How can I make the most of language immersion and the experience of spending a month in Guatemala?
May 21, 2010 11:54 AM   Subscribe

What can I do (before, during and after I go) to make the most out of a month of language classes and immersion? And what else should I know about traveling alone for the first time and/or about Xela, Guatemala to help me enjoy my time there?

In a few weeks, I'm going to be leaving for a month in Xela, Guatemala, where I'll be taking Spanish classes and volunteering. I'm traveling alone (female, age 28) and I've never been out of the country for more than two weeks before or traveled alone in a foreign country for any length of time. I'd definitely appreciate any advice on making the most of this experience. I'm especially interested in the following:

-- How can I be most effective in improving my Spanish? (I'm currently at a low-intermediate level-- I studied Spanish in school years ago, and have retained a pretty decent vocabulary such that I can get the gist of most written Spanish, but I have a hard time following spoken conversation unless it's at a slower-than-average pace, and my grammar is lousy.) Would it be wise for me to spend time brushing up and preparing before I leave, and if so, what kinds of things do you think would be most helpful? And then once I'm there, do you have any particular advice on what might help me learn more and retain it better? I'll have 5 hours a day of one-on-one classes and will be doing homestays with families while I'm there.
-- If anyone has any recommendations for particular language schools, it would be appreciated. I have two weeks reserved at PLQE but I'm on the wait list for the other two weeks so I need to choose another school. Besides good teaching, what's most important to me is that the school tries to provide an economic/social justice context and perspective (and attracts students who're interested in those things) and that it has a good offering of lectures, activities, and trips. Suggestions for good organizations in Xela to volunteer with/visit/learn from would also be great-- particularly ones with a social/economic justice, organizing/empowerment focus-- I've found several but would appreciate learning about others and/or hearing personal experiences.
-- Any other advice about Xela or Guatemala more generally is definitely welcome-- places to go (within Xela or suitable for a weekend trip), things to try to experience, things that surprised you about the city/the country, safety tips, advice about what to pack for Xela in June, etc, etc.
-- And advice more generally about traveling alone in a foreign country for a semi-extended period of time would be really terrific, too. I'm both excited and nervous about it, and I definitely feel like there's all kinds of things I'm not thinking of. From the mundane to the profound, are there things you wish you'd been told or thought about or did (or are glad you knew or thought about or did) the first time you traveled alone in a foreign country?

Thanks so much!
posted by EmilyClimbs to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I studied abroad several times, and being almost fluent in Spanish, I found that sometimes the weaker, or more shy speakers would use the better speakers as a crutch.

Don't let anyone speak for you. If you are with people who speak better Spanish, screw them (not literally), if anything speak for them. You will improve your spanish through the little things, asking where the bathroom is, ordering things off a menu. All these things will help build confidence, and don't feel bad if people correct you.

I don't have much travel advice for Guatemala, never having been there, but as always keep your wits about you and try not to look too much like a tourist. I speak spanish very well, and fit in visually but I had people trying to take advantage of me by getting me to pay for things I didn't need etc. Just use your common sense, and try and meet people early on who know the area that you can trust. Don't be afraid to go out there and live a little though, we only get one life and you will remember this experience for the rest of your life. I'm very jealous of you and wish I could join you : )
posted by OuttaHere at 12:01 PM on May 21, 2010

AIDG are in Xela - they do great stuff. Also Maya Pedal do some interesting things.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 12:07 PM on May 21, 2010

A lot of language-learning research indicates that reading lots of writing in the language that's right around your level is really beneficial and a great way to pick up grammar and vocabulary (not pushing it and reading things that are way too hard and make you constantly pick up a dictionary). Before you go, look for "graded readers" or "leveled readers" that are aimed at language learners. Kids' books are sometimes good, but are often full of slang and baby talk that are too hard to understand. If you can find stuff that works, try to read at least 20 minutes a day, without using a dictionary (look up words you're curious about when you're done--try to get into the flow of reading). It'll take more than a few weeks for this to REALLY pay off, but you can keep doing it while you're there, and continue doing it after. It should build on what you learn while you're there.

Some people do this with listening, too, but that's usually very hard until you're at an upper-intermediate or advanced level.

