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 boards 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 I only knew 100 words and was limited to communicating in the present tense.
This meant I couldn’t tell a story, talk about my day, ask a question, or let someone know what I would be doing tomorrow. My listening skills were worse off. That’s kind of sad, isn’t it?
College courses weren’t any better. The difference in college was the requirement to attend 80% of the classes and somehow I received all As.
I’d fallen into the rut plenty language learners have come across in the American school system. Attaining a high GPA was more important than the education.
During my senior year of college, I studied abroad in South America and that’s when learning became fun. I rapidly learned new vocabulary to purchase a round of beer and empanadas.
Within 6 weeks I learned more there compared to the 3 years spent in American classes. It became obvious to me that learning abroad was the way to go.
In 2018, I was finally in a position to slow travel 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 attracts learners from around the world. Travelers take advantage of the affordable immersion-style courses, and many people I met already spoke 2 or 3 different languages fluently 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 so they’d assign tutors who could nerd out with me.
We’d discuss travel, business, politics, dating, cultural differences, and whatever come to mind. I found the natural conversation format more engaging than mindnumbing textbook exercises.
The professional teachers used different approaches to explain tough concepts which I found helpful.
There wasn’t any pressure to say every word correctly, and I could take as much time as I needed to work through what I wanted to say.
In my grade school days, I recall sitting in group classes feeling confused about the day’s lesson and embarrassed to ask 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 flexibile options for classroom settings. Some classes took 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. I’d always pay for the meal.
I took field trips to different landmarks around town and visited a factory that specializes in producing custom leather goods. The factory visit wasn’t set up for visitors but the staff willingly spoke with the random gringo (me) onsite.
For me, the most useful excursion was an introduction to the local bus system. I’ve traveled for many years and I’m still 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. My tutor hand-held me on a few trips and explained it all.
I found that 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 focused effort needed to blast through the beginner’s learning curve.
The schools I attended cost around $125 a week for 20 hours of intensive Spanish lessons. I studied at the schools listed below:
Antigua: Antiguena Spanish Academy
Xela: Utatlan Spanish
Panajachel: Jabel Tinamit
Fierce competition keeps the prices low no matter where you go so it’s unnecessary to commit to a specific school or program before arriving. A student can switch for any reason.
The schools rely on a sterling reputation or they won’t stay in business for long, you can’t really go wrong with the quality.
Most schools offer a community-like atmosphere. They provide homestay matching services that pair students with a host family. Students can live and eat 3 meals a day with their host if they choose to.
Living with a host family is arguably one of the quickest and cheapest ways to ensure a full-on immersion experience. If a student doesn’t like the arrangement, they can switch to another location seamlessly.
Other school activities include cooking classes, tours, and party events made accessible to all students. Many foreign students hangout during breaks which means you won’t be alone on your language journey.
How to maximize your experience
Language immersion is a proven method to learn quickly. To increase its effectiveness I recommend the following:
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 common issues I witnessed amongst students who struggled is they’d speak too much English outside of class—mostly out of convenience
Also, the perfectionist types wanted to be perfect so they wouldn’t take 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 gain a personal understanding of the culture and how things should be. I’d rather observe life through my own rather than solely accept 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, Latin American Spanish speakers have been the most accommodating to my language deficiencies. They’re always correcting me in a light-hearted manner, that is… after they’ve finished giggling!
If you’re known to have a permanent stick up your ass, removing it ASAP may serve you well!
In some cultures, which I won’t call out, a common response is for people to actively avoid me or acknowledge attempts to learn the native tongue.
Latinos, outside of USA & Canada, willingly engage in some small talk in Spanish.
If your past attempts to learn Spanish didn’t get the results you wanted, that’s ok.
A month-long immersion course may be all you need to lay the groundwork for your success.
Eighty hours of feedback plus real-world experience can place you farther ahead than sitting back in a boring classroom. I bought into that approach at one time, never again!
And most importantly don’t bother with learning a foreign language in American colleges—they aren’t worth the time or expense.
Freedom is a Choice,