Habla usted Espanol?; Antigua draws students from around the world

Most people who come to Guatemala take a trip to this city in the shadow of the volcano Agua an hour away from Guatemala city. Antigua, once the capital of Guatemala, used to be a cultural center in Spanish America. Today, students of architecture admire the colonial ruins and tourists shop for Indian textiles.

My main purpose in spending four weeks in Antigua was to study Spanish at the Proyecto Linguistico Francisco Marroquin language center (PLFM). Shopping and studying colonial ruins were secondary. I was away from my US college on an independent study trip in Latin America and decided to devote four weeks to bolstering my shaky command of Spanish before spending seven more weeks traveling in South America.

PLFM offers individual instruction in Spanish, plus accommodations with a local Guatemalan family. The latter is designed to reinforce the classroom experience as well as to allow close contact with the culture and customs of Guatemala.

The price was a pleasant surpise to me. Four weeks of private instruction, lodging, and ample home-cooked meals cost only $325. At that rate, many of the students I met at the school stayed for longer periods, up to 10 or 12 weeks. And because a longer stay is not unaffordable, many who attend the school begin their Spanish at PLFM.

My own Spanish teachers in the United States, one of whom had spent a week at the school, encouraged me to attend. They said the best way to learn a language is to live in the environment in which it is spoken. As the school's brochure suggests, it is an opportunity to "immerse yourself."

I arrived in Guatemala City by plane and took a bus to Antigua, spending the night there. The next day I went to the school and was met by the English-speaking student adviser. She offered some hints about living in Guatemala, gave me a tour of the school, and took me to my first class.

From then on my environment was almost entirely Spanish oriented. My teachers (classes were switched around each week) spoke only Spanish, and I was forced to speak the language as well, no matter how halting my sentences were.

I managed fairly well, since I'd had over a year of college Spanish. But many other students at PLFM do not come with that background, and their first classes can be amusing.

"When I first came here I could only say hello and goodbye," remembered Peter Thomlinson, a 22-year old Englishman I became friends with. "The initial sessions mostly involved walking in and out the door and describing my actions."

I knew him at the end of his eight-week stay, and by that time Peter was capable of conversing with a Guatemalan, even confidently tossing in a few idoms. He had learned the verb forms, some of the finer points of grammar, and an adequate vocabulary. In short, he knew enough Spanish to start his new job in Panama.

The teaching technique is a mixture of different styles and varies from teacher to teacher. A typical day in class involved grammar instruction, reading aloud, practice drills, and occasionally even a trip to the local market. In addition, there was always a good share of conversation time.

That was the part I enjoyed most of all. It was thrilling to me to actually hear myself communicating ideas and concepts, not just patterned dialogues. For me, this was what made Spanish come alive.

The Same was true of the family experience, for once again I had to communicate everything in Spanish. Moreover, I felt a desire to talk to my family because I was accepted as one of them. I became part of their life, and I sensed a genuine interest on their part to learn about my culture.

Meanwhile, of course, I was busy learning about Guatemalan life.

Even middle-class Guatemalans have maids, and I was bothered at times by the treatment they received.

I ate the food and tried the vegetables for which I didn't even know the English name.

I had a small but comfortable room to myself, yet in no way was I isolated from the family's activities.

I later learned that at PLFM the quality of the family is carefully considered before students are assigned. Students are not sent to live with widows, for example, and the quality of both food and accommodations is an important factor.

The same holds true for the teachers in their own way; they must take special training courses in Spanish as a second language before and during their employment, and they become skilled in teaching grammar and in encouraging conversation.

This level of quality has brought in more than 4,000 students in seven years, and PLFM has made a number of expansions -- there are, for example, sister schools in huehuetenango and Quetzaltenango. And about 60 percent of the students are employed by institutions such as embassies and aid agencies, who consistently send students to PLFM for training.

Nevertheless, there are lots of students like me who want to learn Spanish or are travelling around the need to brush up on the language. PLFM was just right for me, and I feel that it is a good school for anyone who wants to work on his Spanish.

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