Don't overpack, but don't turn your nose up at a good guide book even if you're not going there to be a tourist. A good guide book has all kinds of useful information. Don't leave your passport in your purse and carry it around all the time (unless there's some kind of law that you have to). Yes, I was an idiot, thanks for asking. ;)

Look for a school with language teachers who are not just native speakers/not just native speakers with degrees in English literature/etc. I don't know anything about that town/city or if it's big enough to support more variety, but if possible, you really want teachers with some language-teaching training. Knowing how to speak a language and knowing how to help someone else learn it are two entirely different things. (I know, I say that a lot.)
posted by wintersweet at 12:20 PM on May 21, 2010

My Spanish teacher told about his days learning Spanish in Spain - he made it a point to go out into the city and talk to people. He used the phrase (in Spanish) "I am studying Spanish, please correct me" to everyone he met/spoke to - all the shopkeepers, taxi drivers, people in the park at the concerts, etc. His whole attitude was not the idea of "don't feel bad if people correct you" - he ACTIVELY sought out people to speak to and asked them to correct him. He was able to laugh at himself for his mistakes and that made it easier to avoid those mistakes next time.

Out of all the people in his class there, he was the only one who actually became fluent, so much so that he now teaches Bilingual elementary school and also Spanish at community college. English was his third language. Even in our Spanish class, he would stop at an English word and ask us to help him choose the right context or pronunciation if he didn't know something.

I unfortunately am not like that and I'd rather just watch and smile silently while thinking Spanish in my head. As a result, I am nowhere near fluent, even though I live in an American city where over 50% of the population comes from Mexico. So many opportunities to speak; so much not speaking.

posted by CathyG at 12:20 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pack all the clothes you need. It's hard to buy ok clothes.
posted by Not Supplied at 1:23 PM on May 21, 2010

When I did immersion in Mexico, I was in Cuernavaca where there are many Spanish programs. As a result, many of the townsfolk speak passable English. So the taxi drivers and shopkeepers would often answer you in English. In part, they're wanting to practice English but you're there to learn Spanish. I doubt you'll have as much of a problem in Guatemala. But my school had strict rules about English. We didn't speak it once. The instructors taught Spanish without the use of English. Some of the handouts and the textbooks had some English in it, but it was mostly Spanish 24/7. After a few days it really started click for me. By the end of the month I was practically fluent.

Even if you never read newspapers at home, buy the daily national or town paper each day and read it cover to cover including the ads. Highlight or underline the words or phrases you don't understand and go back with a dictionary to figure it out. If you have room, keep one of the older papers and refer to it toward the end of your trip and see how you've improved.

And talk to random people. I usually don't just strike up conversations in a taxi or on a bus but I'd do that (and still do) when traveling in Mexico. Ask questions of things even if you know the answer. Most of the people you meet will appreciate a gringa speaking to them in their own language and will be patient and helpful.

Invariably, you'll meet other students from the US or other English-speaking countries. When you go out for drinks or dinner you should keep speaking in Spanish. My little hora feliz group would have an "English hour" once a week when we could speak English if we wanted to.

If you go to the movies (which you should), don't see an American film in English with Spanish subtitles. Seek out something in Spanish (or at the very least dubbed into Spanish). Same with TV. The family I lived had cable so I could watch BBC World Service and CNN in English, but I avoided for the national news and CNN Espanol (except I found the presenters speak much faster than the local news). Even if it is boring, make a game of trying to understand it.

If you're like me, when you get back to the US and passport control, you might answer the officer's questions in Spanish until you realize you're back in the EEUU. Immersion works! But the most important thing you need to do is keep practicing and keep reading and consuming Spanish language media. Univision and Telemundo. HBO Latino. Read People en Espanol. Read Spanish language websites and blogs. Find Spanish speakers to chat with. For me, I was pretty good for a month or so and then started to slip. It is difficult not to not go out of your way to consume Spanish language media.

I met some great people from all over the world at my classes and still am in touch with a few. It is a great experience so soak it all in. Don't stress about not learning fast enough, you'll surprise yourself with your progress when you get back home.
posted by birdherder at 1:41 PM on May 21, 2010

Pack all the clothes you need. It's hard to buy ok clothes.

