Spanish courses in South America: a student’s experience

Spanish courses in South America

Brushing up your Spanish. Short, intensive, intermediate refresher courses in Spanish in South American locations are my topic. I should like to thank my school and the host organisations for their support.

National trends can strike anywhere: at my school, pupil interest in Spanish has grown. One Spanish class in my timetable (mainly German and French) in one year became four the following year. I had already attended short courses in Spain to improve my Spanish. Our textbook (Español mundial) incorporates much material on Latin America: it was time to go. This article aims to help other teachers in a similar position and Heads of Department in choosing a course. Before you stop reading on the grounds of cost, consider: travel to South America is expensive, but once you’re there, it’s cheap.

Which centre?

As a teacher of KS3 Spanish, I wanted a good, general-purpose course. The Canning House list contained many commercial schools: university-run courses seemed unsuitable. More centres had UK representatives than had been the case for Spain. I decided to spend Easter in picturesque locations in the Andes: Cuzco, Peru (alt. 3,310m, pop. 275,000) and Quito, Ecuador (alt. 2,800m, pop. 1.5 mil.). Bolivia would have involved greater travel cost and time.

Quality control

This appears to be lacking in Latin America. The Ecuadorian and Peruvian Ministries of Education issue operating permits for Schools of Spanish as a Foreign Language, but these are not a seal of approval. Plans are supposedly afoot to establish a U.S.-based system. Greater Quito reportedly has between 70 and 150 “Spanish Schools” (some of very dubious quality): teaching of Spanish to foreigners started there in the mid-1980s. In Cuzco it is a much newer business: the Páginas Amarillas 2001-2002 list under Institutos de enseñanza de idiomas some six centres. Cusqueños wanting to start their own approached me for advice. All schools mentioned below belong to a well-established international group. Links with Western European or U.S. organisations seem the best indication of consistent quality and facilitate booking and payment.

Getting there

Travel seemed to require informed help. I contacted by e-mail and fax specialised agencies suggested by friends and travel guides: most seemed able to respond only to telephone calls. Journey Latin America made my bookings – since they had introduced sales by e-mail the number of teachers among their customers had apparently increased.

Less Stress We teachers do not suffer from an excess of leisure. All the language centres can be booked on line. Language holiday travel agencies provide a comprehensive package including tuition, accommodation and travel. There are several, including Cactuslanguage, founded in 1998 by Rich Ambler and employing enthusiastic linguists, which offers Spanish with emphasis on Latin America; Spanish Study Holidays Ltd has a wider choice of Latin American centres. The price will be higher, but the hassle, less

My teaching hosts

LatinoSchools is managed by Diego del Corral and members of his family and was founded by his parents. The del Corrals are much respected by students for high standards and tireless promotion of Latin American culture. I spent one day at the LatinoSchools Cuzco and four days at LatinoSchools Quito, the HQ. In Cuzco I sat in on various classes, all of one student; in Quito, I was offered a very intensive course, tailor-made to my needs, with one teacher. I also participated in the viewing of a video (part of Los Miserables) and a student discussion.

The teaching

They offer a teaching week of 20 lessons (=4 per day). Students can opt for one-to-one tuition (more expensive). Courses start on Monday with a test de nivel, an introduction to the school and a tour of the town. The teaching is a mixture of communicative and grammar, often using textbooks and other materials produced especially for the organisation in question. One class was introduced to giving and understanding directions and then went into town to practise. Whiteboards, cassette players and VCRs were available at the centres I visited. Teacher effectiveness is monitored carefully. At LatinoSchools in both locations classes often consisted of one or two students. Flexible responses to student needs were the order of the day, particularly at LatinoSchools. During the high season (see below), I was told, classes tend to be larger (max. 4 at LatinoSchools) and sometimes take place in the afternoon. Extra-curricular activities, which are always available, including visits to museums, dancing (the salsa classes were very popular), culture and religion, are more varied then. Excursions go to destinations such as Machu Picchu and the sacred valley of Urubamba (from Cuzco) and the Mitad del Mundo (0′ latitude, just north of Quito) and Cotopaxi National Park (from Quito). Many students also undertake longer trips, such as Lake Titicaca from Cuzco and the Galápagos from Quito.

