Two Weeks of Spanish Classes with Nueva Lengua

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.

Sometimes Spanish can be a little tricky to comprehend…

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.

All of these guys know enough English to hawk their wares at tourists

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 perfect time to get some homework done!

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.

My daily morning walk to Spanish class in Cartagena

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 best way to learn different foods in Spanish? Take a cooking class!

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.

Ok… MY area of Cartagena was compact, anyway!

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.

 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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26 Responses to Two Weeks of Spanish Classes with Nueva Lengua

  1. Greg September 6, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    Wow – thank you for that incredibly detailed account. You have me motivated. My wife and I have been in Costa Rica for 3 months now and, like you, have picked up the odd phrase here and there and can buy food and make change but every time i get in a situation that calls for more, I feel like an idiot and a bad visitor. I think it is time for a more structured program. Thanks for the great post.

    • Flora September 12, 2013 at 5:39 pm #

      Great to hear you’ve been motivated, Greg! I think it’s really important to improve on your language skills, especially when you’re spending a significant amount of time in a Spanish speaking country.

      I think my two weeks of class has only proved to further my need for more Spanish, though – I’m about to start lessons in Bolivia now as well!

      • Maria July 3, 2016 at 1:37 am #

        How to find all these volunteering opportunities?

        • Flora July 3, 2016 at 4:39 pm #

          Through a lot of research, Maria! :) I usually look online to start with but often find places to volunteer once I arrive in a country too.

  2. Kay September 8, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    Your Spanish is fantastic! So good, in fact, that even the Brazilians could understand you :) Keep it up!

    • Flora September 12, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

      Thanks Kay :) they did seem to understand what I was saying, didn’t they!

  3. Colin September 10, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

    I saw your blog listed in a list recently and I really liked and enjoyed you sharing your Spanish lessons. Thanks again.

    • Flora September 12, 2013 at 5:41 pm #

      You’re more than welcome, Colin. Glad you enjoyed the article!

  4. Jade September 13, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    As always, another great post! I too also studied at Nueva Lingua in Cartagena, back in 2009. I agree with your comments, that their way of learning is more beneficial than other schools I have studied with. I would love to go back, your experiences in Bogota sounded amazing. I enjoyed my time there too but didn’t take further classes due to being limited on time.

    • Flora September 13, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

      I wish I’d had time to take more classes there, too – most of my fellow students were committing to at least a month of lessons and I saw straight away how much their Spanish was going to improve in that time! Still, there’s always the possibility of going back..!

  5. TammyOnTheMove October 10, 2013 at 5:33 am #

    Looks like a great language school. I am going to volunteer in Ecuador for three months next year and want to take intensive Spanish classes beforehand to. Do you know of any good schools in Ecuador? I am heading to Colombia after and no doubt will need to brush up on language classes, so will check Nueva lengua out,

  6. Rebecca Chant December 3, 2013 at 2:17 pm #

    Sounds wonderful! Will definitely look into it when I’m closer to leaving Asia :)

  7. Rob December 11, 2013 at 4:27 am #

    Interesting to read your comments about the troubles you had trying to find a school in Colombia. I had the same problem 3 years ago and is exactly the reason I created Study Spanish Colombia in which I list all the Spanish language schools in Colombia, as well as over 20 private teachers. We now help hundreds of students find classes every month.

    Anyway glad you found Nueva Lengua which is one of the schools we recommend highly too.

    Rob

    • Flora December 19, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

      Thanks for your insights into Colombian Spanish schools, Rob – although I didn’t really have issues finding a good school, but more finding a school that offered exactly what I wanted. Luckily Nueva Lengua were a perfect choice for me! I’ve removed the link to your site in your comment because it’s often seen as link spamming to include links in comments, though – if anyone wants help with finding spanish schools I’m sure they can Google search for your site :)

  8. necklace February 12, 2014 at 3:18 am #

    Can you tell us more about this? I’d care
    to find out more details.

  9. German (hermann, yeap ) March 18, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    I’ m happy to know you and many of your readers have experienced a juicy and interesting visit to my country. I contribute a little whenever i am able to, by being part of Servas, Higashi Minami in Asia, Couchsurfing, etc.

    So, if you guys feel like needing some tips or help (mainly in Bogota) just drop me a line to gaulloa2013 at gmail… (one needs to give back in a thankful way, and more, as in my case – where people all over the world had done the same for me or my family).

    Oh.. and Flora and others.. if you want to practice some spanish by Skype or Google confs…. I can be at your disposal some times (I m mostly available at notes GMT+5, since I work with asians, so I try to sleep during the mornings….)…

    Keep traveling this amazing world

    Arigatou! He He!

    • Flora March 20, 2014 at 1:03 am #

      Gracias por su ayuda, Herman! I’m sure many people reading this article will appreciate the gesture.

  10. Bennett September 5, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but after I
    clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr…

    wel I’m not writing all tht over again. Anyways, just wanted to say great blog!

    • Flora September 26, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

      Thanks Bennett!

  11. Kat January 20, 2015 at 7:21 pm #

    I searched reviews of Nueva Lengua before registering (to make sure they were a legitimate organization) and got so much more than that from your detailed post.
    Thanks – now I am less nervous and more excited!

  12. Mark October 23, 2015 at 4:30 pm #

    Hi Dora,

    That’s a great post, especially about giving back the respect to the locals that you make the effort to learn their language. Colombians really do appreciate the effort. It sounds like your Spanish school in Medellin was great also, I’ve been going to Colombia Immersion in Medellin. It’s great as it mixes Spanish classes in Medellin with actually living with other people who speak the language and people who are also learning too. I’d highly recommend it.

  13. Mark October 23, 2015 at 4:46 pm #

    Hi Dora,

    That’s a great post, especially about giving back the respect to the locals that you make the effort to learn their language. Colombians really do appreciate the effort. It sounds like your Spanish school in Medellin was great also, I’ve been going to Colombia Immersion in Medellin. It’s great as it mixes Spanish classes in Medellin with actually living with other people who speak the language and people who are also learning too. I’d highly recommend it.

  14. Anna February 12, 2016 at 5:43 pm #

    I enjoyed reading this article so much! It made me remember my latinamerican travels. I went to the Colombia Immersion school in Medellin, and also had the similar experience, with volunteerings, language exchanges, hanging out with locals, homestay and learning a looot about the colombian culture. I also enjoyed the school because it was focusing on talking and practicing instead of the classic spanish classes…. Here it is: http://www.colombiaimmersion.com

    • Flora February 17, 2016 at 9:49 am #

      Sounds like a great option for language learners, Anna!

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