Guatemala: Four Weeks of Spanish School

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Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

Learning Spanish in Quetzaltenango

By James Tennet

The tools of learning Spanish. James Tennet photos
The tools for learning Spanish. James Tennet photos

Sitting across from my teacher, internally squirming under her expectant stare, I convinced myself that I had forgotten every Spanish word, phrase, verb-ending, and sentence structure I’d learned during 100 hours of private tuition.

It was the last day of my 4-week intensive Spanish language learning course, and my proud instructor had asked me a simple question to show off my progress to the school principal.

The longer I floundered and stared at the floor, the more I felt the pressure and the inevitable disappointment that would soon follow. What verb do I need to use? What’s the correct conjunction in the past tense? Irregular or regular? Masculine or feminine?

How could I have forgotten everything I knew less than a minute ago?

Resigned to ignorance, I prepared to explain that I didn’t know the answer (that’s one phrase I could remember – “No se”). However, after sheepishly regaining her gaze, I realized there was no palpable disappointment, not even any real pressure, just a genuine belief that I knew the right thing to say.

As my shoulders lightened, it all came back: the verb I needed was reflexive, obviously, of course, it’s regular in the past tense, and masculine or feminine isn’t even an issue here: “Anoche, me dormí a las once y media”, I said, and basked in the instant approval thereafter.

Successfully conversing in a newly-learned foreign language – that is not only speaking the words but being fully understood and being able to comprehend the response – is without a doubt a hugely fulfilling experience. It may sound like a small victory – especially considering the widely-held belief that ‘everyone speaks English’ – but as someone who viewed language lessons at school as more of a foreign obstruction to be painfully traversed, rather than something actually worth investing time and effort in, I can say with some authority that it’s a great feeling.

A Sense of Achievement

The colonial atmosphere of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
The colonial atmosphere of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

This alone is reason enough to take up a language course in a foreign country, but the sense of achievement is amplified if you’re taking lessons with a longer-term goal in mind.

For me, at the beginning of a year-long trip through primarily Spanish-speaking South and Central America, the benefits of being able to converse with the local people in their native tongue are unquantifiable and sure to enhance every aspect of my trip.

However, many of my fellow students in the Guatemalan city of Quetzaltenango (or ‘Xela’, for the easier pronunciation option) were there for a variety of other reasons: Some were university students attending language school in order to gain course credit back home; others were just looking to improve their employment prospects or attending under the sponsorship of a current employer.

Their backgrounds were diverse and the ages ranged from 19 to somewhere in the ’60s (not everyone was willing to be completely specific here). The basic setup in Guatemalan language schools is 4-5 hours of private lessons every weekday morning (although afternoon classes are usually available on request). Prices vary quite widely, but so does quality: do your research and speak to other students before choosing a school.

It’s also worth requesting to meet your teacher before you make a commitment – spend a little time chatting with them and you’ll usually get an idea of what the classroom dynamic will feel like. You’ll be spending up to 5 hours a day in a room with just this person (that’s 25 hours a week) so you’ll need to feel comfortable with them in order to get the most out of the lessons.

The city skyline.
The city skyline.

For a little extra ‘dinero’ each week, most schools offer a ‘language immersion’ option, which basically means food and board is provided by a local, non-English speaking family.

The idea is that you don’t just end up speaking Spanish during lessons and switching back to English for the rest of the time to converse with other travelers and students in the hotels, restaurants, and bars of the city center. Three mealtimes a day with a host family, as well as sleeping in their house every night, means you have no choice but to keep practicing the Spanish.

I was very pleased with my surrogate family: a young couple and their two children – a 6-year-old girl and an 18-month-old boy. The young girl had been learning English at school for the last couple of months and even at this very basic level she spoke more English than anyone else.

We often helped each other with homework, and it was an unexpected bonus to have another language learner in the house – someone who could empathize during my linguistic struggles (even if that person was a 6-year-old girl).