Disagreed. I think you can get by in Xela packing very minimally, with a focus on socks and underwear. You can generally buy some really good clothes in the pacas, and that will give you a chance to practice your spanish in a commercial transaction, which is important but not provided by the lessons.

Which school are you going to?
posted by kensington314 at 1:41 PM on May 21, 2010

I did the same thing as you're about to do! Great choice on xela!

My suggestions: check out the website xelapages.

Celas Maya was the school I went with and they were awesome on all counts you mentioned.

Make it your goal to learn a certain number of nouns each day. Once you have a good mastery of verbs, you will come up with all kinds of ways of avoiding learning nouns.

Lonely planet is a pretty great guide to the americas.

Take a swiss army knife. One with scissors and a knife. Take a headlight. Get small locks for your backpack, it will be tossed on the top of lots of buses. Get the locks with numbers that you dial so you won't lose the keys. Take travellers' cheques.

Go to Todos Santos, it's worth the trip.

Don't be surprised if you start burning out before the 4 weeks are up. Why not take a break mid way? It will give you a chance to practice what you've learned.

The xela salsa scene is awesome, go to clubs when you make a friend who can walk you home.

I rented a bike while there which was real fun. There are some amazing hot springs nearby that you can ride your bike to, though it will take all day.

Have fun! I ended up spending a few months in xela and had the time of my life.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 1:41 PM on May 21, 2010

Also, maybe grab the "Practice Makes Perfect" series of workbooks by Dorothy Divney Richmond. They are a good supplement during language instruction.
posted by kensington314 at 1:42 PM on May 21, 2010

You can live pretty cheaply but things are expensive if you want anything that happens to be imported or out of the ordinary. Like fish oil capsules, power socket adaptor, usb key. Basically I'd say take what you need.
posted by Not Supplied at 1:47 PM on May 21, 2010

kensington314 the clothes thing I dunno. Maybe it's because I'm a tall man but I didn't have much luck.
posted by Not Supplied at 3:19 PM on May 21, 2010

I spent several weeks in Guatemala and I took classes in Antigua and San Pedro on Atitlan. I see you're doing one-on-one classes, like I did, which is very intensive to do for 5 hours a day. I found that after the first few days of having the teacher lead, the way I learned best was the keep a notebook with me during the rest of the day and just jot down things I wanted to learn. It might be a vocab word I didn't know that I heard a lot, a grammatical thing I was confused about, a slang/usage issue I was hearing, etc.

That way, the lessons were structured in a more interactive way. I'd ask, "hey, I'm confused about aqui/aqua/alli/alla, can you help me get it all straight?" or "let's talk about por vs. para" etc. If I gave my teacher my list of questions a day ahead he prepared some lessons for the following day.

We also played a lot of Spanish scrabble, which is limited in its usefulness but was really fun and helped with the "my brain hurts from so much learning" thing at the end of a long block of lessons.

For traveling in general, I highly recommend spending a few days around Lake Atitlan. The first town off the boat from Panajachel is called Santa Cruz - a teeny tiny little town - with a great hostel just off the shore called La Iguana Perdida. A very quirky place with group dinners and avocado trees and hammocks and great people, they apparently have hot showers now, which they didn't when I went. Another town on the lake is called San Marcos and is worth a visit if you want a super cheap massage from one of the many expats living there.

Have a great time!
posted by ORthey at 4:34 PM on May 21, 2010

I did this (one-on-one Spanish study in Xela) several years ago. Advice from my experience:

Schools: IIRC, PLQE is one of the better-respected schools in Xela. I know a lot of human rights NGOs and such use them because of their ties to human rights activists and rep for treating their teachers decently. So, good choice!

I bet once you get there, they'll be able to find space for you for the last two weeks. If they can't, feel free to ask your teacher or one of the administrators they have recs for other schools. Asking a teacher is especially good, because they'll know what kind of rep the other schools have among teachers.

FWIW, I couldn't get into PLQE and ended up going to Sakribal, which was pretty good. I liked the community of the place, my host family was great, and it's women-owned, which is cool. My teacher was only ok, though.

Volunteering: Your school should have good resources for that. I'd take their rec.

