Becoming fluent in Spanish has been one of my goals for a long time, so I decided to travel in an area where the language is widely spoken – Central America. Guatemala is known to have some of the most affordable classes in the world, so I contacted a spanish academy before my trip to get the ball rolling. Keep reading to see how things went!
“Wow, I really don’t know anything”.
This was my exact thought as I sat in my first 5 hour one-on-one Spanish Class.
This was a serious blow to my ego because most Texans proudly believe we know enough Spanish to ‘get by’ in a conversation. Seriously! Ask a Texan if they know Spanish. Most of us will assure you that we can definitely understand it. Growing up in a state bordering Mexico, I’ve always been around native Spanish Speakers. I was even required to take Spanish classes for 2 years in both Middle School & High School. So when I booked a trip throughout Latin America, I naturally believed that I could just ‘get by’. HA! I was sadly mistaken. Like, deeply mistaken.
Let me tell you – nothing can make you feel dumber than having to stare at someone in complete & utter confusion because you haven’t understood a word they just said to you.
Not. A. Single. Word
After way too many awkward language exchanges in markets and taxi cabs, I was counting down the days until I arrived in Guatemala to learn Spanish so that I could stop looking like a deer in headlights and relying on Google Translate to speak to the people around me.
After a night of intense Googling aka trip planning, I learned that Guatemala offered some of the most affordable Spanish classes in the world. Lessons and homestays were offered as a package for complete cultural immersion. I try to go beyond the surface when I visit a new country, so I immediately knew this was something I wanted to do. I figured I’d take this opportunity to build upon my already existing Spanish skills and learn about the Guatemalan way of life. I thought I’d be going from being an intermediate level Spanish speaker to advanced. Once I arrived in Central America, I quickly learned that I was a complete novice in my Spanish proficiency – if that.
I signed up to take classes & do my homestay with Antiguena Spanish Academy in Antigua, Guatemala – a colonial city in the central highlands of Guatemala. At the tail end of a bumpy five-hour bus ride from Lake Atitlan, I awoke to vibrant colored buildings outside of the bus window. I stepped off of the bus to see a volcano far into the distance. I showed up at the door of my new Spanish school and nervously waited for my new Guatemalan familia take me to my new home. I had no idea what to expect.
I was dropped off at a two-story home on the outskirts of the city. My new madre, Silvia, greeted me with a big hug and introduced me to the rest of my familia. It was a family of 5 – a mother, a father, and three sons all above 16 years old. I quickly learned that this would be a challenge. They spoke less English than I spoke Spanish and that’s saying a lot.
They gave me a key to come & go as I pleased. I had my own room and they’d call me down for breakfast every morning if I wasn’t already awakened by the sounds of Latin beats & the smell of fresh tortillas. A rarity in my own home, everyone sat at the table for all three meals. There were many awkward meals where less than 10 words were spoken between the family & I. Think ‘awkward first date’ with the added fact that you’re sleeping in their home. Uh, yea…it was pretty uncomfortable. Initially, I couldn’t get beyond the basics to have a deeper conversation with them. It was disappointing because I wanted to learn more about them. In moments of frustration, I had to remind myself that I asked for this challenge. I was trying my best and so were they.
Despite our initial language barrier, I was able to learn quite a bit about their lifestyle in the short time that I was there. The mother was a teacher and the father was a shuttle driver. Both cooked and cleaned, which was a bit of a surprise to me since Guatemala is known to have a very traditional culture. It was clear that family was very important – 3 extended family members lived on the same street and they were always in & out of the house. The sons were often away at school, playing fútbol, watching fútbol, talking about fútbol or with their girlfriends. They were all extremely close & it was extremely refreshing to see that a family in a different part of the world didn’t seem to be very different from my own.
I signed up for daily one on one 5-hour Spanish classes. On day 1, I realized just how much I didn’t know. It was clear that the years I spent learning Spanish hardly paid off.
I’d walk 4 blocks every morning to get to class, which was outside in a shaded courtyard. We were given a lesson plan & a notebook. We covered grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation through a series of interactive lessons. The curriculum helped me build a solid foundation that I never learned in my middle school & high school courses.
I had a really good relationship with my teacher, Mayra. She was extremely patient and I loved that we were able to share laughs. One on one classes made me feel comfortable to ask the same questions over & over if I needed to. Because of this, I picked up on the teachings rather quickly. Mayra never got annoyed – or at least she didn’t show it. We got along so well that our conversations went far beyond what was on the lesson plan – we often discussed family, hobbies, politics, and traditions in Guatemala.
I haven’t taken an official class since leaving Antigua and I still remember everything that was taught to me, which is a testament to the program. I grew to truly love learning & speaking Spanish. Now, I speak it any chance that I get. I’m extremely proud of what I know. I’ve even had Spanish speakers tell me they thought I was fluent. *flips hair*. My decision to take this class was pivotal to the special cultural exchanges I had throughout the rest of my trip.
After only one week of complete immersion, my Spanish improved greatly. Overcoming the language barrier became a challenge that I looked forward to daily. Everyday tasks such as asking for directions in taxi cabs, asking for food prices at market stalls, and asking about menu selections at restaurants became easier. I didn’t have to miss out on conversations because I could now engage with locals in a meaningful way – leading to more beautiful friendships and spontaneous adventures. I also felt like less of a ‘dumb American’ around all of the travelers who could speak 2-4 languages on top of their own.
I was able to use my new language skills throughout the rest of Central America & Latin America. I’ve even been able to use them in Morocco because my taxi driver only spoke Spanish & Arabic. Even though I wanted to enjoy the 2-hour taxi ride in silence, you can bet he spoke to me in Spanish for the entire duration of the ride. Thankfully, I could understand & respond. I’ve got a long way to go before being completely fluent, but when I say I can ‘get by’ now….I really mean it.
SCHOOL – Antiguena Spanish Academy. Compare schools at Guatemala365.
SCHEDULE – Monday – Friday 8am-1pm with a 30min break, other options are available
COST – $200/week including classes, 3 meals/day Mon.-Sat., and a homestay(private room & I got lucky with a private bath since I was the only student in the house that week). Discounts are typically offered during the offseason, so it doesn’t hurt to ask.
HOW THE HOMESTAY WORKS – My school paired me with a family as part of the homestay. They have a roster of families that regularly host students & they will place you with one.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
Like anything else, the experience is what you make it. If you put in the work, you’ll get a lot out. Remember that everyone learns at difference paces due to a variety of factors so there is no use in comparing your progress to someone else’s.
Don’t forget travel insurance! I used ” rel=”noopener”>World Nomads while traveling through Central America. The reason that I don’t have more photos from my time in Antigua is that I lost my phone a week later. Through insurance, which includes personal loss & theft, I was sent money to purchase a replacement phone. The insurance definitely paid off.
Homestays not your thing & thinking about trying Airbnb for the first time? Click HERE for $40 off your booking!
Hey, I'm Ciara. I’m a global citizen and lover of travel. Want to know more?
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