HAPPY TALK, LANGUAGE IMMERSION IN SPAIN
by Ed Wetschler
Buenas días. Or is it buenos días? Good heavens, I used to be able to carry on an intelligent conversation in Spanish; now I couldn’t even remember exactly how to say hello. I realized I’d better do something — fast — or I’d be back at square uno.
A language immersion experience in a Spanish-speaking country, where I’d be forced to speak Spanish if I ever hoped to find a men’s room, seemed the most efficient way to get back on track. So I called Spanish Abroad, which arranges group and private learning experiences at more than 40 locations in 12 countries.
But which location to choose? Nearby Puerto Rico? A colonial town in Mexico? Uspoiled Costa Rica? I picked Seville, Spain, because I love its historic sights, tapas bars, and flamenco scene.
Spanish Abroad offers various lodging choices in Seville, including apartments, residences (with and without private baths), and stays with local families. In the spirit of all-out immersion, I picked the latter.
What followed was a flurry of e-mails with information on how to get to Seville, where to go the first day of class, what to see, how to use Spanish telephones and plug in electric appliances — everything. Spanish Abroad also offered cultural insights, such as, “[Host families] may not be very open with you at your initial meeting and you may feel slighted. However, it is important to recognize that this is their culture and they are not singling you out.”
Classes were to begin on a Monday morning, but I flew to Spain on a Friday night so I’d have some time to shake off the jet lag. Spanish Abroad had arranged for a car to meet me at Seville’s airport — well worth the $45 charge after the Boeing Sleep Deprivation Experience.
Spanish Abroad also helped prepare me by sending some background on my host family. “Josefa (born in 1939) ... is a housewife and lives with her husband and youngest daughter,” the information read. “The flat is located in the old part of the city ...”
Exactly as advertised. The apartment, a walkup near the Museo de Bellas Artes, had a den-like foyer that led, on the right, to a living room and kitchen, and beyond that to the family’s bedrooms and one-and-one-half bathrooms. All the rooms were small. Mine, to the left of the foyer, had an armoire, a night table, and a bunk bed that was more comfortable than it looked.
I joined the family for the midday meal, a pasta-and-potatoes dish with seafood, and we got right down to basics — in Spanish, of course. I asked Manolo, Josefa’s husband, how he’d managed to marry such a great cook. He asked me how I planned to vote in the U.S. presidential elections.
Monday morning I walked the narrow, cobblestoned streets to the language school: CLIC, or Centro de Lenguas e Intercambio Cultural. Life at CLIC revolves around its lobby, a three-story, light-filled courtyard with a translucent roof, café tables, and computers. The ground floor has offices, a library, and a bookstore; upstairs are 30 classrooms designed for small groups.
Every newcomer who arrives for group instruction gets a written test and an interview to determine what level class is appropriate (I landed in Level 3 on a scale of 8). Most students are then assigned three hours of classes in the morning or in the afternoon. Some chose the latter so they could do sociological studies, i.e., enjoy Seville’s late-night party scene. I chose a morning sche-dule, but I also took an hour-and-a-half afternoon session because I’d only be at the school for one week.
My morning class was in a little room on the top floor, with six desks arranged in a circle and a window that opened onto the courtyard. Although the majority of CLIC’s students come from German-speaking and Scandinavian countries, mine included two young Brits, a German environmentalist, and a Dutch economist. My afternoon class had eight students and met in a slightly larger room.
Whereas Carmen, my morning instructor, was serious and intense, Mercedes, who led my afternoon class, was warm and friendly. But they shared the same methodology: Each would come in with photocopies of exercises on grammatical topics, such as the many forms of past tense (akin to “He ate, he has eaten, he had eaten ...”). The teacher would introduce a lesson, we’d do some written and spoken exercises, and we’d get some homework.
So what made the immersion experience different from your high school language class? First, all definitions and explanations were in Spanish, so we were forced to think in Spanish. Second, we were encouraged to go off on tangents and hold conversations, because feeling at ease chatting in Spanish was as important as studying the rules. And that meant we could discuss things we really cared about.
For example, on Wednesday, Carmen tried to jumpstart a chat about movies, but Peter, the Dutch economist, objected. “No me interesa,” he said. “Prefiero una discusión de la economía o la política.” The others agreed. So Carmen switched gears and asked each of us to give a brief update on his/her country.
Quite a challenge for pre-intermediates, but Carmen got us going by drawing a map of her country, Spain, on the board and presenting a few facts about its regions and recent history. Soon we were comparing our own experiences in Spain. And the next day, we became so involved talking about Holland, Germany, and Britain that we didn’t even get to the United States until Friday. By then we were better able to form and understand sentences about politics, economics, and, uh, life (although it was no picnic explaining the American phenomenon of suburbios in Spanish).
In an immersion program, learning occurs outside of class, too. Some students ate meals with their Spanish-speaking host families, while others explored the city or watched Spanish movies on DVDs in CLIC’s library. Many took advantage of the school’s discounted tickets to concerts and its evening and weekend sightseeing tours, which were led by teachers blessed with a knack for addressing both fluent and not-so-fluent Spanish speakers.
CLIC also matches individuals up with locals who have similar interests, and they meet regularly for coffee and conversation. The brevity of my stay prevented me from taking part in that program, but I did spend a lot of time chatting up bartenders, discussing music in CD stores, and deciphering Spanish-language labels on museum exhibitions.
Of course, I cheated, too, and so did other people. Some of the young people spoke German to each other; no doubt they found their own language to be more efficacious for the business of flirting. And on Thursday, when I asked my classmates some questions for this article, we quickly lapsed into English.
But even with my bouts of cheating, I learned an awful lot during my all-too-brief week of language immersion — and I enjoyed myself, too. The proof came the following week, when my wife joined me for a driving tour of central Spain. Our car broke down in Segovia, and I ended up having to describe the situation to three mechanics before I found someone who could fix the problem so we could get out of Segovia.
If the immersion program hadn’t been so effective, my wife and I would still be there.
Oh yes. It’s buenos dias. With an “o.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Spanish Abroad’s immersion programs run virtually every week of the year. Prices vary depending on location, course of instruction, and accommodations. Contact Spanish Abroad: Tel: 888-722-7623; Website:www.spanishabroad.com.
TRAVEL YIPS:LANGUAGE STUDY IN SPAIN
• Except for beginners, Spanish Abroad students in Seville can generally start classes or private lessons any Monday.
• Three to five weeks is the typical length of a study program, although a one-week stint such as the one described in this article can be arranged.
• The right lodging choice — staying in an apartment, a group residence or with a family — is critical, and depends on personal preferences. Note that in Latin America, staying with a family is often the only option.
• Climate matters, too. For example, Seville is fine in fall and spring, but in summer, Salamanca would be a better choice.