During my four weeks in Guatemala I had lots of “firsts”. In this next series of posts, I’ll be taking a look back at these experiences. I didn’t cover a lot of ground, but I do feel that I got a pretty authentic experience and learned a lot about Guatemalan culture and a little more Español than I knew before.
My first post in the series is about my experience riding Chicken buses and eating too much fried chicken. This post is about my time spent at the Minerva Spanish School and Culture Center in Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela).
I’ve never taken one-on-one language classes before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the five-hour-a-day sessions. On top of this, I would be staying with a family who spoke little or no English. I’m not new to the idea of a host family. I’ve stayed in plenty of homes on choir tours in college, through CouchSurfing, etc. But, I can usually communicate fairly easily with my hosts. This time would be much different.
Sound a little scary? It was.
I met my host, Ana, on a Sunday afternoon. Needless to say, my Spanish hadn’t really improved during my week of sight-seeing in Gringo-filled Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Communicating with her was not easy. I still only knew how to speak very limited, present-tense Spanish. It didn’t help that my host was missing a few front teeth which made her pretty hard to understand.
I really couldn’t hold a conversation. Ana and I tried to exchange a few pleasantries as she showed me around the house, but she figured out pretty quickly how little I was comprehending. When she left me alone in my new bedroom, I freaked out a little. I took a few minutes to hyperventilate and ask myself why on earth I did this. I’d already paid for one full week, so I knew I was on for at least that long and felt a little trapped.
I pulled myself together and whipped out my Spanish-English dictionary with a mission. I began to try to compose at least one coherent sentence and re-learn some basic verbs. With a little difficulty, I made it clear to Ana that I was going to go out and take a walk. (It probably sounded more like “I go walk to see city.”) She told me that dinner was at 7:00 (I actually understood that part.) and my Spanish experience began!
My first day of class only added to my anxiety. It was INTENSE, to say the least. Most of the teachers at the school were young and spoke a little English. Mine was a little older and spoke no English at all. I was not confident about my skills or optimistic about my prospects for improvement. Then, we took our first “tea break” and I met the other students. They were a very fun group of girls that I got along with right away. My spirits rose a little.
By the end of the day I began progressing a little and got into “the zone” and I was in much higher spirits by the end of my first week. I’d been hanging out with my new classmates, salsa dancing, eating pupusas, drinking lots of coffee, and studying by booty off. It was good to hang out with other English speakers and share our experiences and apprehensions. We tried to practice a little, but mostly socializing with them really helped me to relax.
My teacher, also named Ana, seemed to think that I progressed pretty quickly, so in my second week, we stepped it up a notch. I started learning past and future verb tenses. I only spent two weeks studying at Minerva, but feel I got a very good “refresher” of the Spanish language.
I also loved my friendly host mom, Ana. She made some great food and took good care of me. Once I got over my initial apprehensions, I really enjoyed my time in Xela. With a little help from my dictionary, I’m even able to read the Sherlock Holmes story “The Redheaded League”. I never would have been able to do that a month ago. I’m still not great at conversing, but I can read and write enough to continue the progress on my own.
I highly recommend this type of program to anyone who wants to learn Spanish. Guatemala was a great setting. The people are super-friendly, there are a plethora of schools to choose from, and it isn’t expensive. Quetzaltenango feels much more “real” than Antigua, so I really enjoyed studying there. There are fewer Gringos and you can really immerse yourself here. Just bring a coat. It’s freaking cold!
Thinking of studying Spanish abroad? Have you had a similar experience? Feel free to e-mail me or comment below with questions or tips!