“I want to go home!” is how Ian started the conversation at the end of our first day of Spanish class. He went home and immediately (do not pass Go, do not collect $200) started researching airfares to Phoenix, figuring that we had a little over 3 months that we could hang out at the empty house and regroup before our tenants arrive on January 1st.
How did he go from excited to be starting a new adventure to ready to go home in less than 48 hours?
First a little background on our Spanish school: Cooperativa Spanish School run by the Cooperativa of Guatemalan Spanish Teachers in San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala. Last January, we knew we were going to do this trip but hadn’t yet decided where to start. While spending the weekend with friends in Solvang (our annual Santa Barbara wine country trip), Ian picked up a copy of the LA Times. The main article in the travel section was a description of a month long trip that the author had taken with her family, learning Spanish at our school. It talked about what a wonderful time they had, about a special way the school taught Spanish that made it fun and easy, and how much they enjoyed their home stay with a local family. In other words, puppy dogs and roses. We were hooked! We both agreed that since we were going to be spending six months touring Latin America, it made perfect sense to start with a month learning Spanish. The icing on the cake was the cost. For about $235 per person a week, each person gets four hours a day of private tutoring, a home stay with a local family, three meals a day Monday thru Saturday; Sunday, the students are on their own for their meals.
When we arrived Saturday evening and were sharing our first meal with our home stay family, everything we had read about the school was confirmed by Katie, the Australian student mentioned in our last post. So what happened?
- We knew that the water from the tap in Guatemala isn’t safe to drink, so we were extra vigilant. No big deal to only drink purified water, having to brush our teeth with purified water was a bit of a pain but came with the territory.
- Sunday our meals were on our own. We had breakfast out, wandered around, and came back to the room. About 6 pm, Ian’s stomach began to rumble. Although he wasn’t hungry, Ann was so we set out to find a place for dinner.
- Partway through Sunday dinner, Ian started feeling light headed, cold and clammy. Ann commented that he was looking weird. His stomach was rumbling more, he needed to go to the bathroom in a bad way. After using the bathroom, he stumbled back to the table feeling like he was going to pass out. As we sat there for a few more minutes, he started to feel a little better and we were able to finish the meal and walk back to our home stay, but the whole episode shook him up. We’re still not sure what happened: it might have been the upset stomach, or just maybe the free rum and coke he was offered and drank before our food arrived.
- All that night, Ian slept fitfully, waking up about every half hour. By Monday morning, he was in pretty bad shape. He’d definitely picked up something. He ate lightly that day and started chewing Pepto Bismal tablets like Pez candy.
- And then getting out of bed, he somehow moved wrong and ended up tweaking a muscle in his right leg and anytime he put weight on the leg, it was sharp pain. So now his stomach was bad and he could hardly walk.
- Monday just before lunch, Katie, our Spanish training wheels, left to continue her trip. So we were all alone with our host family, it made lunch a bit challenging, since we hadn’t begun our classes yet.
- At school that afternoon, the first task was an exam with all the instructions in Spanish which Ian totally flubbed. After a quick review of greetings, the lesson jumped right into conjugating poder and gustar in both present tense and conditional. (Conditional tense?! Who even knows what that means in English?!) Remember, everything is being done in Spanish. Ann, on the other hand, never got past greetings on the first day so had a much more positive view of that day’s class.
- We had had two days of rain and when not raining overcast clouds. The rain and clouds continued for the rest of the week. Do not believe the marketing literature for Central American countries calling it green season, or from expat publications that claim it’s sunny in the morning and clouds roll in for a few hours in the afternoon. Our experience so far is that it’s cloudy in the morning with more clouds and rain in the afternoon. In a week, we have seen a hazy sun about 2 hours. In case you weren’t able to pick it up, Ian’s mood is drastically affected by the sun, or more precisely by the lack thereof.
So by the end of the first day of class, Ian was done; he just wanted to get far away as quickly as possible. Ann talked him down and he agreed to at least finish up the first week. The price of last minute airfare might have also helped convince him and anywhere close, the weather was no better.
