Learning Spanish on the Go in the Mexican Caribbean
By Cristina Espinosa
It was 10 a.m. on a Monday at my office in New York. I wasthinking about planning out my next vacation during some holiday time coming up next month. I was flirting with the idea of enrolling in an intensive Spanish course overseas and thinking some language skills might come in handy for my new job or during my future trips overseas.
My ultimate goal was to develop practical Spanish survival skills with which I could travel throughout the Spanish speaking world and have contact directly with the locals without the need for a bilingual guide or English tours. I knew I had been missing out on a huge part of traveling overseas and wanted to experience my next trip through the eyes of a native rather than just another tourist.
I felt some Spanish skills would be a great first step toward a more global perspective. Whereas I had always regretted not having learned more during the few Spanish classes I’d taken back in high school and college, all I could pretty much remember were conjugation tables and basic grammar.
Skills but not Studying
Reflecting on those tedious hours spent locked inside a classroom without any direct connection to the real world, I became less and less enthusiastic about spending my precious vacation time ‘going back to school.’ I knew I wanted develop some basic conversational skills but wasn’t too sure about the studying part. I marveled at the way explorers way back when, traveled to exotic destinations with the help of local guides and teachers who taught them about the region’s unique culture, language and customs while they experienced it. It seemed far more glamorous than spending my trip inside a school, albeit overseas.
The Tulum Mayan ruins
The first morning in Playa del Carmen (a former fishermen’s village that has turned into a charming bohemian European-style small town overlooking the Caribbean) I was relaxed but very excited about heading on the first day’s excursion.
During a welcome dinner last night together with the other trip’s participants and our LGs at a local Caribbean style Mexican restaurant; we got an exciting overview of the week ahead and a great introduction into their concept of making Spanish fun and easy.
I was relieved to see that they were even people who knew less than I did. They there was a couple from Germany who had pretty much never heard a word of Spanish before. Cristina, one of the three LGs on our trip, was by there side helping them understand everything that was going on.
They kept repeating sentences, and seemed very cool about their first steps in the language! Another participant, a Canadian, seemed to be already quite proficient in Spanish, and later told me that her aim was to perfect her conversational ability, something that she felt was very useful in her job as an ESL (English as a second language) teacher with many Spanish speaking pupils.
Everyone had a ball and we seemed to forget that we we’re actually learning at the same time. Looking forward to the next day’s activities, most people went back to our small quaint hotel early and hung out by the pool while resting up for the next day.
The next day, after a brief introduction of that day’s activities after a delicious breakfast, the LGs used all sorts of materials from blown-up digital posters to drawings to give us an overview of the Tulum archaeological site as well as the skills that each one of us could practice with our LG along the way. By 9:30 am, we were already in our Suburban SUV and in route to our first excursion.
Distinct from other archaeological sights in Mexico, Tulum is a special place rich in history and breathtaking views. Just north of the village of Tulum, stands the spectacular and expansive Mayan archaeological site. Built high atop a rock cliff, it formidably embraces the Caribbean Sea. We learned that this ancient walled city (Tulum is Maya for wall) originally took its name from the Maya word Zama, meaning dawn.
From the main temple, the Mayas were able to display torches in the windows facing the sea, guiding trading canoes through the break in the reef at night. These windows are visible evidence of their intelligence. It was obvious that the magic of the Maya is still alive and well in Tulum. As we explored the ancient temples, took a long dip in the Caribbean and had a picnic on a spectacular beach, our Language Guides were always were by our sides engaging us in conversation, resolving all of our doubts and making the process of learning totally dynamic.
On our way back, we stopped to appreciate a natural wonder unique to the Yucatan: the cenotes. These freshwater sinkholes each have their own unique personality (some enclosed in caves while others were completely open), but all of them with crystal clear water and amazing rock formations. As we snorkelled and explored various cenotes using underwater flashlights, everyone became enthralled by the discovery of this new (to us) incredibly unique natural wonder which we later learned had a rich history in the ancient Mayan world.
The constant immersion in Spanish part was so well intertwined into the day’s activities, most of us didn’t realize how much we were learning until we returned to our hotel and realized that we all needed a quick siesta to rejuvenate ourselves for the night ahead. We were having a great time as everyone tried their best to communicate and express themselves in Spanish (using anything from hand signals to English when necessary- sure helped that each LG spoke perfect English).
They created a fun and supportive environment where everyone felt comfortable to try out their Spanish, make plenty of mistakes and be bold in learning. I had never considered myself to be very courageous and would usually have remained silent rather than ask questions and risk embarrassment, however, this experience was entirely different. I felt as though I was on a wonderful voyage with good friends who just happened to speak perfect Spanish (LGs) rather than as part of a group tour. Two of our LGs were Mexican and one from Spain, so we also got to learn plenty about each country’s unique culture and customs along the way.
That night, we strolled along Playa del Carmen´s famous 5th Ave.(the most popular street in town) and had a hard time choosing between restaurants for dinner. It was amazing what a wide range of choices you have for eating out, both Mexican and international, all with a distinct Caribbean flavour. That is something you would expect at a night out in New York, but not in a little Mexican town!.
A private sailing trip to Isla Mujeres
After the usual introduction of the morning, we headed off to Cancun’s hotel zone to board a private sailing catamaran to host just our group. We were going to sail to Isla Mujeres, a nearby tiny Caribbean island which took its name from the many sculptures representing women that the Spaniard conquerors could see from their boats on their arrival. Everybody was excited to visit the local turtle farm, a huge effort from conservationist and authorities to preserve and protect the sea turtle, an amazing creature who lays its eggs in their coasts every year, and has many predators that nowadays is endangered. After spending the first couple of hours sailing
We again found ourselves chatting away in Spanish (haltingly at first) and little by little picking up plenty of words the LGs seemed intent on repeating. When I spoke with my husband back home (the poor thing couldn’t get vacations this time!) he wouldn’t imagine me speaking Spanish, since he’d never heard me before. In our past trips to Mexico or Spain, I let waiters and people at the hotel talk to me in English, because I didn’t think anyone could understand my Spanish! Now I felt more empowered every time I addressed a local in a shop and saw that they were able to understand me and actually relieved to speak to me in their own language.
During the next five days, we could explore all sorts of amazing places from ecoparks where one can bike, kayak or just hang out on a hammock, to the cultural centres like Xcaret which staged a Broadway type show showcasing the regions musical and cultural traditions in spectacular fashion. All along the way I improved my Spanish and came to love the region’s local flavour and laid back attitude. I unfortunately couldn’t spare another week from work and was envious of several of the other participants who had another full week to go.
Nevertheless, I had taken a giant leap as far as my Spanish goes and became a true believer in the concept — learn by doing, speaking, hearing and living it!
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