If I’d really had enough of speaking Spanish for the day, I also had the option of spending some time playing with the toddler – his mother really appreciated the break in having to constantly watch him and I could turn my brain off, safe in the knowledge that he wasn’t going to want to test my understanding of reflexive verbs in the third person.

Student, left, and teacher.
Student, left, and teacher.

Obviously, not every host family has young children (although most have offspring of some age – as you’d expect in a country where over half the population is under 18) but it’s usually possible to specify what kind of household situation would suit you best. If you really don’t like kids, don’t be afraid to say so!

There are a number of cities in Guatemala that have recently developed into ‘language-learning centers’ – of which Xela and Antigua are the two most popular. Antigua is undoubtedly a beautiful place, and well worth a visit during your time in Guatemala. However, for those who really want to immerse themselves in their studies, it’s a good idea to opt for Xela.

A local bus with a passenger up top.
A local bus with a passenger up top.

Antigua is Guatemala’s number one tourist town and, as an Antiguan student explained to me when we were comparing language school experiences, “There may be many Spanish schools in Antigua, but the primary focus is still on the tourism industry.

It Takes Discipline

It takes real discipline to speak Spanish outside of school, especially when most locals you encounter are just as keen to practice their English”. This isn’t an issue in Xela – studying takes preference ahead of general tourism – and, if you really want to, it’s possible not to speak a word of English during your time here.

My level of immersion was also helped by the location of my school and home stay; about 2km north of Xela city centre – well away from the multitude of bars and restaurant that, in the evening, fill up with foreign students; sitting in corners and rebelliously whispering in English. Most schools are based in the city centre, so consider looking further afield if you’re really serious about your studies.

Before I started my course, I had only been learning random Spanish phrases whenever I needed them and picking up enough useful words to get by. But, in order to really understand the language and become ‘fluent’ in the long term, it’s necessary to know the underlying rules and learn to construct your own phrases rather than just repeating them from a book.

This is where the benefits of attending a school really come into their own – it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get this depth of understanding from learning ‘on the street’ or from language tapes – where you can’t ask questions to clarify anything you’re struggling with.

So, after four weeks of studying, do I speak Spanish….? That question’s not as simple to answer as it may seem. There are different levels of ‘knowing’ a language and I’d probably still not claim to be able to ´speak Spanish’. But, there’s no doubt my level of comprehension and speaking ability has improved greatly from where I was at the start.

Spanish school outside.
Spanish school outside.

Without the skills and understanding, I gained from my studies, there is no way I would be able to communicate in the manner I do now: approaching locals in the street to begin an exchange in Spanish; chatting to strangers on the bus; asking for directions when I inevitably get lost on a solo day trip.

It’s these experiences that make it all worthwhile. Every successful conversation I have in Spanish is a real joy.

The city square in Quetzaltenango.
The city square in Quetzaltenango.

Having this ability opens up countless new possibilities; creating new relationships and bringing invaluable knowledge and cultural insight that would have been impossible to grasp before.

For me, fluency may still be a long way off, but thanks to my four weeks at school, I now have the foundations firmly in place to improve every day and with practice – ‘poco a poco’ – I’m getting closer to feeling like I’ll eventually be able to say “¡ Si, hablo Español muy bien!”

Useful Websites

Spanish schools just in Quetzaltenango

Spanish schools throughout Guatemala

My school – La Democracia
9a Calle 15-05, Zona 3, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Tel: +(502) 7767-0013. Email: Costs: $175 per week for 5 hours of lessons a day (Monday to Friday) including host family accommodation and 3 meals every day. ($115 without host family and meals).Other recommended schools:

Celas Maya – Address: 6a Calle 14-55 Zona 1 Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Tel: (502) 7761-4342. Email: Costs: $199/185 (high/low season) per week with homestay (same terms as above) or $155/140 without homestay.

Miguel de Cervantes – Address: 12 Avenida 8-31, Zona 1
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Tel: (502) 77 65 55 54. Email: Costs: $140 per week with homestay or $100 without.

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Read more about James Tennet’s trip to Guatemala on his blog, Tennet’s Travels.