By Wednesday, Ian’s stomach was feeling a little better, and everything seemed to be getting back to normal with his body by Thursday. We started to get into a rhythm with our host family and were looking forward to our meals and Spanish conversation with them. They encouraged both of us to speak, would correct us when necessary (they had asked if we wanted to be corrected and we did).
School was another thing altogether. Ian was getting more and more down about school and started having trouble sleeping. Discussing the topic on Friday morning with Ann, he realized that while one-on-one tutoring had sounded good, it wasn’t working for him. Trying to hold a conversation in Spanish, understand the lesson which was delivered mostly in Spanish, being put on the spot by having to verbally answer questions in Spanish with no one else to fall back on was getting the better of him, was making him feel stupid and eight years old again. Ann brought up the fact that learning about new subjects has always come easy for him, this wasn’t, it probably wouldn’t, and just accept that it was going to be hard. We were planning on speaking to the director after class and either requesting a different teacher for him next week or switching to joint lessons with Ann’s teacher. Then something strange happened. Friday in class, Ian had a good time with his teacher, he was laughing, ended up doing well in the review of the week’s lessons. We think maybe talking about it made him subconsciously realize how silly the whole situation was. He was no longer a child and the dynamic was adults interacting as equals.
Oh, in case you are wondering, the whole week for Ann was puppy dogs and roses, other than her concern for Ian’s situation. She feels like she is making good progress with Spanish (better than expected) and thinks that our home stay family is muy amable.
So what is the method the school uses to teach Spanish?
- Students can choose to study 3-6 hours per day. The school has no minimum or maximum number of weeks but suggests 3 weeks as a good length of time.
- Students have the option of one on one teaching or two students can have classes with one teacher.
- It’s mostly immersion. While it was never called out that we were supposed to use English as little as possible, it came across in the lessons. We can ask questions in English and the teacher will try to answer although it’s highly dependent upon the teacher’s command of English. Ann’s tutor speaks more English that Ian’s does. Which is ironic since Ann speaks more Spanish than Ian does.
- The teachers follow a structured curriculum. They will deviate but then try to bring it back on topic. At first it made no sense that they were teaching poder and gustar (in present tense and conditional tense) right at the beginning. But on the second day, it became clear. It was so that when interacting in public, i.e., restaurants, stores, personal communication, we can come across as polite. Which we believe is an integral part of Guatemalan society as it is in France.
- A typical day of class is as follows:
- At the beginning of each class, the teacher and student have a conversation in Spanish, so to practice conversing and to put the student at ease for the rest of the lesson.
- The meat of the lesson is taught.
- There are practice exercises to make sure that the student has understood.
- Quite often a board game is played which reinforces the lesson just learned.
- Homework (Homework? Who said anything about homework?) is given, again to reinforce the lesson.
- While it’s not required, we believe that the home stay is integral, since the student is conversing in Spanish in a natural setting. The host families are curious about our lives and we are curious about theirs. Plus it’s a great way to funnel money right back into the community while providing value to the student both monetarily and in learning.
- As a side note: all lessons are conducted outside in various small structures around the beautifully landscaped gardens. Truly a beautiful setting, which will come through in the pictures.
- The school also offers students additional cultural activities such as films, salsa lessons, bringing food to a poor family, and various other outings, either free or at a minimal cost.
Both of us agree that by the end of the first week, we are understanding and speaking Spanish better than when we got here.
We did have at least one humorous incident this week. On Tuesday, we arrived at the school two minutes late. When we apologized for being two minutes late, Ian’s teacher looked at us, said we were 10 minutes late, and pointed to the clock on the wall, and said that we needed to be on Escuela time. Then proceeded to try and have Ian change his cell phone time. He refused and set his watch. Now as gringos our first thought is, why not change the school clock to match the real time, rather than having 20 students and 20 teachers change their phones or watches? Beware of going down this path, only frustration awaits. Just go with the flow and chuckle.
Looking at the weather forecast, it doesn’t seem that much is going to change for the foreseeable future and we are considering leaving at the end of next week and chasing the sun. Ann is hoping the sun comes out so we can finish out our four weeks here.
Ian & Ann