Language enrichment – or confusion?

In UK schools, Iberian Spanish tends to predominate. Would a stay in Latin America prove problematic? Various people told me that in Spanish-speaking Latin America the biggest linguistic difference was between the mountains, where there was generally a higher standard of spoken Spanish, and the coast. One common phenomenon in Latin America is the elision of the final -s in plurals, which is supposedly more prevalent in lower altitudes. In both Cuzco and Quito, the theory was aired that the easier life on the (tropical) coast made people sloppy speakers, whereas the rigours of mountain life made the population more hard-working and careful. My two stays in Lima were too short to draw any conclusions. In Cuzco and Quito, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I could understand and at the relatively few local words that came my way. In Cuzco, I noted app. 20 such items in the teaching at the two centres I visited; a fluent speaker of Iberian Spanish would undoubtedly have identified more. Many concerned clothes and food, where pre-Colombian habits live on. Examples were: chullo=woollen hat; durazno=small peach; maní=peanut; palta=avocado; chévere (Ecuador)=fab. More problematic were words comprehensible to both varieties but used only in one. alcaldía=ayuntamiento; basurero=papelera; carro=coche; papas=patatas; paradero (Peru)=parada; parqueadero (Ecuador)=aparcamiento; plata=dinero (colloquial); ubicar=colocar; una vía=sentido único. The “vale” so universal in Spain was lacking, but “claro” was a frequent response. An interesting sideline was the Andean pipes: “¿Cómo se llama eso?” seemed each time to elicit a different word: rondador, zampoña, piripitaña. The links between LatinoSchools and Enforex do not include common teaching materials; LatinoSchools use some from Spain but mainly teach the local variety.

The students

Those attending such schools are extremely varied, in motivation, national origins and age: the range was 18-80, but most were in their early/middle 20s. At the centres I visited there were British learners and a U.S. contingent, particularly high at LatinoSchools Quito. Dutch students were also noticeable at LatinoSchools Cuzco, but not at LatinoSchools Quito.


The centres I visited combine language classes with voluntary community work. Students I met had gone to old people’s homes, kindergartens (notably Quito), an orphanage and a centre for children with Down’s Syndrome. At LatinoSchools Quito there are a children’s literacy project and environmental and cultural programmes.

My private hosts

One motivation for hosting is contact with the outside world, especially for the hosts’ children. In Cuzco and to some extent Quito, middle-class families apparently often have financial difficulties, and accommodating students can help. Older couples whose children have left home also appreciate the company. Most families have a female servant who undertakes the cooking and cleaning. In both Cuzco and Quito, families with whom I stayed seemed to speak good Spanish and provided a Spanish-English dictionary. In both my rooms, I had a table and chair, but in many homes these were not available in the bedrooms. Subject to family requirements, I had access to a computer. LatinoSchools Quito claimed one or two per household. There was one other student in my LatinoSchools family in Quito. Homes within walking distance of the centre are rare, but location does not matter much: taxis are ubiquitous and cheap, costing on average 50-60p for a city. Public transport in Quito is good. Quito is a big city with an established hosting network: with great relief I wallowed in the regular supply of hot water and my own TV and video. I learned the addresses of both my families well before departing.

