The beginning of September has brought with it the sudden realisation that I’ve been in South America for seven months. Which means I’ve also been speaking Spanish for the same amount of time – or at least attempting to.
When I first arrived in Ecuador, I barely knew a single Spanish phrase. And after an initial burst of linguistic eagerness, I spent a long time avoiding most attempts at speaking the language. I often chose to lapse into English with my Ecuadorian host family because it was easier, and hanging out with other English people was never a recipe for Spanish improvement.
But more recently, it’s become an integral part of my travels through South America to strive for fluency in Spanish. Apart from anything, I’ve started to realise just how different it could make my experiences here, as a better handle on the language means deeper connections with locals, with more opportunities presenting themselves as a result.
So where’s my Spanish at right now?
After this long in the continent, I’d like to say I’ve picked up a pretty good amount of Spanish. The problem is, though, that the main language skills I’ve absorbed have been a plethora of new vocabulary. I know plenty of stock phrases and utilise a particular collection of verb conjugations on a daily basis; but the real meat of the Spanish language – the tenses, the grammar, the actual rules – has totally passed me by.
So despite being able to communicate with shopkeepers and taxi drivers, knowing how to ask for directions and making passing pleasantries, I’m still hankering after proper conversations. To be able to talk about my past or discuss my desires for the future; to get into a debate about politics or religion or global events; this stuff needs a deeper understanding of how a language works.
And I’ve realised that there’s only so much of a language you can learn by osmosis. Eventually, you simply have to sit down and study.
A pressing need to find Spanish classes in South America
Searching online for Spanish schools throws up a wealth of information, but it also proves just how tricky it can be to create a good environment for studying a language. My Google searches were strewn with negative reviews about lacklustre teachers, confusing lesson structures and clear differences in students’ abilities within one class; all issues that filled me with trepidation.
The last thing I wanted to do was make a commitment of time, energy and money to a place that wouldn’t help me with my Spanish skills at all.
But then I chanced upon Nueva Lengua, a school with three different locations throughout Colombia. From the outset, that enticed me in; I figured I could combine my studies with a bit of travel to different areas of the country.
Noticing that they also offered combination packages of lessons with cultural activities, volunteering, dance classes and home-stays was another bonus; here was a school that understood the importance of learning a language within its cultural context!
And so, fresh from the sticky heat of Santa Marta (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and filled with sadness at leaving the friends I’d spent the last six months with, I arrived in Cartagena, ready for a week of intensive Spanish classes with Nueva Lengua.
Week 1: Heading back to school – with a difference
Thinking about it, I haven’t taken language classes since I was sixteen, and sitting through GCSE Italian at school. There’s still a few bits of Italian left rattling around my head, but it’s all numbers, colours and descriptions of my house/family/cat.
From the outset of my classes at Nueva Lengua, though, I realised the basic premise they work on – something that seems so obvious, now I think about it.
They teach you how to use Spanish in the real world.
To set this process in motion, the staff at Nueva Lengua need to discern your level of Spanish. After completing a ten page test, filled with multiple choice and essay questions, I spent a good hour sitting in a room by myself and talking with Sirle, a Colombian woman who would later turn out to be my teacher.
Daunting, most definitely; but as I spoke, I could feel my brain adjusting to the constant stream of Spanish. Sirle fired questions at me so quickly that I didn’t really have a chance to think about my replies – and that, it seems, is one of the tricks.
The rest of my first morning passed in the same style. A tall Frenchman and a green eyed German guy wandered into our classroom, and together with Sirle, our teacher, we stumbled through a new and unfamiliar Spanish tense, hesitantly testing out the verb endings in various sentences – but it felt right. They’d managed to gauge my Spanish level perfectly, and while the class was hard, it was manageable. I could feel myself learning.
After a few hours, we were guided to the courtyard outside the classroom and welcomed by freshly brewed black coffee, a bowl of hot popcorn and the chance to meet the other students – who, I discovered to my delight, were almost all in the same situation as me. Travelling solo and eager to improve their language skills, but also keen to wander around Cartagena and experience the city properly.
Because I’d so recently made the switch from travelling with my friends to travelling alone again, I was worried I’d be left with a large amount of spare time on my hands – time that had previously been filled with infinite games of contract whist. But before my first day at Nueva Lengua had even hit the halfway mark, I was sitting in a restaurant with other students, ordering a menu del dia and discussing why we’d all decided to study in Cartagena.
The catalogue of reasons for studying Spanish abroad
One of the great things about taking Spanish classes in a foreign country is the amount of people you meet from all over the world. And there’s an impressive sense of resolution amongst such a group; nobody’s being forced to study, so it’s clear every person really wants to improve their language skills.
The reasons are multiple, too; some are moving overseas to Spanish speaking countries and want to get a head start, some are teaching, and others spend enough time travelling to understand the need for language skills. The more the better, apparently, as many of my fellow students at Nueva Lengua also spoke English as a second language, but significantly fluently.
And I think this was yet another push for me to try to speak Spanish as much as possible.
