Jerry Peek's Notes on Latin American Spanish Schools

I've studied Spanish at private schools in Central and South America. It's a great way to learn quickly. The classes can also be amazingly cheap: a month with a private instructor, including room and board with a family, cost me less than one month's apartment rent at home in the US!

When I meet people and tell them that I've gone to these schools, they often want to know more. So I decided to put this page on my website with notes that might help you. If you have any comments or suggestions about this web page, please let me know. (I'm sorry to say that I don't have a lot of time to answer questions — and it's been years since I attended one of these schools, anyhow! — so please try to find information other places first. Thanks.)
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This page starts with a long list of things to know, then has stories of the schools I went to, and finishes with a filled-out search box to help you find more information.

Things to Know

There are some cities and towns in Latin America where teaching Spanish is big business. Antigua, Guatemala and Quito, Ecuador are two of those. A lot of other places have a few schools. You can find these cities from general travel guidebooks as well as from listings on the Internet.
Many schools arrange stays and/or meals with local families. It's a great way to meet people and get into the culture. You can learn about peoples' lives by talking to them, and you'll often make friends. You typically eat whatever the family eats (though some families might cook separately if you ask; I'm not sure.) Be aware that living conditions may not be what you'd expect in the US or Europe. As is true anywhere, some families aren't very good hosts... schools likely screen their families, but you should ask. This is the kind of thing you can know best by visiting the school ahead of time. (See below.) You might also rent an apartment — though remember, again, that the standards may not be as high as you're used to. Finally, of course, you can stay in a hotel; they may have discounts for long stays.
Levels, languages:
The schools teach beginners as well as more-experienced speakers. Some also teach Quechua and regional languages. (In some parts of South America, you won't find many Spanish speakers. The other languages can be important if you want to spend time in one of those places — parts of the Andes mountains, for instance.)
How long?:
That depends on what level you start at and what you're trying to get: an introduction, improving your ability, or more. I had some Spanish in junior high; I attended my two schools for a bit less than a month each. They made a huge difference in my ability. If you're used to foreign languages (if you're European, for instance), even a week should be enough to get the basics for traveling around Latin America. If you've never spoken a foreign language, you'll probably want more time. Your school can advise you; they may even give you a mini-exam over the phone (see notes below about phone calls).
Private vs. group:
Many schools are one-on-one, where each student has his or her own instructor; others have small (or large) classes. The advantage of a private class is that the instructor can go at exactly the pace you need — which is important if you already know some Spanish (and especially important, I think, if you learned your Spanish on the street rather than by learning its formal grammar and sentence structure). A small-group session has its advantages, though, because you can practice with other people, hear their questions (and the answers), and make more friends. Some schools mix individual and group instruction.
Price vs. quality:
The prices and the quality vary a lot from country to country and from school to school. For instance, prices in Mexico tend to be pretty high; prices in the next country south, Guatemala, are much lower. Also, the expensive schools aren't necessarily the best! Some small schools are run by a dedicated and caring staff — say, a group of college students or school teachers who are trying to make some extra money — and you may find these schools only through word of mouth or by searching the Internet for reports from former students.
The school's owner:
Some schools are owned by organizations that use the profits to benefit their (rich?) families. Other schools are owned by, say, a group of locals or students who use the money to help their poor families, to put themselves through college, and so on. The school I went to in Guatemala, Francisco Marroquin, used their profits to fund projects to document and preserve Guatemala's native languages and culture. Some schools do more than teach language: they want to make you more aware of their country's culture. (Centro Maya de Idiomas is one of these.)
Course variations:
Schools vary a lot. Some are formal, some aren't. Some let you tailor your program to whatever you want (literature, Latin American studies, conversation, etc.); others have a fixed program. Some do lots of field trips and make the effort to introduce you to the culture of the country; others just do Spanish. The instructors may rotate, week-to-week, to give you experience with different teaching styles and strengths. Most of the schools I know are private, not associated with a university... though some can get you university credit.
Regional variations:
Just as the US has different regional accents, so do countries and parts of countries in Latin America. For instance, Mexicans pronounce ll (as in calle, which is Spanish for "street") something like a "y" in English. But in some other parts of Latin America and in Spain, the sound is more like English "sh" or "zh". Also, just as the British use some different words than Americans do (when Americans talk about their "pants," Brits giggle), different countries use some different Spanish terms. For instance, in Mexico a bus is a camión, but it's an autobús in Colombia. As another example, in Spain the vosotros form of verbs is used all the time, but in Mexico it isn't. So, if you want to learn Spanish to live or travel extensively in a particular area, ask your school about the dialect and pronunciations they'll teach you.
Finding a school in advance:
Many schools these days have websites; some of those are also linked from central listings of language schools. Some schools have representatives in the US or Europe; you can sign up through the rep without the hassle of trying to confirm classes through the (usually awful) postal system or the Internet. In all of those cases, though, you may pay a lot for the extra staff and advertising — and you won't know whether you like the school until you get there! A travel guidebook (like the Lonely Planet series) may have listings, but they usually give few details. There are lots of smaller/cheaper schools that don't advertise, have websites or international reps; they can be every bit as good or better than the big schools, and a good way to find them is from other students — or, even better, by going to the city and asking other travelers. (There may be new schools that aren't listed anywhere yet.)
Finding a school in person:
Unless you have just a short amount of time or you're going at the height of the season, it's better to pick a city and go there to choose your school in person. (This works in both Guatemala and Ecuador; I can't say for sure about other places. You could find out by calling or emailing several schools to ask about their enrollment policy and whether they usually have space available.) That way you can see the facilities, meet instructors and staff, and learn about the different teaching arrangements that various schools have. You may be able to meet homestay families and choose the one you want. Possibly most important, you can ask other students (at the school, or as you see them around town in the plaza and etc.) what they think of their schools. The idea is to get to the city in the middle of the week before you want to start the classes. Some schools start new sessions every week; some will even start you the same day you stop in, if you want to. After you pick a school, you can do some sightseeing around the country while you wait for your classes; maybe the school will even let you join their activities before your classes start.
Pay weekly:
You may not like your school or your instructor. Try to find a school that will guarantee you a spot but let you pay for only the first week (or even less) up-front.
Try phone calls:
A lot of schools have email, but not all do. You might want to phone some of the schools to talk to them "live." (If you don't speak basic Spanish, having a Spanish phrase book — which you'll need for your trip, anyway — can smooth the way.) Phone calls to countries like Guatemala aren't always cheap, but the cost is low compared to the cost of a week of lessons! Doing this can help you narrow down your final choices by talking to people at the final candidate schools. There are plenty of cheap international calling services — but be careful that yours doesn't charge a bogus "connection fee" or have other restrictions that won't fit the kind of calling you want to do (a lot of calls for a week or two).

