Tag Archives: learning Spanish

Learning Spanish in the Guatemalan Highlands

After spending a week studying Spanish in Xela, I made a last minute decision to switch to PLQ’s sister school up in the mountains. It hadn’t been part of my original plans, but on speaking to some of the students who’d studied there it really sounded like an experience not to be missed, and so was very glad to find last minute places available.

La Escuela de las Montañas (the Mountain School) is situated about 10km north of Xela, in the surrounding highlands, one of the finest coffee-growing regions in the world, although it takes an hour to get there because of the winding roads that lead up into the mountains. It very much shares the same philosophy as its sister school, but the key difference is it’s actually situated right next door the communities it helps, meaning you really get a better understanding of Guatemalan village life that most travellers probably don’t get to see.

Cows on the streets of Fatima

Cows on the streets of Fatima

The neighbouring communities of Fatima and Nuevo San Jose are both made up of families who formerly lived and worked on nearby coffee fincas. After the collapse of world coffee prices in the 90s, the owners of the fincas simply stopped paying the workers for two years. The situation got so desperate that eventually children died of malnutrition, and the children missed out on school for the whole time as well. In both cases the workers took the owners to court, and won. In one case, they eventually got some of the money they were owed after this; in the other the owners still failed to pay up, and in frustration the community eventually took the owner hostage until he paid up. With the money they gained, they were able to buy some land and build houses. However the situation is still pretty desperate, with very few of the people in both communities having regular jobs – instead most of the men get up at 4am every morning to get a bus into town to look for casual work, which is by no means guaranteed. What work there is is often well below the minimum wage (which is very hard to enforce in Guatemala).

So the mountain school was set up to teach Spanish and use the profits to help out both communities financially, both by paying families to provide meals for students, and by providing funding for the communities’ special projects fund. At the moment, they are also trying to find the funds to help build a library and computer centre for the children of both communities, to help their education, something which is expensive for families with very little money.

It’s a rather over-used word, but eating three meals a day with my host family was quite a humbling experience – after staying with a middle class family in Xela with a big house, it was quite a contrast to be eating in a tiny dirt-floored shack made of corrugated metal, just one pretty small room divided by a curtain, serving as a home for a whole family, with the bed in one half and the cooking area in the other. There’s no electricity, running water or toilet in the house – those are all shared with other neighbours, and cooking is simply on a makeshift wood-burning stove. Despite these difficulties, I actually ate more and better than I had with my family in Xela, and every breakfast I was entertained by Jessica, the family’s two year old daughter who chatted away to me in incomprehensible Spanish while I ate. Everyone in the village is incredibly friendly too – with up to fourteen foreign students turning up every week, and only around forty families in both communities, they are quite used to our strange ways, and the kids are always running up to you demanding you take a photo of them (which they always love seeing), or even just to stop and play games or dance in the street with them.

Friendly local kids

Friendly local kids

The school itself is a little oasis of calm – the main building (where we all sleep) is surrounded by a huge garden, containing banana and coffee trees, a traditional medicinal herb garden and a carp pond. All lessons also take place in little palm-thatched cabañas in the garden, which is a lovely way to study (if there is such a thing as a lovely way to study). There’s also a little mirador (look-out), where you can sit and read, or study, or just chill out, overlooking the valley and the adjacent mountains. The terrace of the school also has hammocks for relaxing too, and there’s a kitchen as well just in case you are still hungry (or you can do what we did and get a friend to visit from Xela with pizza). Being in such small place, there’s little to do of an evening but chill out, chat, and play cards outside over a beer or two, listening to the rain and watching the skies light up with the tremendous electrical storms that happen every evening at this time of year. The house also has two lovely cats and three adorable dogs guarding the place (they bark at every passing vehicle, but unfortunately living in a humid and rainy climate they are bit too smelly – despite regular baths – to really play with).

My classroom

My classroom

As well as all the classes, you also get more of a feel for the community by the various other talks the school organises – one night the village midwife came to give us a talk about how she works, and the difficulties she faces, one lunchtime we had a talk from a local who is involved in running the local community radio station that has a crucial role in providing information about health and education, and most fun of all was the night one the local mothers came down to teach us how to make platanos rellenos (stuffed bananas), which involved boiling up bananas until soft, mashing them up to make a dough, rolling them out to make banana tortillas, and then stuffing them with pureed sweetened black beans, and then deep-frying the whole thing and serving with sugar – great fun and absolutely delicious.

Making platanos rellenos

Making platanos rellenos

The whole thing has been a magical time, so relaxing and enjoyable I barely feel like I’ve been studying, and getting the chance to experience at close hand the realities of how the majority of Guatemalans live is something I’ll never forget. It’s a shame I have to get on because I’d love to stay here for several weeks, slowly improving my Spanish (many students do just that).

