Selling Spanish Immersion: Why Guatemala?

By Jim Paluzzi
March 20, 2012
Photo courtesy Selvin Tumax
The San Pedro Spanish School in Guatemala.

SAN PEDRO LA LAGUNA, GUATEMALA — These days, the ability to communicate in Spanish can be a key asset in the job market. However, to speak with confidence, it often takes an immersion experience in a Spanish-speaking country.

Adult Americans are heading to Guatemala for Spanish immersion to gain something they could not achieve in high school or college Spanish classes: to increase their fluency in the language.

Why Guatemala?

When you think about Guatemala, you might imagine the land of eternal spring, where coffee plants cling to the mountains. You think about the jungles, where the Mayans built huge temples and developed intricate calendar systems in the land of jaguars and howler monkeys.

There's another sound that you can hear everyday in Guatemala, especially along the shores of Lake Atitlan, high in the Mayan highlands. It's the sound of Spanish being taught to students from many countries, including the U.S.

San Pedro La Laguna is one of the biggest towns on Lake Atitlan, in the Mayan Highlands – about five hours by tourist van from Guatemala City. The San Pedro Spanish School in one of the largest schools in town; the school can teach a maximum of 25 students in the morning, and another 25 in the afternoon.

Photo courtesy Eric Jones
Classrooms at the San Pedro Spanish School. There's only room for 25 students, because every student is paired with their own teacher.

This is not your typical classroom experience; the school has no conventional classrooms. The teaching is done outdoors under tiny thatched-roof shelters, just big enough for two chairs, a small table, a whiteboard -- and a spectacular view of the lake.

Ramón Peneleu directs the school. He decided to make his school an outdoor experience because students told him they wanted to learn Spanish in a natural setting.

“They want to be here, in Lake Atitlan, the Mayan culture,” Peneleu said.

One student, one teacher. Typically, you are with that teacher for four hours a day. You work on grammar, vocabulary, and conversation. And when you finish for the day, you go home to your host family.

This is total immersion.

Peneleu trains his host families for eight months to prepare them for taking in students. The training program covers cleanliness, food preparation for international students and student interaction.

“The host families, they understand now, it's not only about having students in their home,” Peneleu said. “They also have to be a member of their family.”

House mother Cecilia González Mendez prepares the food for her Spanish immersion students.

At home, all conversation is in Spanish, even if you're just a beginner. It's intense, it's exhausting, but it delivers results.

Alisa Selmer was raised in Dallas, completed a stint with the Peace Corps in the Caribbean, and came to the San Pedro Spanish School six weeks ago with virtually no knowledge of Spanish. She said the connection with her teacher was the big surprise.

“I didn't expect to form such a friendship with my teacher,” Selmer said. That is because so much of her learning came from the student-teacher conversations.

“The time together moves so rapidly because we spend three-fourths of our time just conversing about different issues and comparing cultures and countries,” she said.

Selmer is not alone. Foreigners are flocking to these schools to develop their Spanish language skills. In the 15 years since the end of the Guatemalan Civil War, the teaching of Spanish to foreigners has developed into a cottage industry. San Pedro La Laguna had only one Spanish school in 1997. Today, it has more than a dozen, in a town of only 12,000 people, where sidewalks take the place of streets, and where tuk-tuks take the place of cars.

In San Pedro, you can study with your private teacher for four hours a day, stay in a private room in the home of a host family, and eat three meals a day for a total cost of $160 a week. And that's for everything. Even the Mexican immersion schools cost more.

Walking around San Pedro is like walking through a theme park for Spanish students – they're everywhere. And when you're not in class, you're going on excursions with your teacher to the market, to the coffee plantations, or to nearby towns. It's Spanish on the road.

When you take your Spanish on the road with your teacher, you could end up anywhere. In this case: A two-mile hike and Spanish lesson on the road to San Juan La Laguna, a small village where local women have formed associations to make and sell their textiles. This is where you get to use your Spanish is everyday situations.

Their yarn is hand spun from raw cotton. It is then dyed from natural materials from tree bark, insects, or plants.

Then, the yarn is woven by hand, as it has been for hundreds of years.

Teaching comes from Mayan instructors who had to learn Spanish as their second language. Most Mayans are native speakers of one of the 22 Mayan dialects that are spoken in the country.

As a result, their accent tends to be more neutral and they tend to speak more slowly than in other Spanish-speaking countries. It's easier for learners to immerse in this environment than in places like Mexico or Argentina.

Can two or three weeks in a Spanish immersion school take you from ground zero to fluency? It's not likely. But if you have some vocabulary and grammar behind you, a few weeks of immersion can unlock the Spanish that's already there, and will help you learn more quickly and deeply than you might think possible.