Although one can get by without knowing much Spanish down in these tourist sections of Mexico, we feel highly inadequate. Now knowing that we will be here over a year, and having the time to really work on it, we decided to get serious and plop a little ching on the situation. It’s back to school time.
For 3 weeks in January, Mon-Fri, 4 hours per day, we went to a small adult language school in downtown La Paz called Se Habla La Paz. It’s like being 12 years old again. Backpacks in tow, we’d wait for the marina’s 8:10am bus to town, ride for 15 minutes and walk 10 minutes to the school. Our class consisted of 3-5 students in any given week with 2 instructors. From 8:30am-1pm we would “habla” til our brains jello’ed and afterwards, rewarded ourselves with lunch at a new restaurant downtown. Then it’s back to the boat on the 2:30pm bus to do homework for about two hours. Our homework typically consisted of creating numerous sentences or paragraphs applying our newly acquired verbs of the day.
Did we know any Spanish prior?
I took an 8-week online course over a year ago; Brian took Spanish in high school for 2 years (20 years ago). I’d still say we were complete beginners. I minored in French, and while that helps in understanding similar conjugations, it causes havoc when speaking. My brain freezes, my face scrunches and I instantly think in French (what little I remember after 20 years), immediately know that’s not right and try painfully to think of the Spanish word with a vacant, wide-eyed look. It’s not pretty.
I have been using the Duolingo iPad app which has been very useful with vocabulary, but it doesn’t really explain sentence structure. And often the sentences they teach are irrelevant. Rosetta Stone? Monthly fees for internet accessing with iPad ruled that out. But I also looked at lot of reviews and Brian quizzed a friend who has successfully learned several difficult languages. He told us not to buy Rosetta Stone and we left it at that.
Why Se Habla La Paz?
We had been here 1-1/2 months prior to beginning class and our vocabulary had increased exponentially just by necessity. But we still couldn’t understand much as everyone speaks so fast, mashing words together. Sounds like “blllldebllede”. What? We’d simultaneously look at each other hoping the other caught it. Nope. ”Repete por favor?” “blllldebllede”. Sigh. “Si?” we’d say, hopeful we got the right answer. Probably not the best method.
We wanted a real (not virtual) classroom setting to force us to speak, correct pronunciation and also to learn to conjugate verbs properly. Both of us like to know the rules for why something is so. We knew we needed constant, face to face interaction and we got it, in spades. We unequivocally learned more in 3 weeks than we ever could on our own. It is expensive, but for us, well worth it.
- Listening to our instructor speaking slow, enunciated Spanish for a few hours a day is extremely helpful. I wish I could get TV channels in the marina as I know watching soap operas would be truly educational (and awesomely entertaining), but alas the internet is just too slow.
- Learning tons of verbs and their conjugations seemed to be the main focus for beginners. This enables you to get your point across even if you don’t know all those filler words.
- Forced speaking. Enough said.
- Pronunciation. I am forever pronouncing “en” the French way rather than the Spanish way. The teachers catch even those seemingly (to me) minor differences that to them is like listening to a crow shriek.
Other side benefits:
- The real lowdown on tipping protocol from our teachers who are locals. Listening to gringos has misled us on a couple of these items (15% tips at restaurants, 10% everywhere else service-wise, no tips to taxi drivers or hairdressers, do tip grocery baggers as they don’t get a salary-important things to know!).
- Specific regional differences. A beer is not ‘cerveza’ it’s ‘cheve’ here in Baja, at least for the young people.
- Grammatical no-no’s. Never say “Yo” or “Nosotros” or “Tu”… since their conjugations are inherent there is no need. I say “Camino” not “Yo camino” to say I walk.
- Feedback from other English-speaking classmates…What to compare a word or phrase to in English…Or in thinking of ways to remember the meaning of a word or phrase.
- Classes progress at your own pace. The quicker you learn, the more they will teach. They also let you vary schedules so we took a week off before our last week. You may attend one week or multiples; 2 or 4hrs per day; group or individual classes.
- Excellent, caring staff. When my eye issue became an emergency, one teacher spoke to the doctor’s office to get her to understand my urgent requirements. Another actually drove us to the office and went in with us to verify they understood why I was there. Incredibly helpful. The instructors are very knowledgeable of English.
- Interesting and fun classmates. We met some terrific people with whom we have become friends in the short period of time we spent there.
After 3 weeks we have learned the present tense conjugations, the easy future form and some past tense (although that will take a while). We are happy to report significant progress in speaking and listening comprehension. I was luckily able to crudely communicate to the nurses during my hospital trip after 2 weeks. We finally are hearing vendors say "doscientos cuarenta y seis pesos" as an actual number (246 pesos), instead of gibberish. Most importantly, I can now ask for my iced tea without lime. It’s the little things.
Our confidence in speaking has dramatically improved, knowing that we are pronouncing words accurately and using the proper grammar. …Even if we are still spitting out phrases like a 2-year old!