Is Spanish language school worth it?

To try and communicate better with local people when travelling, I enrolled in two weeks of Spanish language school in Nicaragua. Was it worth the effort?

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 to Spanish language school in Nicaragua …

And so it was with some trepidation I booked two weeks of Spanish language school in Nicaragua, at the La Mariposa school. 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?
La Mariposa Spanish language school in Nicaragua

Mariposa = butterfly 🙂

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?

parrots in the garden of La Mariposa Spanish language school Nicaragua

Could this guy help me with my Spanish verbs?

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. Nicaragua has a lot of birds. All good.

Types of Spanish language school lessons

Lessons didn’t follow a set script. My tuition was one-on-one (which was the norm in my Nicaraguan 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);

    library at La Mariposa Spanish language school Nicaragua

    For all my children’s books needs – the library at my Spanish language school

  • 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.

is Spanish language school worth it?

Classes outdoors suited me down to the ground.

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 in Nicaragua 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

[box type=”info”]I went to Spanish language school in Nicaragua, a country I’d highly recommend. I used the Lonely Planet Guide to Nicaragua for my trip. Help the site by buying the guide through this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

What have you found to be the best / most achievable ways of improving your language skills? Would you consider going to a language school?

What to expect on a yoga retreat

Ooh, it’s a while since I’ve used those hamstring muscles. That’s my initial thought, just five minutes into the first class of a weekend yoga retreat in Devon, UK.

Whether it’s for a holiday or as part of a career break, here are my tips on what to expect on a yoga retreat.

The format

Typically there are two classes a day, one in the morning around 8am, another in the early evening. Afternoons are usually free to do your own thing. what to expect on a yoga retreatClass intensity will progress gradually on each day and you’ll be surprised what you can do.

Retreats are a good opportunity to experience different yoga styles and their benefits. Some retreats have a more spiritual focus than others.

Top tip: Check whether the retreat suitable for beginners or those with more experience, and let the teacher know your capabilities in advance.

Where to go

I’ve been a participant on four yoga holidays in the last four years – two in Spain, one in Morocco and – most recently – a weekend in Devon, UK.

I love to explore, so I always check out what else there is to do nearby for those free afternoons. Many guests use that time to relax on the retreat premises.

Retreats are often located remotely, so if you want to explore you need to account for car hire or other transport costs.

How to find a yoga retreat

I’ve used yogaholidays.net, which has links to up-coming weekends, weeks and longer stays around the globe. Thailand, India, Costa Rica, Florida, Spain, Morocco, Turkey and Greece are just some of the varied locations on offer. The world’s your oyster. Or should that be your crab?

Other guests

In my experience, the average girl to guy ratio has been around 10:1. Age range is typically 30s-50s. Most people go on their own and are fairly sociable types. At fancier places you may find the odd mum and daughter combo.

Costs and what you get for your money on a yoga retreat

Prices for yoga retreats typically include your accommodation, yoga classes, and at least 2 veggie meals per day. Alcohol may or may not be available, depending on the nature of the venue.

Mid-range

This is my preferred option. Rooms may be shared with one other person, though you can usually pay a single supplement to guarantee your own space. Rooms usually have a simple en-suite bathroom, or a bathroom shared with one or two other rooms.

Weekend (2 or 3 nights): £250-£400 ($415-$660) exc flights

Week: £500-£750 ($825-$1240) exc flights

Locations in this price range will have landscaped outside areas to relax in. Think English country garden, Moroccan riad roof-terrace, or Spanish patio and pool.

Spare the pennies or splash the cash

Ashrams in India provide a more authentic and simple approach. The expectation is that you attend all classes, and it’s a no-alcohol affair.  A week booked in advance starts from around £200 in a shared dorm or room.

You can also find your own yoga class on your travels. I found a private lesson in Pokhara, Nepal for £4.

Luxury yoga retreats are all-out pampering holiday affairs in historical or otherwise beautiful properties. They come complete with spa treatments, but can reach the £2000 mark ($3300) for a week. Ouch!

My Devon yoga weekend

Fast-forward three days from my arrival in Devon. I’m stretched, relaxed, feel surprisingly invigorated, and uplifted and energized. Nothing can zap my energy. Not even the 7-hour drive home. When can I go again?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”10″ size_format=”px”]Exchange rates calculated on www.xe.com 2nd September 2014, rounded to the nearest $5, and based on a rate of £1=$1.65.

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What have been your yoga retreat experiences? What would put you off going on a yoga retreat? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Top 3 tips for language learning, without going to class

How do you go about learning a new language, when you have the kind of job that doesn’t allow you to get to night school every Tuesday at 6pm?

That’s the question I asked myself when preparing for my first ever career break trip to South America.

Here I share my top three tips for language learning: how I’ve gathered enough Spanish words and grammar to organise food, accommodation, transport, bargain, and make small-talk conversation. All without ever setting foot in a classroom.

My six-word starting point

I suspected that knowing the Spanish for “b+++h” and being able to count to five – vocab picked up during a summer as a US Summer Camp Counsellor – weren’t going to be particularly helpful to me for three months of travel in Mexico, Peru and northern Chile.

Language-learning tip 1: Listen while you drive

I acquainted myself with Michel Thomas, a talented polyglot linguist who sadly passed away in 2005.

Michel produced a range of audio CDs that will have you constructing basic sentences in no time, without have to study any books or chant any grammar rules (if you learnt a language at school in the UK, you know what I’m talking about!)

I listened to his Spanish CDs whilst driving to work. Friends used the French equivalents and were equally impressed. They’re also good company when ironing, although admittedly less entertaining than Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”

Language-learning tip 2: Practice at home

I’m currently using the free Duolingo app to help with my vocab. It’s simple but effective, with words and phrases categorised by topic. You can even test your pronunciation using your device’s microphone. Clever.

Another way to get some real-time practice is through Meetup. Even in a small city like York has two Spanish language exchange groups.

Meetup is multinational, so check it out for a group near you. You help someone improve their English in return for them helping you with your language of choice. The most it’ll cost you is a nominal admin fee (say, £1) and the price of a beer / coffee.

Language-learning tip 3: Practice when you’re travelling

Carry a dictionary / smartphone app around with you to look up words you keep seeing and have no idea what they mean.

Read museum exhibit labels. It’ll give you loads of new vocab.

Converse with local people, not just fellow visitors. Shop and market stall holders (you’ll also get a better price in markets if you bargain in the local language), taxi drivers, people you meet at festivals / events / museums, locals on public transport.

top 3 tips for language learning

With a few words of the local lingo you can easily negotiate super-cheap transport on buses like these … adventure beckons!

Some locals will be learning English, so you can have the BEST half ‘n’ half language conversations to help each other out.

One of my endearing memories from a Guatemala trip last year was chatting to a local girl who was learning English whilst we were squished together in the back of a combi van.

The next level

Am I fluent? Not by any means. But I can get by, although I find that understanding some locals’ lightning-fast responses is harder than making myself understood.

It’s important to know your own learning style. Some people will be able to work their way methodically through a textbook. Others will favour listening to CDs or to native speakers. Some will do their best when immersed; trying it out and sometimes getting it wrong.

Whether it’s full-on country immersion, online newspapers, films, Skype lessons or other conversational practice, text books, or a classroom environment; find the way or ways that suits you – and give it a go.

What are your best tips for language learning? Have you tried an online course? Or used Skype with a native speaker? What’s worked, and what hasn’t? Share your experiences below.