Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Does Anybody Here Speak English?"... Studying Language Abroad

I am often asked about where to go to learn Spanish. I wish I was asked more often, before good people go off and make bad decisions. There are a lot of language schools out there, and not all of them know what they're doing. But first, before I continue with my advice I need to get something out of the way--and this is VERY IMPORTANT-- do NOT go to Cuernavaca. You've heard that thing about location, location, location? Well it matters. Believe me, you do not want to Cuernavaca-- or "Cuernacaca"-- as my family calls it. Why do so many people continue to go there? Because they don't know better, because there are a lot of schools there, because their school principal advised it, because they read that Cuernavaca is the "city of eternal Spring", and who doesn't like Spring? At one time it was a pretty town, popular among Mexico City residents who wanted to get away for a peaceful weekend. But ever since the Mexico City earthquake, Cuernavaca has grown into a sprawling, large city with very little charm. Really. I had to spend a month there, and it sucked. There's no real culture and very little to do except go "clubbing" at night. That means that it's still very popular among the college set who convince their parents to fork over the money for them to "study Spanish" and spend their time instead studying cheap tequila shots and local hangover cures. Actually, I personally love tequila, but when I drink it, it's 100% agave and there IS no hangover. But we'll talk about that on a later post. So unless you are into the club i.e. the disco scene, don't go to Cuernavaca.
So, you want to study Spanish.... That's great! As a teacher with a specialty in second language teaching, I can tell you that learning a language is not easy and can take years.But that said, it is extremely rewarding and well worth the effort. So if you want to do it, I applaud you, and suggest that the best way is to go study abroad in a place where you would like to spend time. So research both the place and the school. I strongly recommend living with a family, which is called a "homestay", and don't share a room with another English speaker. You want to be forced to use your Spanish, even if you don't know how. Trust me on this. If you room with a friend, you guys will just talk to each other and you will lose most of the benefit of studying in a foreign country. I also suggest going to a city or town where there aren't a lot of English speaking tourists for the same reason as above.
As to the school, if you are not an expert in language teaching then it's difficult to figure out what is a good program and what isn't. There should be both grammar and conversation classes, and hands-on activities like cooking or dancing are nice too. Just make sure the classes are done in Spanish, otherwise what's the point? The high school student above is being taught to make a clay plate by an artisan who is speaking to her only in Spanish. A natural way to learn some new vocabulary! If you can, ask them about their philosophy or methodology. If they say something about the Natural or Communicative Approach, that's a good thing. If students spend all their time reading literature or working through a grammar textbook, I would look elsewhere.
So, where should you go? Morelia is a great place to learn Spanish; it's real Mexico, with few foreign tourists, and there's much to do. Plus there are two good language schools there. I recommend the Centro Cultural de Lenguas or CCL, because I know it personally. Excellent teachers, good program, and it's located in a lovely building that was originally a house, smack in the middle of the Centro Historico, the historic downtown area. They even have a small courtyard where you can hang out and enjoy a cappuchino. Yes, Morelia has great coffee too, which is another plus in my book. Both individual and group classes are available for any length of time. I recommend doing a 2 or 3 week program. You can check out the school at and feel free to write if you have questions. Andale!

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