Why I Decided to Study Spanish in Latin America
“You’re going to South America alone? To learn Spanish?!” My mother thought I was loco – crazy- for booking my flights and registering for a spot at a language school in Cuzco to take intensive Spanish classes.
To many Malaysians, South America is a distant place with thugs, drugs, crime and a lot of civil unrest. While this might be true to an extent, it might be true in certain countries and certain regions. But the majority of the continent is generally stable, safe and a lot of travellers frequent these places.
During my travels, I’ve met travellers from all stages in life. From young people in their late teens, early twenties, to people taking career breaks and even retirees take long trips (3 months, 6 months, a year or more) to travel slowly through these countries. I’ve found that adventure does lie in South America. The landscape throughout the continent is beautifully rugged, and it is the most diverse of anywhere on the planet. It’s here that you’ll find dense jungles, snowcapped peaks, vast lakes and wide deserts located high across some of the highest mountain ranges in the world.
Study Abroad Experience
I’ve had this crazy idea to travel all the way across the globe to learn this language because I somehow knew I had missed out study abroad opportunities in Europe during my university days, and I did not want to hold any regrets down the road if I didn’t do it. During my second year of university in the UK, I’d found out that people actually can do a semester or a year abroad in a partner university in Europe, and nobody told me about it – and I was too dumb to look around – until it was too late. Although I was already studying abroad in the UK, I still wonder about how different countries and cultures approached education all around the world.
So after a few stressful and depressing years of law school, I decided I wanted to chase my dreams of travelling to South America… while combining a study abroad experience in itself.
Independent, Immersive Travel
I knew I wanted to visit Peru because it was my dream to see the fabled Machu Picchu, and I’ve heard that Cuzco is a historic marvel. Cuzco is a charming colonial town with cobbled streets, grand cathedrals rich with the indigenous Incan culture, and the city itself is enchanting – nestled high in the Andean highlands. My wanderlust flared up. I started to trawl through Google half a year in advance of my trip to look for language schools in Cuzco. Adrenaline overwhelmed me and suddenly there was something for me to look forward to.
My enchantment of visiting Latin America came from reading mystical stories about the Seven Wonders of the World as a child, watching The Emperor’s New Groove and the allure of the unknown. The idea of adventure and going off-the-beaten-path excited me. I wanted to detach myself from all the familiarity that had dragged me down so hard. I wanted to reboot, start afresh and live.
Taking A Leap of Faith
After looking around, I did find a school in Cuzco. The school is called Proyecto Peru, and they provide a Spanish language immersion package. The package includes 6 hours of Spanish classes per day for 4 weeks, a chance to stay in a local Peruvian family and also go on some weekend excursions. I contemplated for a while and sent them an email.
Obviously, when you find something on the Internet like that, you would worry about your personal safety and be wary that you would get scammed, so I scheduled a Skype call with some of the people who run the language school. To my surprise, the person I spoke to was actually Dutch, and he was running the Spanish school along with some local Peruvians.
When I arrived in Cuzco one Sunday evening, I was met there by my host father who took me back to my homestay. Honestly, the school is excellent. The teaching is practical, conversational and useful in everyday encounters like coffee shops and taxi rides. Every Thursday, there would be a social gathering at the school with other students and our activities included cookouts, karaoke sessions and watching football at the sports bar.
During Peruvian holidays, the school organised cultural tours. I was lucky enough to be there during Halloween, the Day of the Deceased (All Saints Day, an important festival) and Thanksgiving. Many people who attended the Spanish school were Americans, and it was amazing to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving for the first time.
That month in Cuzco was eye-opening. I made many friends, spoke nothing but Spanish on many days… and to my surprise, even by the end of the first week, I’ve already managed to make basic conversation about my day and how school was with my host father who did not speak much English. By the end of my second week, my vocabulary improved.
My teacher spoke only Spanish to me from the first moment we met on Day 1. When I returned home from classes for lunch and dinner, sometimes my host father will be there asking me about my day and we would chat in Spanish. During dinners, my host mom will turn up, and we would chat more. They will only switch to English when we talk about more complicated topics like political issues, but then it’s only using certain words as they have a limited vocabulary.
The Spanish classes in Cuzco were very hands-on, and conversational speaking has always been a key feature in my learning. There were be visits to the market, around the city and a special insight of how the Peruvians celebrate an important festival – the Diade Los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased). During these tours, teachers all only spoke to us in Spanish and it was either concentrate and understand, or stare and miss out.
By speaking conversationally in class and at home, every day is a steep learning curve. My progress, however, was spectacular.
My level of Spanish shot up to intermediate after that one month of one-to-one lessons. Right after those intensive classes, I started my overland travels across 3 other countries in South America. During my travels, I met other solo travellers from the UK, US, Australia and Germany. They spoke little Spanish, and it felt cool to be able to help them translate to get stuff from the stores. In Chile, we hung out with some local Chileans, and I was even able to joke with them in Spanish.
It was quite impressive how intensive, immersive language learning can allow you to learn and improve in such a short time. It is true that when you find yourself in an environment where you are forced to use the language on a daily basis, you are inclined to use it naturally.
In these circumstances, you either sink or swim: sink like a weakling and cry when you are lost; or swim by speaking and practising consistently, ignoring all the giggles and taunts you get for misspeaking certain words. Mistakes and embarrassment are all part and parcel of learning a language!
Competitiveness and Employability
Thinking long-term, I wanted to take up Spanish because I want to boost my employability skills. My grades at school were decent, but not outstanding, and everybody seems to be so talented, skilled and knowledgeable these days.
This is even more so when I desire a career in foreign affairs and diplomacy. Immersive travel experiences allow me to understand more of the world and stand out from the crowd.
Next month, I’m heading to Guatemala for 7 weeks to take my Spanish up a notch. I will enrol in more one-to-one, intensive lessons, and see how far I can go.
I will keep you updated on my progress!
Have you ever went on an immersive language learning experience? How did you find it? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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