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Report back on my all-too-short trip to Guatemala to study Spanish

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Report back on my all-too-short trip to Guatemala to study Spanish

Old Apr 4th, 2009, 03:58 PM
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Report back on my all-too-short trip to Guatemala to study Spanish

When I first contemplated going to Guatemala over my spring break to study Spanish, this was one of the first places I posted a query. And, I got lots of helpful tips. so I want to let everyone know what I finally decided and how it went.

This was my first trip to Guatemala, and the sole reason for it was to try to quickly improve my very limited Spanish enough that I could communicate in Spanish. As a single, middle-aged female travelling alone with only eleven days total available, I was a bit apprehensive about undertaking any lengthy or complicated journeys. So, despite the fact that many people warned me that Antigua was so touristy that I’d be tempted to just speak English all the time, I decided to just study in Antigua. I’m happy to report that all went well, and while Antigua is definitely touristy after a fashion, I found it to be a perfect place for me and for what I was looking for. And, I really didn’t spend my time hanging out with other English speakers; I spent my time with my teacher, taking walks by myself, and studying.

After much research, I finally decided upon a pretty new and rather small school—Academia Colonial. It is a nice facility, and my only complaint would be that it is a bit noisy at times because the street in front has buses that go down it regularly. The location is a school during the day and a bar/restaurant in the evenings. I also liked the fact that since the place was open for the bar and restaurant hours I could bring my laptop and sit in the courtyard to use the school’s wifi whenever I wanted. Because of my limited time, I decided to study six days a week for six hours a day. Mornings from 8:00 until noon were at the school site, but afternoons I went out with my teacher to visit places in Antigua or on the bus to surrounding villages to see what was going on. I also was lucky in that my visit was during Lent, so both weekends I was in Antigua, from Friday through Sunday, there were velaciones (vigils), alfombras (carpets of flowers, sawdust, fruit) and processions. Going out into the community was an excellent way for me to learn more about both the culture and the language. Also, one afternoon each week the school has a cooking class (in Spanish) with its restaurant chef for its students. This too was a lot of fun; I learned about cooking Guatemalan dishes, and then we all ate what we’d made.

The school was a good match for me and what I was looking for. Teachers (I had one for weekday mornings, another for weekday afternoons, and a third for all day Saturday because of all the lesson time I’d requested) were good and very experienced. Before joining this school they had all taught at some of the schools that are frequently mentioned here as being very good. While my primary teacher definitely had a plan for what she thought would best help me to fill in my gaps, all were willing to work on what I deemed most necessary to make my learning what I wanted it to be for me. Thus, after about eight hours of verb work with my primary teacher, I said I wanted to spend the rest of my time practicing and improving my conversation skills. And, we did, with some verb reinforcement thrown in here and there.

This was an easy trip for me (just what I was looking for with such a short amount of time) because the school made all arrangements for me. Because my plane didn’t arrive until 9:00 pm, I had the school arrange a private pick-up from the airport. I was then taken to my small guesthouse which was only two doors away from the school. I’d originally thought I’d stay with a family, but the school had difficulty finding a family with availability that matched what I was looking for. So, instead they arranged for the guesthouse and then told me that if I didn’t like it after I arrived we could find something else. The guesthouse was fairly small and actually proved to be what I was looking for; if I return to study, I’d stay there again. I have to say that the guesthouse package was an incredible deal. I can’t imagine why anyone would stay in a hotel instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to have room and board for such a low price (I paid $85 a week for a shared bath.) All in all, it was a great experience. I just wish I had the months of time available to study that it takes to really become proficient. I am contemplating, however, trying to at least keep fresh what I learned through the lessons the school offers via Skype. Thanks again!
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Old Apr 4th, 2009, 04:05 PM
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julies - I'm so happy things worked out well for you! I'm green with envy that you were able to observe the Lent celebrations - someday I'll make it to Antigua for Easter but it won't be until after I retire (4 more years?).

Thanks for taking the time to share a thoughtful and thorough review of the school and your trip. Happy trails!
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Old Apr 4th, 2009, 04:56 PM
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Muchas gracias. I need a Spanish language school and I had heard from others that Guatemala has good ones. (One colleague spent a month there living with a family and going to school.) About 6 years ago, I spent a week in Bariloche, Argentina at a very good school...but would like to try a country I have not been to before. I will find your school on the internet for more information. What do you think about spending a whole month in school? I know you enjoyed the guesthouse...but would a family stay have helped improved your conversational Spanish?
Thanks
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Old Apr 4th, 2009, 05:16 PM
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Hi, spring - hope you're not offended if I pipe in, too. You could learn a lot in month of studying and, in my opinion, homestays are an amazing way to add to your cultural and language learning. I still keep in touch with some of the families who have hosted me over the last 5 years. 4 weeks is a long time to spend in one place. In any event, I wouldn't commit to it up front - you might want to do a few weeks in one place and then try someplace new. Here's the link to my photos and travelogues (blog and travelogue links are on the main page of each collection); trips starting in 2005 included language schools with homestays. Good luck!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/collections
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Old Apr 5th, 2009, 05:36 AM
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Springstraveler--

I went round and round about the idea of a family, and that is what I originally was looking for. Would it have helped my Spanish to be with a family? Maybe. But, then again I look back at how I spent my time, and I don't know. At the meal table we normally conversed in Spanish--interesting to say the least since everyone else at my guesthouse was from Japan. Where I stayed it didn't feel like a hotel-oriented guesthouse because, first, it is a small place, and, second, the woman who ran it was there all day with her daughter and granddaughter, so I could talk to them in the kitchen or outside if I wanted, and I sometimes did. A concern I had before going was that I did not want to stay in any place where I felt like I was intruding on someone's personal space all the time so I would be forced into my room by my own guilt. I wanted a place with some public space I would feel comfortable using. This was a good mix for me.