Communicating with host families

A problem with many such international living experiences is the hosts’ desire to practise their English. The families I experienced must have been briefed thoroughly by the centres, because neither other students nor I had problems in this respect. In both my families it was the mother who set the tone, which was welcoming and entirely in Spanish. When it was socially and practically possible, family members helped me improve my Spanish, and I observed similar behaviour with other students. In Cuzco I learned from my hosts’ four-year old daughter Lucero the Quechua word ¡achacau! (ouch!), as well as much Spanish vocabulary revision as she helped me unpack: ¿Qué hay más en tu mochila?, and we played computer games. One memorable experience was on Easter Friday, when the extended family celebrated the feast of Los doce platos, in which each of the apostles was honoured by a different dish, including sopa de machas, sopa de lizas, crema de maís, arroz con leche, dulce de níspero, dulce de durazno, crema de chuño y moraya, empanadas and pan torta. My family in Quito was equally welcoming: four-year-old Nicole devoted much time to educating me, including evenings watching and discussing Shrek and Snow White in Spanish.

When to go?

a) Language Schools: Opinions differed on when exactly high and low seasons are, but late June to early September was agreed to be the core high season.

b) Weather: South of the Equator the seasons are inverted, but at 3,000 metres it doesn’t matter much. My Cuzco stay coincided with the end of the rainy season, which provided occasional showers, several nights and one morning of steady rain and spectacular views of the mountains. During both seasons it can get cold at night (3-10°C) but during the day it is generally mild (12-20°C) in the low season and cool (6-12°C) in the high season. Quito is known as the city of eternal spring, with an unpredictable mix of sun, cloud and rain throughout the year. In the high season there is often more wind and less rain. Daytime temperatures range from 14-26°C, at night, 8-10°C.

Health and Welfare

Much was talked in Cuzco about “El Soroche” (mountain sickness), involving headaches, dizzy spells, breathlessness and stomach upsets. I experienced occasional mild headaches, but students I talked to agreed that on arrival a day of rest and lots of mate de coca (coca tea) were advisable. The topic is non-existent in Quito. Much was said about unsanitary food. In my (and all) host families, the food was plentiful and safe, if a little limited in scope. Careful choice of eating venues can reduce the danger. Many students told me of diarrhœa, often due to buying food from street vendors, but in one case the result of eating rancid butter on an internal flight. Smoking is virtually unknown in either country, but both cities are surrounded by mountains and tend to retain traffic fumes: catalytic converters are allegedly removed from cars in order to decrease fuel consumption. Security problems tend to be greater in Cuzco in the high season: criminals apparently come in from Lima. In Quito, criminal activity is increasingly frequent, especially in the casco colonial.

Back in the classroom

English children need reminders that Spanish is a world language; revision of hispanophone countries in Latin America was a natural curtain raiser to talking about my journey. My pupils were not pleased to learn that their efforts in learning ordenador would be unrewarded in Latin America: they preferred computadora. My school bristles with interactive whiteboards, and my digital photos proved popular; for my Year 9 group they were combined with revision of the preterite, and for my two year 8 groups, with its introduction. Discussions with the Geography Department had led me to take and show photos of the Pacific coast, volcanic scenery and La Mitad del Mundo. From KS2 my classes brought with them knowledge of pre-Colombian civilisations, including interest in the Incas and the conquistadores, which allowed me to show and explain in Spanish digital photos of the architecture of Cuzco, Machu Picchu and the casca colonial in Quito. Even more popular were the realia I had brought back. “¿Quién sabe tocar un instrumento musical?” found volunteers to try out the Andean Pipes of Pan I had acquired in Cuzco. The digital photo of guitars made of armadillo shells on sale in the market in Otavalo, north of Quito, allowed reinforcement and sparked debates on animal welfare. The Ecuadorian garments I had bought in Otavalo and Cotacachi, a leather goods centre, were tried on with enthusiasm. They gave a chance to revise clothes and materials vocabulary: un gorro, una chaqueta en ante, una rebeca en lana de alpaca, una pulsera (much appreciated in a girls’ school), with revision of colours. The pièce de résistance was undoubtedly four rugs in similar colors, but with differing patterns, all still linked together by threads left over from the weaving. It took four children to hold them up for the classes to describe. One pupil summed up: “Sir, you want to go back, don’t you?”