Seven years after first mastering enough Spanish to be able to order food, work out which bus I needed to be on, and make small talk about how cold it was in my country, I felt the time had come to step it up a gear.
Why? Because I wanted to be able to communicate better with local people when I travel.
Like in November 2013, when I’d wanted to explain Bonfire Night to my Guatemalan taxi driver. My best shot in Spanish: “we have large fires in every town!” Cue: confused look.
I’ve tried to practice. A bit. Meetup groups have been a boon, as have my trusted teach-myself Michel Thomas CDs. In all honesty though, I’ve previously shied away from classroom learning – the prospect reminded me of my school days, where I had:
- a very competent but incredibly narcissistic French teacher (I quit French);
- an extremely good and personable German teacher who was unfortunately bound by the not-updated-since-the-1960s Cold War-era National Curriculum of late 1980s Britain. Consequently we learnt a lot of vocab about moon landings. And the German for “three stage rocket.” Not helpful.
And so it was with some trepidation I booked two weeks of Spanish language school at La Mariposa, Nicaragua. My mission:
- Firstly, to learn more words. “Fireworks” would be a good start.
- Second, to be able to use a better version of the past tense. After all, “I visited” sounds soooooo much more natural than, “I have visited”. Verdad?
My first Spanish language school class
It was grammar. Eek.
The thought of reciting verbs, parrot fashion, filled me with dread.
However, as I was seated in a garden full of actual parrots, I was in good company. Maybe they could help me?
In the first lesson, we whizzed through a present tense recap, and I learnt some more irregular verbs. Who knew there were so many?
Next up, it was conversation.
In my first conversation class, we went for a walk. Learning the words for what we saw along the way. Trees, runners, birds. All good.
Types of Spanish language school lessons
Lessons didn’t follow a set script. My tuition was one-on-one (which was typical for my Spanish language school), so the teachers could adapt best to the students’ needs and learning styles. As a “learn by doing” type, that suited me down to the ground.
And so, over the course of the next two weeks, I:
- played Scrabble in Spanish (I think I was cheated by a complete lack of vowels);
- read children’s books, which were surprisingly brilliant for learning new – and sometimes surreal – vocabulary. “Bruja” is “witch.” Just in case you need it …
- learnt commonly used phrases. I enjoyed reciprocating here; my teacher now knows how to say, “it’s raining cats and dogs”;
- discovered I have the potential to be witty in another language. Either that or my teachers were just being polite when they laughed.
It was also surprisingly helpful to have teachers who didn’t speak English. I HAD to learn, one way or another!
The learning environment
I didn’t feel cooped up in a classroom.
In the gardens that were the school’s classrooms I finally got to grips with the past tense in a non-scary way, and was able to say I’d “seen the bird”, “visited the volcano”, “bought something at the market”. Yay!
That’s not to say my head wasn’t fried at the end of each morning’s lessons, though. Four hours of learning a day was quite enough. Plus homework. Which I actually quite enjoyed doing – I could FEEL the progress.
Was Spanish language school worth it?
Yes, absolutely. For an investment of a few hundred dollars for one-on-one tuition, attending Spanish language school was definitely “vale la pena” (worth the effort).
My newly improved language skills are now being unleashed on the good people of Nicaragua, as I travel around this beguiling country.
My vocab is slowly improving, and – after a week of confusing my past tense grammar types, I finally had a lightbulb moment and it all made sense. Now, if only I knew the word for lightbulb …