Español Edition 1: From Total Beginner to Tongue-Tied Attempts at Speaking Spanish
Do you need to know Spanish to travel in South America?
The short answer is no.
But you’ll miss out on many wonders of this beautiful continent without it.
Just think about how alienating it is, not being able to communicate. You can’t ask people about their lives; what they do for work, what they do for fun, or what makes them happy or sad. You can’t ask people about their town; the special places not in the guidebook, the best places to eat, or their dysfunctional political system. You can’t immerse yourself in the culture; the music, the art, or the customs.
Without understanding the language, you’re mute. You’re an observer. An outsider.
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
With that in mind, one of my goals for 2014, and in conjunction with moving to Latin America, is to learn Spanish. It only took me 20 or so years to grasp French… it’ll be a cinch. Let’s just say I’ve never considered myself particularly good at languages.
When we arrived in Olón, we were shocked by the lack of English locals knew. Having travelled Southeast Asia, we were used to people at least knowing a few words of English or trying to talk to us in a pseudo-sign language kind of way.
But in Ecuador, when we didn’t understand, people just kept rambling on in Spanish.
We didn’t know how to tell them we didn’t understand, so we just nodded or shook our heads. It was as if by continuing to speak to us we would absorb the language by osmosis.
But then again, why would they speak any English? They live on a continent of predominantly Spanish-speaking people, a language that also spreads into Europe — and for small town folk in these parts, English just isn’t necessary.
On top of that, the influx of tourism they do see is primarily local, coming from the mountain towns, big cities, and neighbouring Latin American countries to enjoy the beach.
Without even reviewing the basics of the language, we struggled to communicate at the most primary level. We reverted to pointing and hand signals to get by and immediately enrolled in the Montañita Spanish School through the recommendation of a friend.
Their claim to fame is that they’ve been voted one of the top 5 best Spanish learning facilities in the world, and we were about to put that to the test. We couldn’t even fill out any of the placement exam so we enrolled in the “introduction to Spanish” class — the level below beginner.
Bright and early on a Monday morning we showed up for our 8am class, paper and pen at hand, it felt like being back at high school. We signed up for a group class, but only one other girl was as bad as us, so we were only three. They brought us juice and fruit to jump-start our brains and we began learning the alphabet and basic words.
Each course is one week, Monday through Friday, with two two-hour classes per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Our morning teacher spoke English very well and was able to explain the things we didn’t understand whereas our afternoon teacher did not and much of the class ended up being a cross between charades and pictionary as we struggled to communicate.
The school sits on a hill, just up from the main road and provides a view over the small party town and cool breezes from the ocean on hot afternoons. They’ve built a full-service business out of the school, offering stays in their cabañas, surfing lessons, barbecues, sunrise yoga, and other optional day trips and activities — your entire itinerary can be booked through them, if that’s your kind of jam. We were only there for the Spanish school, and didn’t participate in anything else.
Our first week consisted mainly of learning vocabulary and we struggled to memorize the mass amount of words we copied down. Had we only planned on doing the one week, we would have at least walked away armed with the general gist of ordering food at a restaurant, asking for directions and explaining injuries and illnesses to a doctor. The classes were fun; we practiced a lot of pronunciation and actual speaking, so for the most part we enjoyed it.
The part we weren’t too keen on was the intensity of the course. Showing up twice a day was a bit much, especially if you’re trying to fit other activities into your day. On top of that, commuting from Olón meant riding the bus there and back twice daily. How are you supposed to fit in beach time AND work time with that schedule? Plus, you need time to practice on your own or remembering everything is nearly impossible.
Luckily for us, we met our new friends, and eventual housemates Will and Eliza, who introduced us to Outdoor Ecuador, a newly established company offering surfing, yoga, tours, accommodation options, and — Spanish lessons.
The kicker? They’re based one block from the beach, right in Olón.
I sat down with the lovely owner, Ivonne, to go over the logistics and I was immediately impressed. Their lessons last one and a half hours, once a day, and she used to teach at the Montañita Spanish School before starting her own operation, meaning the teaching would be legit.
Since we were only two people, we counted as a group class and got a great rate of $7 per person/ per lesson. This comes to a whopping $70 per week — a quarter the cost of a week at Montañita Spanish School. They even let us choose which time of day suited us best.
We signed up.
The classroom is a lovely open-air cabana in the Jardines de Olón and their giant powerful fan keeps you cool in the humid equatorial heat. Ivonne was away when we started so her brother Luis (and our surf instructor) took over our lessons. It felt like going to see a friend each day and you wanted to learn so that you could communicate better with him, despite his excellent English.
He always put in an extra effort when he saw us struggling and came up with exercises for us to practice. He pushed us to review our grammar lessons before class so we could come prepared with a basic knowledge of the day’s lesson and armed with questions we needed answered. He was patient and polite, offering us coffee when he made it and always making sure we fully understood what we were learning.
I loved learning with him and can’t recommend their school enough.
We were sad to say goodbye when we decided to move up the coast but promised we’d be back, which I’m certain we will.
Although Spanish lessons are essential for picking up the basics, getting out there and actually speaking the language is where the real learning lies. We decided to use the next while to take a break from the classroom and practice using the words we’d learned thus far.
Let me tell you, the transition from the classroom to the real world is hard.
People speak fast, they use slang, and they assume you understand what they’re saying.
The most important phrase for a beginner Spanish speaker is this:
“Por favor, ¿puedes hablar más despacio?”
Translation: “Please, can you speak slower?”
This is your friend. Otherwise, I’ve found people just speak louder and faster.
Another few important beginner phrases are:
“¿Como se dice … ?”
– “How do you say…?” Use this anytime you need to point to something, then you’ll know for next time what it is.
“¿Qué significa …?”
– “What does … mean?” When you don’t understand a word, ask this. Then a game of charades might ensue, but you won’t forget the word from then on.
-“Can you repeat that?” Sometimes I catch only half of what someone said and if I get them to repeat the sentence once or twice I’m able to understand the whole thing.
“No te entiendo.”
– “I don’t understand you.” I try not to use this too much because it kind of ends the effort of conversation. But then again, I don’t always want to talk to everyone.
I also like to carry around a pen and paper so I can write down words I learn while out and about and look them up later, or put them into my cue cards to practise.
After a month of Spanish school, I can say it was definitely helpful — especially if you speak zero, zilch, nada. Once you learn useful vocabulary, pronunciation and how to conjugate verbs, it gets much smoother from there.
Like the old saying goes, practise makes perfect, and immersing yourself in a Spanish speaking country is the best language school you can attend. I’m getting there. Despacio.
Do you speak Spanish? What do you think the best way to learn a new language is?