I am pretty sure that taking Spanish lessons is a rite of passage (akin to a freshman hazing) that every long-term traveler in Latin America goes through. It seems like every blogger I know who has spent any chunk of time in this part of the world has wound up heading back to school in a bid to get a handle on the language, and in that respect Tony and I are no different.
Although we muddled through Asia and a good swath of Europe with just a handful of key phrases in the local language and then thanked our lucky stars that English is pretty much the de facto international language of travel, we knew we wanted to do things differently in Mexico. For one, we actually felt that Spanish was a language we had a halfway decent chance of becoming conversational (if not fluent) in. It doesn’t have tones or feature any sounds we can’t make or hear, uses an alphabet we can already read, and a lot of the words are pretty similar to English. Moreover, unlike Asia and Europe, we’re finally in a part of the world where, by and large, the language doesn’t change as we move from country to country. Since we intend to be here for a while, learning Spanish just makes sense; we figure the better we can communicate with locals in their mother tongue, the richer and deeper our experiences here will hopefully be.
We always intended to take lessons once we made it to Mexico, but we didn’t have any concrete plans for when or where that would be. It made sense to do them sooner rather than later, but we figured we’d know when the time was right.
When Tony & I packed up the dogs and bid farewell (a goodbye filled with equal parts good riddance!) to La Peñita, we headed eastward to Tlaquepaque. These days, Tlaquepaque is commonly referred to as an artistic suburb of Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara, but if you talk to the local denizens, they’re more inclined to dub it a pueblito (essentially a teeny tiny town). We figured it would be a good place to base ourselves to get a taste for Mexican city-living, and would be a convenient location from which to tour the region. In addition to exploring Tlaquepaque itself, we could make trips to Guadalajara proper, as well as tour tequila country, visit the Lake Chapala area, and even take in some pre-Hispanic ruins. We anticipated we’d have a full AND fulfilling month here.
And we have! Just not in the way that we anticipated…
Despite being in Tlaquepaque for three weeks now, we’ve seen embarrassingly little of it and done nearly nothing on our travel hit list. It’s a cute little town with some serious European flair, but for the most part, our sightseeing has been largely limited to the inside of a classroom at the Guadalajara Language Center where we’ve been taking Spanish classes pretty much since the day we arrived.
If you had told me three years ago that there would come a day when I’d be a bona fide student again, I would have told you that you were crazy. I was 29 and had spent 26 of those years in school, the last seven of which were devoted to completing my PhD. Given that I was deciding to take my life savings and travel around the world rather than jump into a post-doc or start prepping for tenure-track positions in the hallowed halls of academe, I can assure you that, for the first time in my life, I was capital-D Done with school.
But the longer I travel, the more it seems like life takes us not on a journey that stretches out in rolling crests toward the horizon, but rather one that follows a loopy figure-eight; no matter how much I think I’m evolving, I always seem to find myself coming full circle, seeing my past echo in my present. No matter how many times I shed my skin, there seems to be student inside me who just can’t be exorcised.
So, we’re taking Spanish classes. But it hasn’t been the easiest transition for either of us to reconnect with our scholastic roots. I’m glad that when given the choice to take 2 hours or 4 hours of class per day, five days a week, we elected to go with the shorter amount of time. (I had read enough travelers’ accounts to know that most people found four hours of class per day to result in brain blowout.) Through a stroke of luck, although we are paying the group rate for our classes, Tony & I have wound up being the only two students in our class, which effectively means we are getting private lessons. This is awesome in terms of getting to tailor the class to suit our interests (we are pretty much pros at talking about food and our dogs in Spanish now…) and go at the right pace, but it also means the class is fairly intense as we are always in the spotlight.
Neither of us anticipated how mentally draining and exhausting we would find these classes and for the first week we felt we needed to follow-up each session with a lengthy siesta in order to consolidate everything we had learned and recover. Even though our classes are only two hours, it feels like we are losing a much larger chunk out of our day than anticipated, especially when you take into account travel time to and from class, grabbing lunch afterwards, and any time spent reviewing our notes or completing assignments. Juggling class with the web design and marketing work that allows us to actually travel has been tough, and we quickly relegated fun travel-related activities to our weekends; we just don’t have the time or energy to go out sightseeing during the week. I guess one definite upside to these classes is that after going so long barely knowing what day of the week it is, our weekends finally have meaning again and we look forward to them with relish (and can even name them in Spanish, too!)!
I know there are a lot of horror stories from travelers and bloggers about subpar language schools with unenthusiastic teachers, but I actually can’t say enough good things about the Guadalajara Language Center. Normally this is the kind of thing I would research the heck out of to make sure we were going somewhere with good reviews and reasonable rates, so it’s kind of shocking to me that we just sort of fell into our classes at GLC. I had found the school when researching possible lodging options for Tlaquepaque, and we wound up renting our awesome apartment through them even though we didn’t sign up for any lessons with the school. When we moved into our place, the owner of the school, Wouter, mentioned that if we wanted to do a trial class for free, he could set that up for us. We agreed and were so impressed with how fantastic our teacher was that we committed to two weeks of classes afterwards. Despite being exhausted our first week, we both saw a quick improvement in our rudimentary Spanish (both Tony & I had studied the language for one year in high school, and I’d been practicing online with Duolingo, so neither of us was a complete novice) and, more importantly, increased confidence and willingness to use our limited Spanish to speak to others. After one week of classes, we told Wouter we would like to take a full month of lessons.