Schools I Attended

Here are stories of the schools I attended in Guatemala and Ecuador.

Antigua, Guatemala

I read about the Francisco Marroquin school in an airline flight magazine. They have a great reputation, certify Foreign Service officials' language skills, etc. So I signed up in advance. They do everything in Spanish, from the first day. My host family didn't speak any English. The town was beautiful, set in the middle of the Guatemalan highlands with huge volcanoes on the horizon. Antigua is a destination for tourists from all over the world, so the government seemed to keep Antigua safer than some other places in Guatemala. (I went while the long civil war was still raging; things have calmed down some since then, I think. But I went more than ten years ago; you should check before you go.)

I signed up for all-day classes: seven hours of one-on-one instruction. It was really intense and exhausting... then there was homework to do. Still, if you're like me and you want to get into Spanish quickly, all-day classes make the best use of your time. By the end of the third week, I was carrying on regular conversations with my teacher. I was really impressed at how fast immersion can help you learn.

Because Antigua is in the mountains, the weather was comfortable.

I spent my last ten days traveling around Guatemala on my own (and with friends, a few days, too)... going to remote mountain villages, out to the fantastic ruins at Tikal, to the Caribbean coast (near Belize), etc. I loved riding local buses — crammed full of people, chickens, market produce, whatever — cheap and unhurried traveling, with no fixed schedule (the buses may leave when they're full, or when the driver feels like it). I had a really good time, and my Spanish got me through. The whole trip — five weeks, including classes, room and board, and traveling around — cost me something like $1000 US. (I used a frequent-flier ticket to get there.) Guatemala is really cheap, and it's the experience of a lifetime. Unfortunately, it can be dangerous once you get out of tourist places.

There are also schools in Xela (the official name that you'll see on maps is Quetzaltenango, but everyone calls it Xela, pronounced "SHAY-luh"). Xela is grittier and more "real" than Antigua. I don't know if there are schools in Guatemala City, the capital, but I'd avoid it: it's a tough, dirty place.

Quito, Ecuador

Ecuador is more developed than Guatemala. Quito (the capital) has a lot of Spanish schools. One advantage of studying in Quito is that it has an office of an organization called South American Explorers. They store your luggage, give referrals to homestay families and other places to stay, share information about schools and out-of-the-way places in Latin America, etc. They can also advise you on security, which unfortunately can be a problem in Ecuador (as in many third-world countries). Their advice may be more savvy than the super-cautious travel advisories from, say, the U.S. Department of State.

I found a host family through the SAE before I found a school. The family had three or four private guest rooms in back of their home; guests had our own bathroom (and a hot shower!). This was a nice arrangement because I had privacy... but I didn't get as close to my host family as I had in Guatemala. The guests still ate meals with the host family, which was nice. The man of the house was an incredibly interesting guy with lots of stories; he also grilled us on Spanish words and had us write stories that we told the family at meals.

I started with a small school owned by a few college students; they were glad to have me as a student and really bent over backwards to help me. Unfortunately, I didn't like their teaching materials (I like to read my lessons, not just converse) so I ended up changing schools after a week. The new school (recommended by my host family; I think the owner was a relative) was much more businesslike, set in a modern office building, with a rigid curriculum. It wasn't as flexible as I wanted, but the quality of instruction was high.

Ecuador is right on the equator. Because Quito is in the mountains, the weather was comfortable. Cities near the coast, like Guayaquil, are hot and humid.

As in Guatemala, by the end of a few weeks in Quito, I was amazed to be able to carry on a non-stop conversation with a local guy I met at a bar: for an hour or more, we discussed politics and life in our two countries, and we understood each other well. Some nights I even dreamed in Spanish!

Search for More Info

There are lots of websites listing Spanish language schools, but they tend to be for-profit sites that list only some schools. So here's a search box to start a Google search for school info. You can change the terms in here by clicking on them and typing what you want; for instance, change Guatemala to another country's name. Use your browser's "Back" button if you want to come back to my page.


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Last change: 21 July 2010

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