When I first arrived in China from Hong Kong on my trip around the world, I was completely culture shocked.
I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying and no one could understand what I was talking about. I couldn’t read any of the signs or order food without it turning into a disaster.
I was determined not to feel the same way in Latin America, where almost 100% of the population speaks Spanish, a regional dialect or Portuguese and not much English.
So I decided to spend my first week in Central America studying spanish in Antigua, Guatemala, staying in a student house and taking four hours of one-on-one Spanish classes each day.
I studied French for six years in high school and while I accumulated beaucoup de vocab, I never quite managed to get my head around the grammar side of things. I speak enough to get by in France, but I probably sound like a three year old trying to speak the language underwater. I can understand much of what’s going on around me, but ask me to string a sentence together? Hmm…
However, thanks to my French-study background, I picked up the basics of Spanish while I was in Antigua pretty quickly and my teacher was impressed by my progress each day. She found it hilarious I used French words and pronunciation where I didn’t know the Spanish.
This time I actually paid attention to the instruction on grammar (it’s hard to hide during a private lesson. And even harder to hide a hangover!) and soon I was conjugating verbs like nobody’s business. My teacher was patient and spoke very clearly and soon I could understand much more than I could speak.
After my second day of lessons, I could suddenly perform basic transactions in Spanish and no longer felt isolated from the locals.
I chose my school based on posts on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forums and reading random blogs.
I was pretty happy with Sevilla Antigua.
My teacher was excellent, with more than 12 years of experience teaching Spanish behind her, and although it’s one of the most popular (and oldest) places to learn spanish in Antigua, there were only ever 10 or so students at the school during each session (most of whom were staying at the student house with me).
This meant it felt like a pretty tight-knight group, and everyone got to know each other quickly.
The setting was beautiful, in a leafy courtyard with a view of Volcano Agua. The teaching method was flexible – for example, if you wanted to buy a sim card your teacher would take you and help you do it in Spanish.
Plus, there was a bakery just around the corner that sold super cheap pastries and bread, and the staff spoke slowly and corrected our diction when we were speaking more Spanglish than Spanish.
Each day, the activities director organised various outings around town (although many were cancelled because of the rain) and on my last day at the school we took a trip to Puerto San Jose, about two hours from Antigua.
We spent a couple of hours studying spanish by a hotel pool and the rest of the afternoon playing water volleyball.
By the end of the week I was enjoying learning spanish in Antigua so much I decided to head north to Xela and take another week of classes.
In upcoming posts, I’ll describe what it was like studying spanish in Xela, how to choose a language school and which town I preferred, so subscribe to the RSS feed to keep updated, or sign up to receive FREE email alerts when the next post is published.