Because we’d all met through Nueva Lengua, once classes finished we ended up continuing the Spanish for as long as we could; through afternoons walking along the seafront, lazing on the nearby beaches and taking a chiva bus tour around the city. Our bus tour guide barely spoke English anyway, so it was much better to try and understand his Spanish commentary instead!
Surprise, surprise: I actually enjoy Spanish class!
My week of classes at Nueva Lengua in Cartagena passed much too quickly. Each day, we’d spend an hour or so working on a particular tense, integrate it into our ongoing conversation, and then actively discuss various topics of interest while focusing on using that tense.
But the things we talked about were so very, very different to the simplistic, boring information normally discussed at school. Your city, your house, where you go with your friends – all necessary vocab, sure, but it’s not the same as making up impossible stories about living in a lighthouse with penguins and needing food sent to you because you’re starving.
Involving a level of imagination is what makes the content of the lesson stick; it also forces you to introduce new vocabulary into your language skills because, well – there’s the dictionary, and you need the word for lighthouse.
My afternoons and evenings where equally enjoyable; a beautiful blur of wandering the humid streets, sipping ice cold fruit juices from friendly street vendors, and chilling in the plaza near to Nueva Lengua as night fell.
There’s a wonderful sense of community in Colombia, but Cartagena really brought it to life. Every evening, our local plaza was filled with people; whether dancing salsa, playing football, watching a film projected onto the side of the church wall or simply eating street food, it was clear everyone present was having a wonderful time.
Simply by being together.
In fact, the idea of community was so prevalent in Cartagena that I didn’t think Bogotá would be able to match it. But Zoe, a friend from Spanish class, had spent a month studying in Bogota and said she’d absolutely loved the Nueva Lengua school there, so I was very interested to see how the two places differed.
Week 2: starting Spanish classes in Bogotá
By the time I arrived in Bogotá, I’d experienced a week in the wonderful madness of Medellin, fallen even deeper in love with Colombia and its people, and was ready for more. I was also trying something new; instead of staying in a hostel, I’d been invited to spend the week at my friend Felipe’s apartment. Less visitor status, much more living like a local!
Despite being really excited to spend time with Felipe and let him show me Bogota on his terms, I was also slightly worried that it might mean I’d be more likely to forgo trips with other students at Nueva Lengua.
Luckily, I think I made exactly the right choice. While the others studying with me in Bogota were a lovely bunch of people, the city itself is so huge that it’s a little tricky to organise hanging out together – particularly when barely anyone has a Colombian phone number! The kind of casual arrangement to “meet in the plaza at 9pm” was much more easily done in Cartagena’s compact streets.
But the Bogotá school had its own merits, too; things that I didn’t feel were as prevalent in Cartagena.
The discussions we got involved in were fascinating; the structure of the classes was more intense and I felt like I was treated to a lot more hardcore Spanish – and I was taught by two different teachers, which gave me more opportunity to hear different accents and speeds of speech.
But the most important part of my experience in Bogotá with Nueva Lengua encompassed just a few hours: an event that made me certain I’d chosen the right school to learn Spanish with.
Volunteering with Nueva Lengua
On a Wednesday afternoon, a handful of students boarded a minibus and drove to the favelas on the edge of the city.
There, we carried bowl after bowl of chicken soup, and plate after plate of rice, beans and meat, to tables of hungry school children. They come to this church-run centre every day for a free meal, because their families are often too poor to provide enough food for for them.
After my experience with the poor communities in Medellin, I had no problem chatting away to these kids – and happily noticed a distinct lack of English in what I said!
But the situation they were in was still hugely impacting, and I was extremely grateful for Nueva Lengua providing the opportunity to see a side of Bogotá, and Colombia by extension, that a lot of foreign tourists may never see.
Standing on the roof of the building after lunchtime was over (the children having vanished as quickly as they came), we looked out over the crooked shacks, dirt piles, trudging horses pulling carts, and small figures flying kites in the distance.
Far off, I could still make out the skyscrapers of the financial district. Bogota is an undeniably huge city – and the differences between many of its citizens is equally undeniable.
But after we’d finished serving meals and had cleaned up the room, our group of foreign students-turned-volunteers sat down at the same tables, on the same plastic stools, and ate the same food as the kids.
Takeaways from two weeks at Nueva Lengua
The most important lesson I learned from my two weeks of Spanish classes was the ever emphasised need to just keep talking. Every time I thought my turn at speaking in class was over, Sirle asked another question, and before I had time to think I was formulating more information.
But taking Spanish classes at Nueva Lengua was about so much more than just learning the language. My time at the school gave me more of a push and more confidence in actually speaking Spanish. I watched my new friends speak effortlessly, and I wanted to emulate them.
And I think that ultimately, after the incredible impression Colombia had given me of itself, I wanted to extend the same courtesy; to convince cab drivers, waiters and street stall sellers that a great many foreigners actually make the effort to learn the languages of the places they visit.
Or that they spend their visits attempting such a learning process, at any rate.
Disclaimer: I spent two weeks studying Spanish with Nueva Lengua on their ‘Intensive’ program at a discounted price. But I’d recommend them regardless! For more info you can check out their website here.