Learning Spanish, sounds like a great idea when you’re travelling through 12 countries of which 11 speak Spanish as their first language. Our few words learnt from the odd trip to Spain and a bit of time on Rosetta Stone weren’t going to be enough if we wanted to converse easily with the locals in each of the countries. Why not get the study under way early? We thought enrolling and spending a week in a Spanish school, within the first few weeks of being in Central America was called for. It was, without a doubt, a truly immersive experience: school 5 hours a day with native Spanish speakers, living with a family who really only spoke the language and hanging out in a city where very little English was known or spoken (outside of the tourist agencies). We did it, loved it and have now got to a level where we are pretty confident of making our way through Latin America knowing how to ask for things, directions, costs etc. Two kiwi’s learning Spanish one hour at a time, these are our tips:
Tip 1: Travel to a Latin American Country
Without a doubt, immersing yourself in a country that speaks Spanish as it’s first language is the only way to quickly and effectively learn Spanish. Our choice was Guatemala, an amazing country just south of Mexico that has so much to offer in terms of travel, is very cheap to study a language in and is a great cultural experience.
Tip 2: Leave the tourist trail: Xela
There are plenty of cities in Latin America that will offer you the chance to learn Spanish. We’d originally thought Antigua was the place we’d sit down and get into the Espanol Libros – it appeared to be a nice colonial town that would be picture perfect for a week. It turns out that Antigua is seen as ‘a nice colonial town’ by most tourists meaning prices are inflated and most locals speak English. Manuel, the owner of Quetzalroo Hostel in Guatemala City, told us we’d be better off going to somewhere like Xela that was a very ‘local’ place where we wouldn’t find too many English speakers – a bonus was that it would also be cheaper! We took the advice and headed to Xela. It turned out to be a great move, it had a total Guatemalan feel, the schools were class and the people were genuine.
Tip 3: Enrol at Celas Maya Spanish School
We did a bit of research about the Spanish schools in Xela and walked about town speaking to a few of them. We eventually ended up choosing Celas Maya, a professional and popular school in the heart of Xela. We enrolled on a Sunday afternoon and had our first Spanish lesson on Monday afternoon. Celas run their one-on-one lessons in a garden area inside the school. All students are allocated their own teacher who they work with for the week / month etc (you can change teachers if you want to at any stage). The school also runs activities such as village visits, volcano hikes, cooking demo’s etc. Our teachers, Jessica and Marlyn were awesome – young girls who could speak a good amount of English and were always up for a laugh while helping us to learn the language. You can check out Celas Maya here.
Tip 4: Live, Eat and Sleep (well not quite) with a Guatemalan family
Celas Maya were able to set Cel and I up with a local homestay, meaning we’d be staying in the quarters of a Guatemalan family, eat 3 meals a day with them and try to hold conversations in Spanish with them. It was just what we needed to grow our confidence in speaking the language, but it became pretty taxing coming home from 5 hours of intensive learning to try and hold a conversation over lunch, in Spanish. There were many words lost in translation but toward the end of our stay we were getting along really well. The food was very traditional, with a carb overload – mashed potatoes and sliced cucumber served with tortillas, or rice and chick pea stew served with tortillas – it took a bit of getting used to and we were craving a salad and fruit afterwards but I guess it all added to the experience! One of the funnier highlights was when I tried to, jokingly, tell the family that In the future Cel would earn the money and I would buy things with it; but in fact they interpreted it as I had bought Celina as my girlfriend which they saw the funny side of!
Tip 5: Lose the Pride buddy, you’re back to square one
Learning a language from the start it a pretty humbling experience. Just when you’ve pretty much conquered what you think is the English language, you’re breezing ahead at work and the intellectual challenges are becoming less and less confusing, you start learning a language and it’s back to day one of school. Our teachers would pull out picture books with animals in them so we could learn the names. We were playing with flip cards and matching pictures to names, trying to learn how to say I, he, she, they. Humbled is a great way to describe the feeling, at the same time it’s good to feel that brain start ticking over in a place that it hasn’t ticked over in for some time.
The other part of the pride element is trying to speak in Spanish to native speakers in shops, bars and restaurants. There can’t be any fear of getting things wrong, because you’re bound to, but the more attempts, the more mistakes, the quicker you learn. So swallow some humble pie and get chatting!