Cheesy graduation picture

Cheesy graduation picture

If you’re thinking of studying Spanish in Latin America, I really can’t recommend this place highly enough (you can find out more about it here), I genuinely can’t think of a better place to do it, plus you get the chance to help an extremely poor community.

The coolest Spanish School in Guatemala

As soon as I read about PLQE (Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Español) I knew it was the school for me. It has a philosophy that surrounds the learning of Spanish with developing an understanding of the social, economic and political situation of modern Guatemala, which really appeals to an old lefty like me. It’s run as a worker’s cooperative, meaning that the teachers are the best paid in Xela (as the locals call Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city). A portion of the fees also goes to support various good causes in and around the city, and the opportunity exists to volunteer at some of these too.

Xelas Parque Central

Xela's Parge Central

It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea (I know I’ve bored many a person in the past when talking politics), but I found it fascinating. The week starts off with a lecture about the (very sad) history of Guatemala – covering first the oppression of the indigenous peoples by the Spanish conquistadores, followed by continuing exploitation by the rich landowners (which they defended by declaring independence from Spain before they could abolish slavery), right through to the thirty year long civil war that saw various leftist guerilla groups fighting for a better deal for the vast majority of the population. The war has been over for a decade now after the government negotiated for peace, but the dreadful situation continues – a tiny elite of around twenty families still controls the economy, and despite Guatemala being richer than its Central American neighbours, thanks to the extreme inequalities the majority of the population are the poorest in the Americas after Haiti (and most of those poor are the indigenous peoples, descendents of the Maya, who make up over 60% of the population, also the biggest proportion in the Americas). Aside from all the problems caused for the people of Guatemals by their ruling elite, the country also gets a pretty raw deal from nature, what with more active volcanoes than any other Central American country, earthquakes that three times devasted the original capital and in recent years have killed thousands of people, and yearly hurricanes coming in from both coasts that have frequently wreaked devastation.

Colourful crumbling building in Xela

Colourful crumbling building in Xela

Many of the teachers at the school are either former leftist guerillas or had some involvement in the movement, and my teacher, Luis, is one of the most political. This was great for my Spanish – I arrived having a basic grounding of grammar and rather limited vocabulary, but after a week of five (very tiring) hours of one-to-one lessons every afternoon, in which Luis and I spent much of the time talking in more detail about the country’s history, my confidence had improved no end – it’s much easier to find a way to talk when you’re talking about something you’re really interested in. Admittedly, thanks to the topics of conversation, I realised later on that I now knew the Spanish words for things like ‘oppression’ and ‘worker’s struggle’ and ‘massacre’ and hasn’t got round to learning basics like ‘leg’. But I’m sure those will come in time, and at least I should be able to impress my captors if I get kidknapped by FARC in Colombia this July. (Don’t worry mum, I have no plans to go anywhere near FARC-controlled ares while I’m there)

Xela Market

Xela Market

It’s been nearly thirteen years since I was back in class, and the whole process was shattering, especially as my lessons were from 2-7pm every afternoon – thinking that hard for that long really drains you, but it was worth it every time I made a breakthrough. Sadly the tiredness wasn’t helped by the fact I was almost permanently hungry. Part of the immersion experience is that you live with a host family for a week, who provide a bed and a desk, and three meals a day. Unfortunately for me, the food was very basic indeed, and in pretty small portions – I’m fully aware that Guatemala is a lot poorer than my own country, and I certainly wasn’t expecting gourmet food, but just speaking to other students at the school, I soon realised I’d drawn the short straw and got a host mum who just wasn’t a great cook sadly. I could have asked to be moved, but they were a lovely family so I just topped up with stops at the lovely local panaderia (and the occasional trip to McDonald’s – don’t tell my teachers that, they wouldn’t approve).

Cool building on 13th Ave

Cool building on 13th Ave

The school’s philosophy attracts a really cool crowd of students too, in my week all from the US or Canada apart from me, which made the experience really fun too. Xela is a fantastic city to study in too – very few tourists visit the city (unlike much of the rest of the country), despite it being the country’s second-biggest city. It’s not the most obviously beautiful city, but the more time I spent there the more I fell in love with the place, it has a really friendly atmosphere, and it’s much easier to meet and mix with Guatemalans than in some of the other places I visited.

You can see all my photos of Xela here.

Slightly less rubbish with languages

I think it’s fair to say that British people have a pretty poor reputation when it comes to speaking other people’s languages. It’s easy to blame the relatively poor language education in schools, but really it’s just an excuse: it’s easier to be lazy when everyone else speaks English.

Over the years I’ve made various efforts to learn other languages, to varying degrees of success. One of the most frustrating aspects of learning is the reaction I’ve often come across from natives when you’re trying to practice your skills, which turns out to be much harder than I ever imagined. There are four typical responses:

This one’s most common with Germans. It’s clearly inefficient to speak slowly in German, when they can switch over to English and speak like a native (or in many cases, like my German lecturer at uni, better than a native, as she wasted no time in pointing out whenever we made grammatical errors in our own language). So that’s exactly what happens, normally with no acknowledgment you’ve even addressed them in German in the first place.