I think most of the bad experiences travelers have with language classes comes from courses that seem to have little practical application, where you’re bogged down with homework, and simply work through a textbook. Thankfully, GLC has none of this. Although we get the occasional homework assignment, for the most part, our classes are taught entirely in Spanish (yet, remarkably, we understand most of what is said!) and the emphasis is really on conversation. We’re quite good at reading things in Spanish now and I reasoned we could work through Spanish workbooks and exercises on our own, so the real benefit comes from getting to listen to native Spanish speakers and work on communicating with them. Normally we start each class with 30 minutes of informal conversation and then our teach introduces a theme of some sort that we’ll focus on for the remainder of the class, whether that’s dealing with pronouns substitutions for direct and indirect objects (say what?!?), how to form imperatives (huh?!?) or expressing preferences, ordering things in a restaurant, speaking to strangers and people who work in stores, the differences between por and para (because Spanish has two words that mean “for” and you can’t use them interchangeably) or whatever else we’ve told her we’d like to work on. We’ve also learned a lot of interesting cultural trivia and linguistic quirks particular to Mexico that we certainly wouldn’t have picked up on our own: For example, Mexico technically has five meals per day. Also, although there is no word in Spanish that means “to borrow” there is a specific verb (that has no English equivalent that I know of) that refers to the act of throwing and taking part in a parade!
I also have to give props to Tony, who has been a real trooper as so much of the grammar we’re learning is truly foreign to him as he doesn’t have another romance language to bootstrap off of, whereas my background in French and Latin definitely is and advantage there. I also have an easier time picking up vocab (or at least guessing at mystery words) because if a word doesn’t resemble English, then 75% of the time it resembles the French equivalent. Our first week of classes was really stressful on us because he needed to work a lot harder to keep up and I would get frustrated when he struggled with material I found easy, but in the end, we came through the other side and I think our relationship is actually better for it. After two years of traveling the world, foreign locations don’t strain our relationship that much any more, but leave it to language lessons to push us out of our comfort zones… There’s nothing like explaining gender and direct and indirect objects to your partner to foster patience and compassion!
We each have 30 hours of class under our belts now and… we’re nowhere close to fluent. We still feel like native Spanish speakers talk WAY TOO FAST (especially to me because they automatically assume I’m a local) while we take an ice age to form our sentences, and I’ve yet to replay a conversation in my mind afterwards without picking up on at least one mistake I made… but at least I know when I’m making mistakes now and we’re not letting that stop us from trying. The longer we’ve kept with it, the more we’re able to hold our own in conversations with locals and vendors without having to ask them to repeat every sentence three times, and I actually can’t remember the last time we spoke to someone other than each other (and occasionally our teacher) in English. (And sometimes, just for funsies, we try to speak to each other in Spanish too! We’re such dorks!)
Because I’m a language nerd and a perfectionist to boot, sometimes I get frustrated at what I feel is slow progress on my part. Every so often, if I’m not vigilant, instead of saying something in Spanish, I’ll blurt it out in French, and it drives me crazy to have phrases effortlessly pop into my head in French fully formed and yet to have to laboriously select each and every word in Spanish, my tongue tripping over the sounds. Even though I know it’s not a fair comparison to make given that I studied French for over 10 years, I have to constantly remind myself that my relative fluency there did not happen over night. It’s a daily reminder to be patient and kind to myself, things I’m not always good at, but work that is always worth doing. I am often quite dismissive of my French because I feel I don’t speak as well as I would like, but floundering around in Spanish has given me a new-found appreciation for how much I do know and how well I really can express myself in French! Here is hoping that with continued practice and exposure, poco a poco I’ll get my Spanish to a similar level.
Some people think that language classes for just a few weeks or a month aren’t of any real use, but we viewed these lessons as an investment and both feel we’ve really gotten our money’s worth. I had kind of stalled out in my own private studies, and taking these classes has really renewed my commitment to improving my Spanish and got me over some of the roadblocks I had hit on my own. It is possible to travel Mexico with just English, but that’s ultimately not the kind of trip we want to take. I may grouse about having to go to class every single day, but I always manage to get my butt in the chair and I haven’t regretted it yet. Throughout our travels, we’ve generally pursued experiences that help us better connect with people and dip beneath the surface of a country, and our Spanish lessons have really just been another extension of that. We may not have seen as much of the Guadalajara area as we intended, but we’ve been having plenty of adventures nevertheless and I know this is a month we won’t soon forget and will pay dividends in the months and years to come.
Now it’s your turn! Tell Us: Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language? Do you have any tips or tricks to help us on our way to Spanish fluency?