Ever since I was a young child, I dreamt of living in exotic places and speaking the many languages of the world. Secretly, I admired people who could learn multiple languages—they all looked so smart!
When I enrolled in high school, my advisor suggested that I pursue foreign language credits because college acceptance committees preferred them. To this day, I don’t know if she fed me a bogus reason, but on a personal level it was the worst reason to learn a language—and the quality of my learning experience reflected it.
Spanish classes were a joke. After 2 years of learning to speak Spanish, my vocabulary consisted of 100 words, and I could only use the present tense. This means I couldn’t tell a story, talk about my day, barely ask a question, or let someone know what I would be doing tomorrow evening. My listening skills were worse. That’s kind of sad, isn’t it?
My college classes weren’t any better. The difference in college was that I only had to attend 80% of the classes, and somehow I averaged an “A” grade as a Spanish student.
I’d fallen into the rut plenty language learners have come across in the American school system. The classes valued passing grades instead of the learning experience.
During my senior year of college, I studied abroad in Chile and Argentina, and that’s when learning became fun. I could readily use new vocabulary to purchase beer and empanadas in Buenos Aires. I learned more from being in a Spanish speaking country for 6 weeks than in 3 years of traditional schooling.
In 2018, I was in a position where I could begin slow traveling around the world, and the first region on my list was Central and South America. I knew that communicating in Spanish would open up an entire continent for me, so I planned to learn to speak Spanish within 6 weeks.
My Spanish speaking journey began in the beautiful country of Guatemala, a place that has become a premier destination for Spanish learners. Travelers take advantage of the affordable immersion-style courses, and many people I met already spoke 2 or 3 different languages before arriving.
The typical class format for immersion courses is a 1 on 1 session with an assigned tutor. The best value learning packages are offered for one week as semi-intensive (2 hours per day) or intensive (4 hours per day).
I prefer sessions with plenty of discussion about topics that I like. My first tutor was a beautiful woman in her early twenties. As you could expect, she was nice to look at, but, after 4 hours of boring conversation, all the expresso in the world couldn’t keep me engaged. After that experience, I made sure to voice my requirements to every academic coordinator, and they did their best to assign tutors who could match my nerdiness. We would talk about travel, business, politics, dating, cultural differences, and more. I found the natural conversation format more engaging than following the prompts in a textbook.
The tutors were professional and could break down tough concepts by using different approaches and examples. I found this helpful.
There wasn’t any pressure to say every word correctly, and I could take as much time as I needed to figure out what I wanted to say during our session. In my grade school days, I recall sitting in group classes feeling confused about the day’s lesson and like a dummy for asking questions. Now, I realize that you can never ask too many questions—what a liberating feeling! The tutors are being paid to help students to break through the early stages of learning.
One of my favorite things about having a personal tutor is the flexibility to choose classroom settings. While learning Spanish, my classes could take place on a beautiful campus with a vibrant courtyard and waterfalls. If the campus scenery became stale, then I’d tell the instructor to skip breakfast and have them choose the best brunch restaurant in town. Of course, I paid for the meal.
I took field trips to different landmarks around town and visited a factory that specializes in custom leather goods. The factory visit wasn’t touristy at all, and I got to speak with the staff.
For me, the most useful excursion was an introduction to the local bus system. I’ve traveled for many years and even now I’m intimidated by unfamiliar bus transit. Many times “proper” signage doesn’t appear to exist, and only the locals seem to know where the pickup and drop-off points are. I brought my tutor who was willing to explain everything to me.
I found the immersion style of language learning produced superior results. There were no grades, no competition, and no mandatory classes. All I did was provide the effort needed to blast through the beginner’s learning curve.
The kind of schools I attended cost around $125 a week for 20 hours of intensive Spanish lessons. I’ve listed below the schools I attended in different regions of Guatemala:
Fierce competition keeps the prices low no matter where you go. It’s unnecessary to commit to a specific school or tutor before arriving, and you can switch for any reason. The schools rely on a sterling reputation to attract and retain students, so it’s hard to go wrong with whoever you choose.
Most language schools offer a community-like atmosphere for their students. They provide homestay matching services that pair students with a local host family. Students live and eat 3 meals a day with their host if they want to. Living with a host family is arguably one of the quickest and cheapest ways to set up a full-on immersion experience. If a student doesn’t like the arrangement, they can switch to another location, and it’s really no big deal.
Other school activities include cooking classes, tours, and party events that are made accessible to all students. It’s also common to meet foreign students during breaks which helps you realize that you’re not alone on the language journey.
How to Maximize Your Experience
Language immersion is an awesome way to learn quickly. To increase its effectiveness, I do have the following caveats:
Use English When Necessary
The immersion concept works because the student lives, thinks, speaks, writes, and breathes in Spanish… ok, the breathing shouldn’t change much. Thousands of students, including myself, have achieved massive improvement with deep focus over a few weeks period. The problem I saw over and over again with students who struggled is they’d get lazy and speak too much English during class breaks and outside of class. Also, the perfectionist types wanted to be perfect, so they’d hold themselves back from taking chances with the language.
Be cordial with these people, but don’t help them feel comfortable at the expense of your goals.
Spend Less Time with Other Foreigners
This helps you get your own perspective on the culture and how things are done. I find it more helpful to observe life through my own lens instead of being influenced by an outsider’s interpretation. The foreigner could be spot on with their assessment, or they could be parroting something they’ve heard and passed it off as their own. It’s hard to tell. Take what they say with a grain of salt and discover the truth for yourself.
Don’t worry about being the only foreigner
In all of my travels, people from Spanish speaking countries have been the most accommodating to my language deficiencies. They’re always correcting me—usually in a light-hearted way. Be a good sport about it and enjoy the laugh. In some cultures, which I won’t name, a common response is for strangers and store personnel to flat-out avoid me or fail to acknowledge any attempts to learn their language. I’ve noticed that Spanish speaking cultures are pleasant and willing to engage in “small talk”.
If your past attempts to learn the Spanish language didn’t get the results you wanted, that’s ok. A month-long immersion course may be what lays the groundwork for your success. Eighty hours of classroom dialogue plus engaging with the locals could put you miles ahead of people who’ve been sitting in classrooms back home. I was one of those people. And most importantly, don’t go to an American college to learn a foreign language—it’s not worth it.