I also have to mention that my primary teacher hosts students, but she did not have any available space while I was in Antigua (apparently many of the families just happened to be full during the time frame I studied). During our lessons we spent a lot of time talking about our personal lives, and knowing how busy she is and everything she is juggling, I don't know if I would have wanted to impose that extra burden on her of needing to speak with a struggling Spanish speaker at home too just because she is trying to earn a little more money for her family.
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Old Apr 5th, 2009, 06:12 AM
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julies - It sounds like your guesthouse was as interactive and accommodating as many homestays - an excellent choice. I've heard - in Antigua particularly - that many of the homestays host multiple students. I also know that, wherever I've studied, host families vary in terms of their interaction with and interest in students. I have lucked out every time, though, and a few have become friends that I go back to visit and stay in touch with in between.

I realize the money is important to them but for some, at least, meeting interesting people from other countries and sharing their own beautiful country is part of the draw. My family is involved in AFS student exchanges. We sent our kids for study abroad and have hosted a number of times over the years - usually a full year commitment, no compensation except for the cultural and personal interaction; it's been a phenomenal experience every time. I guess that gives me hope that there's at least a chance my hosts will be happy to have me and interact with me.
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Old Apr 5th, 2009, 10:58 AM
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Yes, hopefulist, I think my guesthouse was in many ways as good as a family stay. AFS exchanges I understand and also the reasons for being a host family in that program. I guess I just keep thinking to myself, in the case of family stays in Guatemala, if I would want strangers in my house day in and day out for years on end when my primary morivation is the money. Because, honestly, no matter how much people want to meet others from abroad, the financial recompense is still a major component of why they take in students.
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Old Apr 5th, 2009, 01:10 PM
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julies -- thank you for posting about your experience with this. Considering doing this myself at some point. I'm taking a Spanish class here once a week, and it's slooowww going to say the least. It's interesting to read about your alternative to a homestay -- something to consider.

I have a question for you and hopefulist and any others who might want to chime in, but -- and this is really about my ego here! -- are there ever 'older' people in these programs? I just turned 40 a couple months ago. Every time I look at one of the school websites, it tends to show 20-something college kids, which makes sense. I don't *really* care to be honest, but I'm just wondering if I'd stick out like a sore thumb! I guess I wonder if the homestay families would think I'm weird or something (I'm probably just being dumb).
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Old Apr 5th, 2009, 04:51 PM
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julies - I've had mostly families for whom the money was the main motivation but they've certainly made the best of it. In San Pedro La Laguna, Atitlán in 2007 I found out near the end of my stay that I was sleeping in the teen-aged son's room and he was on a cot in his parents' room every time they hosted. That said, I traded hymns at the top of my lungs with the mom and her best friend for hours one evening - really amazing fun, and another night joined them at the "exercise club" where they went to work out - in the lacy blouses and woven, wrapped skirts that are traditional in the town. The dad in that family loved to talk politics (very liberal) and shared some wonderful ethnographies with me. The son was the one who took my Spanish study most seriously (though none of them spoke English) and the teen-aged daughter helped me find pirated CDs in the market of the wonderful music by a contemporary Guatemalan group she played over and over. I left feeling like they were into it for more than money.

My hosts in La Ceiba, Honduras, were quite well off - a female pharmacist and her female housekeeper/best friend. They didn't need the money but the one who stayed home was extremely outgoing and hilarious and liked the company. I would go back and live with them every year if La Ceiba wasn't so darn HOT.

plumboy - Well, as a special education teacher I refuse to use the "d" word but....your concerns are unfounded imo. I'm in my 50's and have sometimes been the only middle aged person at the school but usually not (especially last year when I was packing a bunch of middle-aged educators along!) and often I've come across folks decades older than myself. The host families won't think you're weird, but they might ask about your motivation out of curiosity. I have really enjoyed every single host family I've lived with and (as I said above) keep in touch with several. It may be that some schools cater to or attract younger clients, but the schools I've attended have been a mix.

I think both of you should stop yourselves from over-analyzing how they might feel (because you'll just be guessing anyway) and do what feels right for you. Maybe that's a nice guesthouse, but for me, host families will always be the way to go. Happy trails!
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Old Apr 5th, 2009, 05:33 PM
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Thanks hopefulist for the encouragement! Yeah, I've often been the oldest or the only male in many of my educational situations, so I'm okay with it, but I was just curious about how I'd be perceived. But, I can't control what others think and shouldn't worry about it.

I do see how living with a family would be the best way to really learn -- as long as I was the only English-speaking person in the house. I'm in the infancy stage of this exploration so I'm just checking out all the options. Thanks, by the way, for those links earlier -- they've helped tremendously. Sort of thinking I should go to a smaller town to get more immersion -- maybe Copan in Honduras or in San Jose in Guatemala. The research continues...
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Old Apr 5th, 2009, 06:01 PM
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plumboy--My school was a mix of people and ages. Since it was during the school year, the younger people had already finished college and were taking some time off before deciding what to do with their lives. All the others at my school were young retirees, so fitting in wouldn't be an issue at all.
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Old Apr 5th, 2009, 06:52 PM
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plumboy - San José Petén, near Flores?
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Old Apr 6th, 2009, 04:56 AM
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Sí.
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Old Apr 10th, 2009, 02:00 AM
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julies--thanks for posting about your language school experience in Antigua. Our family visited Guatemala as tourists in February, and my husband and I are thinking of going back to take a language course.
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