Learning for the Good of It
Responsible Travel through Language Schools in Guatemala
By Victoria Schlesinger
From the steamy lowland jungles, to the glacier-carved highland valleys, the landscape of Guatemala is populated with Spanish and Mayan language schools. Together the schools form one of the best and most inexpensive opportunities for Spanish, and certainly for Mayan, language study in Central America. And if you are looking for ways to support and foster sustainable tourism, many language schools are close to being perfect models in the burgeoning market.
The schools, and there are well over 100, are generally independent of one another, but typically follow a common model:
- Most schools run on a weekly basis, allowing a student to sign-up for one to an indefinite number of weeks.
- Teaching is typically one student to one teacher for four to six hours a day, with other lectures and activities mixed in.
- Most schools meet in a common school house where students and teachers gather daily before breaking into student-teacher pairs.
- Additional excursions and evening activities are often offered.
- If you choose, most schools will connect you with a homestay family, where you can reside and eat three meals a day--not to mention practice your Spanish, connect with people in the community, and help create new means of income within the community.
- Fees, including school and homestay, run between $100-200 a week.
In addition to these shared approaches, many of the schools are cooperatively run and put emphasis on discussing environmental and political issues. Some schools will also help you take part in volunteer work. And in recent years, as interest has grown, more and more schools offer courses in some of the more commonly spoken Mayan languages, such as Yucatec, Mam, and K'iche'.
Students attending language school not only contribute financially to the development of local incomes--the school, its teachers, and homestay families--but have the opportunity to partake in the culture, and share their own, on a more personal level.
With homestays, you have the opportunity to share in someone's daily life--learn how the corn is ground, how the tortillas are made, where the clothes are washed. You can stay with a family who washes their clothes at the local washing pools---a daily gathering place where women scrub their laundry with amazing speed, all the while talking and laughing---or you can stay with a family that uses a modern washer and dryer. All of these realities exist in Central America, and via a homestay you can observe, or participate in, them as you feel comfortable.
Schools can be found throughout the region, from the large highland cities, such as Quetzaltenango to the small tropical villages, such as San Andres. To sign up for a week of classes, the procedures vary: sometimes you can just show up, but emailing or calling ahead is definitely encouraged. In the high season, May through September schools can fill up and prices will often be higher.
Choosing the right school is not always easy. The best approach is to research as much as you can via the web and any printed material the school will send you, and definitely try to speak with someone who has attended the school recently. Most schools will offer a US contact that you can talk to and who will give you the names and numbers of past students. Below are four schools that I know personally and highly recommend.
- Eco-Escuela in San Andres, Peten
The Eco-Escuela sits on the northern shore of lake Peten Itza, amidst the county's lowland jungles. Headquarters are in the sleepy town of San Andres, which is about (once you cross the lake) an hour and a half drive to the Tikal Mayan ruins. The school is deeply dedicated to the development of sustainable tourism and environmental education, and started out under the auspices of Conservation International, but now operates independently. A neighboring, sister school, Bio-Itza School, offers courses in Maya Itza.
- La Hermandad Educativa
Quetzaltenango, Todos Santos, Neuvo San Jose
In 1988, a group of Mayan Guatemalans, all of who had completed their University degrees and experience teaching Spanish as a second language, decided to start La Hermandad Educativa. They have schools in three locations, all in the southern highlands of the country. Their original school is in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest city (although it’s a pretty tranquil one). They now also have schools in the highland, Mam speaking village of Todos Santos, and in the rural mountain farming community of Nuevo San Jose. In addition to Spanish, they offer instruction in Mam. As a non-profit, they devote their earnings to scholarships for Mayan students, as well as other projects.
- Cooperativa Spanish School
Lake Atitlan, San Pedro
This community oriented cooperative offers immersion Spanish courses and programs of study to students at all levels; beginner, intermediate and advanced. We offer private, one-on-one, instruction in a gorgeous setting overlooking one of the world's most lovely bodies of water, Lake Atitlán. San Pedro is surrounded by lush mountains and three famous dormant volcanoes. Courses range from one week to one month or longer. Instruction ranges from 3 to 6 hours each day, 5 days a week. In addition to learning Spanish from the most experienced teachers in San Pedro, students have the opportunity to live in the home of a local family.
- Don Pedro de Alverado Spanish School
Located a few steps from La Merced Church, Don Pedro de Alvarado Spanish SChool has students learning a Japanese garden with little bridges over narrow fish ponds. Trees have grown and the ambiance is nice and shady, which mades the hot summer months pleasant. Hillary Clinton, Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson have supposedly studied here. The heart of the school is the big careteria-kitchen-bar, where students-mentored by Caty and Letti-learn how to prepare delicious local dishes. The best school for Guatemalan lifestyle and social networking in Antigua. Host families are carefully sought out. Food and hospitality are excellent and family members go out of their way to talk to guests.
When considering travel to Guatemala there is always a very real and sobering reality to contemplate: it is a politically unstable country with a high rate of poverty and violence. Before visiting Guatemala, or any politically unstable country, you should educate yourself on the past and current political situation, check the US State Department's most recent travel report http://www.travel.state.gov/content/travel/english.html, and make a careful decision as to whether you want to take the risks involved with travel to an unstable country.
FOR MORE INFORMATION For more information on finding and choosing a language school, see the GoNOMAD MINI GUIDE TO LANGUAGE LEARNING OVERSEAS
For a personal look at language learning in Guatemala, see Guatemala: 4 Weeks of Spanish School
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