Aquí, you will learn to habla Español

Down Mexico way, Spanish-language schools continue to pop up almost as fast as Internet cafes. People want to learn at least a modicum of Spanish for business or social reasons, or because they plan to live and travel in Latin countries for extended periods of time.

Even a week's worth of instruction will improve your ability to communicate.

In the artsy city of Oaxaca, the explosion of language schools also continues. The number has climbed into double digits, so what's the key to finding the right school for you? Price, type of instruction, credentials, location? With so many factors, it's good to know what you're signing up for and what each school offers.

If you're already in Mexico when you decide you want to enroll, it's easy to drop into the school and speak to the director. Most are accommodating about talking to potential students.

You'll want to find out what areas each school specializes in. Check out the atmosphere - is it serious, friendly? Do they emphasize grammar, conversation, or useful phrases?

If possible, chat with a few current students and see what they like and dislike. Many schools claim that half of their students come from referrals, so talking with the pupils can offer valuable insight.

When visiting schools, it's best to go late in the week, as instruction usually begins on Mondays and directors tend to be busier then.

Be upfront about how much Spanish you already know. Most schools give written exams (either the week before or Monday morning before classes) to determine a student's level.

Still, a written test should not be the only determination, which is another reason it is good to speak with the director ahead of time. Often a student will be more adept at writing Spanish than speaking, or vice versa, in which case a good school will weigh the various factors. It's not productive being stuck in a class where the instruction is too advanced or too elementary.

Many times the most learning takes place when there's good chemistry between the students and teacher. If things don't jell between you and the instructor, let the director know so he or she can make the appropriate switch.

In addition to the instruction, schools typically offer free cultural activities such as foreign-film screenings, lectures, and intercambios (typically a meeting with a local student who wants to practice English while you practice Spanish).

For an additional fee, most schools also offer excursions, cooking classes, salsa lessons, and the like.

Speaking of fees, most schools charge about the same, but it's wise to check their websites in advance for off-season specials and multiweek discounts.

Many people feel that the best times to take classes are mid-April through early June as well as September and October. During those periods, the schools often offer discounts and the class sizes tend to be smaller.

Although there are dozens of Spanish- language schools, here are some that I visited and you might want to consider:

Becari

The teachers at Becari are required to write lessons and plan instruction and discussions in advance. Every two weeks they have their material reviewed, so both the teachers and the students must study. Most pupils take Becari's intensive course, which consists of four hours of classes, five days a week, divided equally between two teachers.

I felt that one textbook lacked sufficient grammar examples, but I gave most of the instructors high marks. In conversation class, their Spanish chatter about topics such as families, sports, and food was almost always lively. One student told me that she signed up because the school was offering a good deal during May, so if price is a consideration it would be worth checking the website for any deals: www.mexonline.com/becari.htm.

Address: Becari Language School, M. Bravo No. 210, Plaza San Cristobal, Oaxaca, Mexico, 68000; Telephone/fax: 011 52 (951) 514 6076.

Soléxico

Since this is one of the new schools in town, the word has yet to spread about this top-notch outfit. But it's only a matter of time until it attracts as many students as it does at its first location in Playa Del Carman. The welcoming atmosphere and a gracious, knowledgeable staff make the school a sound choice. The patient teachers stress grammar by giving clear examples. One student from Miami mentioned that he learned more here in one week then he did in one month at a big, expensive language school back home.

The students and teachers meet each week for a café social where students and teachers practice their Spanish informally. Check out their website: www.solexico.com/new_site/solexico/ website/index.html.

Address: Abasolo #217, Oaxaca, 68000, Mexico; Telephone/fax: 52 (951) 516 5680.

ICC

One of the grandmothers of Oaxaca language schools, ICC opened its doors before it was fashionable to visit or live in town.

This school runs things a bit differently from the others. For one, it doesn't use textbooks. Teachers stress day-to-day language, idioms, useful phrases, and the like. If you're a person looking for exact structure in your learning, then this school might not be the best option.

On the plus side, students don't leave class feeling as though their heads are going to explode with grammar information.

Two beginning students said that coming to class didn't feel like a chore because they were having fun and learning simultaneously. The website is: www. iccoax.com/html/main.html.

Address: 307 Macedonio Alcalá Street,. Oaxaca, Mexico 68000; Telephone: 011 52 951 63443.

Amigos Del Sol

This school is all about structured language instruction. It publishes a spiral text/notebook, and the teachers stick to it.

The classes have specific goals. In the first 1-1/2 hours of a class, the teacher may concentrate on verb tenses, while the second half will be geared toward general grammar. The well-organized textbook makes a big difference to many students, as it helps them focus on the material.

As in the other schools, Amigos offers cooking and salsa lessons as well as intercambios and cultural discussions. It is one of the less expensive schools in town. Visit its website at: www.oaxacanews.com/amigosdelsol.htm.

Address: Ibres #109, C.P. 68000, Oaxaca, México. Telephone: 011 52 (951) 514 3484.

Oaxaca for visitors

Naturally you'll want to get out and about in Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) to practice the Spanish-language skills you've been honing in the classroom.

Fortunately, that's going to be enjoyable, since the city has a vibrant square, many interesting cafes where you can sample the local cuisine (see story below), anda number of intriguing museums and churches. And don't overlook the chocolate shops, where you can watch candy being made and even sample a piece or two.

Oaxaca is also known for its traditional arts and crafts, especially pottery. If you have a car, you may want to hunt for these in the surrounding villages where they are made. Another option is the lively Saturday trading day at the Mercado de Abastos, the largest Indian market in Mexico.

The heart of Oaxaca is the bustling Plaza de Armas, usually referred to as the zócalo. It's a great spot to sit and people- watch, strike up a conversation, or just watch the world go by.

If you're in the Oaxaca area for only a short time, two sights you won't want to miss are Iglesia de Santo Domingo, with its spectacular gilded interior, and its next-door neighbor, Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, repository of the remarkable Zapotec treasures from Tomb 7 in Monte Albán.

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