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Travel Guide: Learning Spanish in Guatemala

8th Nov 2011 1:53am | By Editor

While spending time immensed in a culture to learn its language is a great idea, MARK STRATTON discovered there's research to do before the study begins.

Guatemala has developed a growing reputation for Spanish language schools. If you're planning to travel through Central America, a week or two at one of these inexpensive schools is fun and can hugely enhance your travels.

Many such schools are found in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, where week-long packages of Spanish tuition and home-stays with local families start at around US$140 per week. But as Antigua is firmly established on the 'gringo trail', I decided to be different. Rather than mixing with fellow English-speaking travellers, I decided to immerse myself in a remoter location forcing me to speak Spanish only.

Proyecto Linguistico de Espanol seemed to fit the bill perfectly. A bumpy four-hour journey in a 'chicken' bus into the Cuchumatan highlands delivered me to the village of Todos Santos. Surrounded by rounded limestone mountains, the village is home to the Mam people who dress almost uniformly in traditional costume. The men resemble camp cowboys in red pinstripe trousers with black chaps, embroidered kipper-collars, and straw bowler hats.

I planned to spend two weeks at Proyecto Linguisto studying by day and returning in the evening to board with a local family. Homestays while you study are a great way to develop your conversational skills over the dinner table.

Unfortunately while Todos Santos was lovely the Spanish school was cojones (you'll have to look that one up). The lessons proved unstructured and the teacher was a first-class bludger. He looked bored all day and was prone to going walkabout, usually mid-lesson. Popping back home, I suspect, for a nap. Most of my fellow students felt the same. Jessie, a young American girl, ended up composing poetry for her lovelorn teacher who was trying to woo his village sweetheart.
So the school wasn't great, but at least I'd be able to practise a bit of Spanish at my homestay with the Carillos family. At least, I would've done if the family spoke any Spanish. Alarm bells rang when the lovely Faustina - the oldest of three sisters who was supporting a new baby and one dotty cackling grandmother - announced when we met: No hablo mucho Español." Bad start.

But she did speak Mam. And I spent a slightly confusing week trying to get my tongue around a difficult language spoken by only a handful of people. As I did so, Granny Carillos churned out tortillas to accompany the most brutally chilli-hot meals I've ever eaten. And then the family would turn out on mass to peer through holes in the tarpaulin door of the family chuk (a heated stone sauna shaped like an igloo) as I sat inside naked and sweating.

In terms of company it was one of the best weeks I've ever spent in Central America, but as for improving my Spanish I learnt 'nada'. I baled out of Todos Santos after the first week and drifted down to the plains below to Huehuetenango. Although a fairly nondescript little city with a provincial feel it has a few Spanish schools, and more importantly for my grand plan, a much more Latino feel.

This time I spent a day researching one or two of the schools rather than launching straight in with a course. I chose a package at the Xinabajul Academy offering 20 hours of tuition spread over five mornings per week - fairly typical for Guatemalan language schools. You can take 35 hour study-all-day packages but this seemed like overkill. I also made sure that I would get one-on-one tuition as sitting with a group of students would've felt too much like being back at school.
This time my teacher, Otto, was excellent. Besides going through the discipline of learning verbs and grammar specifically aimed to help with travelling ("please don't shoot me, here's all my money" etc), we conversed in detail about politics, sport, music, you name it. He never once spoke English. It's amazing how well you can make yourself understood as your confidence grows. Good schools will also arrange trips out to the cinema or local markets to help you hone your everyday conversation.
This time my host family were truly Spanish speakers. Oscar, Karina, and their baby boy, Brando, lived in a neat suburb close to the centre of town. They were very welcoming and I quickly overcame a sense of awkwardness about invading their home. And if they were bored with my fractured attempts at conversation (how many times can you ask somebody their name?) they didn't show it. Although they did look a little shocked when during one dinner-time conversation I claimed I was pregnant. Well, embarazada does sound little like embarrassed."