Itinerary: If you're just going for the one month, I wouldn't recommend staying in school the entire time, for a few reasons. One, 5 hours a day, 5 days a week of one-on-one instruction is really exhausting, and I think there's probably some diminishing returns after a week or two. Two, Getting out into the big world and speaking Spanish with people who are not your teacher or host family will probably be enormously helpful. Three, Guatemala is awesome, and you should see as much of it as possible.

Some great places to go:

- Seconding the rec for Atitlan and Iguana Perdida. The Iguana is not really an "authentic Guatemalan experience" at all, but it's a really great, relaxing place to hang out for a few days, speak English, and meet interesting fellow travelers from around the world. It also has an amazing view of the lake (not my pic). They used to (still do?) have barbecues on Saturday nights, so it's a good place to go for the weekend.

- You definitely have to go to Tikal, the mayan ruins in the northern jungle. Totally overrun with tourists, but for good reason. Not really a weekend trip though.

- There are lots of indigenous villages and small towns in the mountains. Unfortunately I couldn't go to any because I was there in January and didn't have proper cold-weather gear, but they sound really interesting.

- There is one village in the mountains around Xela that I did make it to on a day trip that had a really great market. I was there for hours and never saw another non-Guatemalan person. I forget the name of the town, but it's the one known for its wool blankets - it should be in your guidebook. I still have my blanket - it's so sturdy and thick I use it as a rug!

Host families: Hopefully you'll get a great family that includes you, speaks only Spanish with you, and has safe, reasonably comfortable living conditions for you (though you shouldn't expect anything fancy). If you are dissatisfied with your family, especially if they're not speaking Spanish to you, definitely speak up and get a new assignment, and don't feel bad about it. I personally had two great host families (at different times) but I've heard some bad stories. Also, be sure to hang out with the family as much as possible. Whatever they like to do in the evenings, do it with them. My second family liked to hang out in the parents' bedroom and watch American TV shows dubbed into English. I was there with them most evenings!

Xela: is a nice town. When I was there, there were enough gringos that there are a few coffeeshops and friendly bars, but it's not a tourist-oriented scene like, say, Antigua. A lot of the gringos that live there will also be studying Spanish, and there's a pretty big population of NGO workers, both foreign and Guatemalan, who are a cool bunch. Obviously, you don't want to spend all your time with foreigners, but it's a nice break occasionally.

Safety is an issue in Guatemala, even more so now than when I was there. Xela isn't Guatemala City (which, incidentally, you will want to stay away from unless you have a specific reason for going) but you'll want to be careful about walking late at night (try not to, really). When I was there, the common wisdom was that traveling on chicken buses or big tourist buses was safer than the tourist minibuses, which are easy targets for bandits. Not sure if that's still the case, best to ask people when you get there.

Have fun!
posted by lunasol at 8:15 AM on May 22, 2010

PLQE is such a good school. I spent a couple months there and even returned for a shorter stint and I learned a ton, and it has the political/economic/social justice context you are looking for. If you can get additional weeks I would really suggest staying with them.

A lot of the spanish schools very seriously discourage discussion of the historical and current political situation in Guatemala, and the US role there as well. PLQ is quite the opposite, and they have excellent community projects and longstanding connections to other groups - ex-guerrilla coffee farms, womens' cooperatives, so on and so forth - and after a few weeks of classes, these projects will really deepen your understanding and ability to use the language.

Additionally, I would suggest spending some time at their Mountain School, which is lower down in the highlands, a couple hours outside of Xela. A very easy trip there, excellent teachers, and some students find that they learn spanish better there than in Xela. (Some find quite the opposite, of course.) What you will likely find is that after a few weeks in Xela you will invariably get roped into the weird and incestuous gringo scene, and that scene speaks English only, for the most part. The Mountain School can break that up a little bit and get you into crazy-study mode, and you can build a much closer rapport with the teachers, kids in the community, etc. because it's such a small school. On a personal level I would add that I have never in my life been happier than I have been at the Mountain School.

Also, you can arrange an intercambio - a lot of people in Xela want to practice their English, and are more than willing to have you practice your Spanish with them. A few hours in Parque Central can help you establish a couple relationships like that. Frequently there are postings in the gringo spots - Baviera, El Cuartito, the Yoga House, Cafe La Luna - which will get you a private instructor for cheap or an intercambio for free.
posted by kensington314 at 7:18 PM on May 22, 2010

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