Learning Spanish in Guatemala

Charming Colonial Antigua
Charming Colonial Antigua

My motivation for learning Spanish was pretty straightforward:

  1. I was about to embark on a 9 month backpacking whistle-stop tour of Central and South America, and felt that my experience would be heightened if I could speak some of the lingo.
  2. I wanted to come back from my travels with a newly learnt, practical skill I could use in the real world.
  3. I had heard that meeting local women was next to impossible without knowing at least the basic tenets of Spanish grammar.

This time last year as I started to piece together my itinerary, I juggled with language schools and countries, trying to find the right combination of cost, experience, closeness to the beach and whether there was a lively social scene.

After reading the many reviews online, I eventually signed up to a language school in Antigua, Guatemala.

My reasons included the fact that the city remains one of the cheapest places on Earth to learn Spanish and the reviews of the many schools, and the city itself were all very positive. It would be a gentle exposure to a new language and culture for this cautious traveller to ease into.

I read to expect a lot of gringo’s – tourists from the US., Europe and beyond, which would make it difficult for a student egghead to really get a feel for the culture and flex their language skills. That seemed to be the major gripe for the few negative reviews of the city and I can understand the reasons why having spent five weeks in total there.

Antigua has become a victim of its own success in recent years. The cheap and excellent language schools are abundant, and with the influx of eager foreign students, the city has lost some of its colonial charm. It is not representative of Guatemala as a country, and there seems to be a lot more money in Antigua than other cities which becomes obvious quite quickly. There are many bars, cafés and the usual recognisable fast food outlets instantly appealing to foreign travellers, many of whom arrive for the excellent night-life and cheap booze. With the booming tourist trade and students overladen with heavy wallets in the cheap country, petty crime has escalated – a blemish on the city serving as a sober warning to prospective students and travellers.

Some use Antigua as a launchpad to learn the language and then head elsewhere, somewhere off the beaten track to practice newly honed language skills. That was my choice.

Antigua's Parque Central
Antigua’s Parque Central

The school I chose after much consideration was Antigüeña Spanish Academy, which was located a few blocks from City Centre. Upon arrival, I met with the Owner’s son (and manager) Julio Jr. – or Julito (little Julio) as he is affectionately known among the teachers. I had originally signed up for a week of classes and on impulse opted for the hosting package which included lodging and meals with a Guatemalan host family. I figured I would get to know more about the culture that way and ramp up my Spanish quicker.

Julio, to his credit explained everything to me, and even deferred payment until I could find a working ATM that accepted my debit card in the city.

When I met my new ‘mother’, a seventy something year old stocky short woman with hard leathery skin and a cheeky smile, it became clear instantly that she didn’t speak a word of English. I suppose that was the whole point.

Settled into my new lodgings, I could focus on my studies and when I arrived at the offices next day, I was presented with my new teacher. Her English wasn’t fantastic. Probably as good as my Spanish which up until that point had been about 10 hours of Michel Thomas on audiobook on a long haul flight.

Most teachers and their students were located a few blocks off campus in a beautiful garden setting behind enclosed walls. Classes were one to one – private tuition. I had chosen three hours each day from Monday to Friday, opting for the initial one week signup to test the water before committing to a longer stint.

In truth, me and my teacher didn’t quite hit it off. There wasn’t much structure to the classes and I felt that she wasn’t as enthused about the experience as me, and it showed. There were times she would break out the playing cards half-way through our classes as if from boredom and we’d play SNAP.

Reviews I had read online had mentioned that because of the huge demand of students for this particular school, the supply of teachers wasn’t necessarily up to the highest standard and that changing teachers wasn’t uncommon. So after my week was up, I went back to the offices and asked Julio for a new teacher. I explained my reasons and he was very happy to accommodate me with who he described as the best teacher in the school – a little fire cracker by the name of Lilly.

Mi Maestra Lilly aka Thumbelina
Mi Maestra Lilly aka Thumbelina

When we met, I knew instantly that she was the right teacher for me. Classes were interactive and she took the time to explain tenses, her gentle encouragement expertly guiding me outside my comfort zone. In summary, she made the experience fun and I signed up for four weeks under her tutelage.

I would have stayed longer, but it was only the beginning of my travel journey and I had many more countries to see and visit. Plus, my Spanish had gotten to conversational level because of my taskmaster Lilly who gave me swamps of homework each day which I ploughed through.

If truth be told, my language skills were never as sharp in the remaining eight months as they had been when the bell tolled at the end of our final class together. I never really had the same focus again as I had in a classroom setting, so found it difficult to push myself. With Lilly we would spend hours together each day talking about a range of topics that challenged my vocabulary limits to capacity – nothing was off topic. Politics, sport, religion, chat-up lines for the local Guatemalan girls…

We developed such a strong friendship that I often dream of going back there again to pick up where we left off. But the charm wouldn’t quite be the same I imagine. I’m back in Ireland now, a million miles from that classroom and her infectious laugh.

Other travellers I met in my travails told me that they learnt Spanish in Quetzaltenango aka Xela in Guatemala. That was an option I originally considered because there aren’t as many tourists and it would give more of a cultured experience where you were more likely to practice Spanish outside the classroom in daily interactions. My advice would be that each person needs to weigh up their motivations separately. Were it not for the vibrant social life of the language school and the collection of bars and nightclubs in the city, I might not have made the friends that I did. Friends from all over the world who I shared amazing experiences with.

It’s amazing how one good teacher can make or break your relationship with a language. I always thought languages weren’t for me, and that I was more of an analytical mind that couldn’t bend around new tenses, past participles, masculine and feminine endings.

It took one person to change my belief and for that I’ll always be grateful.

10 thoughts on “Learning Spanish in Guatemala

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