes on himself. One of his favorites illustrates something about this his remarkable life:

When Olarrea first arrived in the United States from Spain in 1987, he spoke almost no English and could read it only with difficulty. As a Spanish language instructor at Iowa State University, he knew he had to learn the tongue of his newly adopted land, quickly. So he turned to Cheers reruns.

"I could watch three segments of the show every day, which was great because I needed to learn the context, with my dictionary in hand," he recalls. "So when I went to a department meeting on my first day at work, I opened the door and said what I thought you said in English whenever you entered a room: 'Norm!'

"That didn't work very well," he says, chuckling.

Today, one hears just a soft trace of his native accent in his voice (and not even a hint of Sam Malone). But still, Olarrea--Antxon (pronounced "ANN-taun") to his friends--manages to make use of his accent in his work as a TA both in linguistics and Spanish.

"As a class project, I ask students to use their linguistic knowledge to explain the patterns in the kinds of mistakes I make--especially in pronouncing the many more vowel sounds that English has compared to Spanish. The idea is to show students that accents are regular and can be accounted for, linguistically."

Olarrea, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics, completed his undergraduate studies in Madrid, the city in which he grew up. He spent three years at Iowa State before coming to the UW in 1990 to pursue graduate study in linguistics. He is one of two TAs to win a 1996 Excellence in Teaching Award.

He's been teaching either Spanish or linguistics since he arrived. "Teaching has a theatrical part to it: You are an actor telling stories every day, and that's fun," he says. "Also, sometimes you only learn things when you have to explain them to someone else. You think you know it, but you learn more when you have to make it really simple, organized and clear for a class."

Olarrea has nothing but good things to say about his students. "There is a tendency to blame students for many things--to say that they're not as good as they used to be, that they're lazy and so forth. But I disagree strongly. It's amazing to think about how many good students you can have in a class, especially when so many of them also are working at part- and full-time jobs and taking so many credits."

In turn, students and colleagues praise Olarrea. "Antxon walks into class each day with a big smile and warm 'hello,' " a student writes. "I am quite confident in stating that I will never have a better TA."

To quote one professor, "Antxon Olarrea is the kind of teacher we would all love to be. He has a basic gift for teaching that he amplifies with endless hours of preparation and availability to his students... It is hard to think of a more ideal candidate for this award."--L. G. Blanchard, Office of News and Information

Send a letter to the editor at

Return to Best of 1996 Home Page

Table of Contents.