Only in France have I, on several occasions, been laughed at for my pathetic English attempts to get my tongue around their beautiful language. This is hardly a confidence booster, funnily enough.

een Pilsje, alsjeblieft is hardly the most complicated sentence to learn. Or say for that matter. But try it in Holland and there’s a good chance someone will immediately say “Oh wow! You speak fantastic Dutch!” is both (a) a lie and (b) patronising. After this, they just switch to ignore mode and conduct the rest of the conversation in English.

Refuse to engage altogether
Best exemplified by the reaction to the woman behind the counter in Cordoba station, who just crossed her arms, and sat back in her chair once she realised my Spanish wasn’t up to a normal conversation. I suppose as she spoke no English either, the conversation was hardly likely to be all that fruitful, but just giving up was hardly going to get us anywhere.

I know ultimately that this is as much (if not more) my fault than theirs – if my language skills really were good enough, it would be easier to engage. Plus for busy shopkeepers or barstaff or waiters, it’s far quicker to speak English rather than waste time trying to understand someone mangle their conjugations. But whatever the reason, it makes the process a darn sight harder. Which is yet another reason why I loved Antwerp: I’d barely spoken a word of Dutch in years, but from the moment I uttered my first faltering sentence and was replied to in Dutch, without any mocking, patronising comments or even any remark, it boosted my confidence straight away. The pattern was the same for the rest of the weekend, and it was great. I know my limitations, and I was hardly able to have conversations about weighty issues, but actually getting the chance to practice meant I found my language skills coming back to me even after years with no practice.

Which in turn has boosted my confidence with my Spanish. With my course of lessons nearly done, I was getting slightly worried at the lack of progress I’ve been making, especially with my leaving date rapidly approaching. But this week I felt I had a real breakthrough. I had a double lesson (three hours) after work, which was exhausting, but well worth it. I’m starting getting the hang of all my verb conjugations now and am getting better at having an idea of which past tense to use when. Prepositions are still a bit of a nightmare, but I now feel like I can have the most basic conversations, and reckon I know enough to find my way round cities, public transports and restaurants to survive OK.

In the great scheme of things, I’m still barely a beginner, but it’s a start, and I feel like now I’ve got some of the basics right I’ll hopefully be able to make good use of a few weeks learning Spanish in Xela (Quetzaltenango) in Guatemala come May – this great post from Christine @ Almostfearless really keeps me inspired. I know there’s a lot of hard work to come, but I really want to use my time away to get my Spanish up to a point where I’ll no longer have to face being mocked, ignored, or patronised for being so rubbish.

Rubbish with languages

When I was 17 everything was clear in my mind – I’d go and study German & Dutch at university, and then go and live in Berlin when I graduated, or maybe Brussels at a push (to work for the European Commission, of course). All I needed to do was study hard for four years and then I’d pop out the other speaking like a native.

Of course it didn’t quite work out like that. The German department were more interested in getting us to translate impenetrable 19th century poetry rather than getting us doing anything remotely useful like talking to each other, a matter that wasn’t helped by my friend Hilary & I whiling away the lectures passing each other rude notes in code (using the numbers from the giant Periodic Table that was on the wall of the Chemistry lecture theatre where we had our German Lit classes) and paying very little attention. So I ended up giving up German after the first year.

Dutch didn’t work out much better – I lived in Utrecht for three months in my third year, but didn’t improve at all seeing as all the Dutch people just spoke to me in English. I ended up ditching that too and coming home to finish off my degree in Geography.

I’d already failed with French, put off by the fact that even when I knew what to say, my accent is so terrible people would normally fail to understand me at all (or that could just be the French being bloody-minded).

So I’m determined to make more of a success with Spanish. I had a few months of lessons a couple of years ago which went OK – beginners Spanish is a lot more straightforward than other languages I’ve learnt, once I’d got past the weirdness of not using personal pronouns with verbs. I’m confident I can do all the basic travel necessities, especially if my experience of Mexico is anything to go by – people made a real effort to speak slowly for me and compliment me on my Spanish, which is a big confidence-booster.

I’ll be starting again soon and hope to continue right up til I go, and then have more intensive lessons when I get to Central America. I really want to make more of a success of it this time – and I’m a bit more hopeful: I’m much more confident than I was when was younger, so I’m happier to give it a go. Plus I really don’t want to spend the whole year just talking to other travellers – I’d love to be able to spend more time chatting to locals to make the most of the year.

And if all else fails, I can always get drunk and argumentative: the two most fluent conversations I’ve had in German & Dutch have been in the past few years having arguments with taxi drivers who have been trying to fleece me by taking me the wrong direction and over-charging me. It’s remarkable how many words I could remember when there was money stake.