By Laurie Mackay from the May 2012 Edition
Alone, in a foreign city, living with strangers who speak a different language… last year I spent two weeks in a Spanish immersion home-stay program in Guanajuato that was intimidating, mentally exhausting, and absolutely wonderful…
My Spanish journey began in my 20s when a cousin brought his Spanish wife home to Canada and I offered to exchange English lessons for Spanish. It was fun, but I didn’t have any use for my new words so the lessons soon dwindled off. Fast-forward 10 years and I married a man whose family has made Manzanillo their second home for decades. Those old Spanish lessons came back, but a random collection of nouns doesn’t get one very far so I signed up for a beginner Spanish class.
Within a few short months, a new world had opened… instead of smiling bashfully when greeted by store clerks I could now say, “Thank you but I’m just looking,” or I could ask the fruit vendor, “Do you have any fresh strawberries today?” instead of simply saying “¿Fresas?” The problem now, was understanding the blur of words I got in reply. I moved up to the intermediate class and got a Rosetta Stone program.
During my visits to Manzanillo, I took classes with local teachers, made inane conversation with shopkeepers to test out new phrases, and mangled the language with anyone willing to wait while I figured out the correct verb conjugation. I was by no means a dedicated student but after 3 years I could have very pleasant, if grammatically tortured, conversations with all sorts of people. However, while I knew what I was saying to them, I only understood half of what was said to me in return—some people used slang, some had a different accent, and everyone spoke faster than my overtaxed brain could process. I needed more practice listening to “real” Spanish-speakers rather than the perfect enunciation of my teachers.
An acquaintance suggested Escuela Mexicana, a total-immersion language school in the town of Guanajuato in central México. Their website looked like just what I wanted, including the option of a home-stay with a Mexican family. I was already a little nervous about going by myself to an immersion school in a strange city; I figured I might as well round out the fear factor by staying with strangers I might not be able to talk to!
I flew from Manzanillo to Mexico City and then to Leon, where a school rep met me and drove me the 40 minutes to my home-stay in Guanajuato. My host family turned out to be a very welcoming middle-class couple, their adorable 8-year-old daughter, and two teenage sons. They absorbed me seamlessly into their very comfortable home and included me in all the activities of their daily life. That first night, they took me into the town center to watch a festival and I was overwhelmed by the magic of this beautiful town. I also realized that I had no hope in hell of ever finding my way to school in the morning.
The school is located in the heart of the historic centre, which is a crazy maze of winding, narrow streets and tunnels. Thankfully, my new “mom” took me to school on the bus in the morning, while I frantically noted landmarks to help me find my way home again. (Maybe she’d lost students before because she was waiting for me outside the school that afternoon to show me the way home!)
The school accepts new students every Monday, and the first thing we did was a placement test. I was placed in the intermediate group and offered a choice of classes: conversation classes, “Practical Spanish,” and a couple grammar classes to round out the fun. I took four hours of classes every day, Monday-Friday, plus spent the evenings chatting with my host family (who spoke no English). We had some very lively conversations (complete with drawings and charades when words failed) comparing the politics, government, social customs, etc in our two countries. My brain was exhausted at the end of each day, and after a week I began dreaming in Spanglish.
I soon learned that the town wasn’t nearly as confusing to navigate as it had seemed at first, and I felt perfectly comfortable exploring on my own and with new friends. The school was a great mix of people, from a family with teenagers, to a young couple heading to South America on a motorbike, to a teacher from a Spanish-speaking American neighbourhood, to a retired couple. We all had something in common in our desire to learn this new language.
The teachers were fantastic, the classes were well-structured, and the entire experience was challenging and a lot of fun. In case you were wondering, “Practical Spanish” is a class where you learn stuff like moto means ‘motorcycle’ and mota means ‘marijuana’ and not to ask a traffic cop where you can leave your mota!
I was utterly exhausted at the end of my two weeks and glad to return home to the ease of effortless communication, but it was an experience that I would repeat in a heartbeat—and plan to!