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Learn Spanish in Guatemala or Spain

Two Remarkable Yet Distinct Programs

Vejer de la Frontera, Spain
Vejer de la Frontera, on la Costa de la Lus in southern Andalucia.

My two different Spanish language learning vacations were as different as they could be.

During one I built mud-brick stoves and cement outhouses for poor indigenous people. I rode in the back of pickup trucks around hairpin turns on mountain roads to soak in steaming hot springs tucked into a luxuriantly green hillside.

During the other I sat in picturesque city parks; visited magnificent churches, mosques, and palaces; and watched in awe as black-hooded penitents proceeded in a religious celebration dating from medieval times. I was impressed with the oiled efficiency of a well-established, high-volume, international language school and lingered in the sunny courtyard of the elegant headquarters with new friends from Holland, Denmark, and Japan. I traveled by high-speed train to stay in a white-washed, sunlit town perched on a hillside with a view of verdant countryside and distant ocean.

As different as they were, both of these remarkable programs allowed me to dramatically improve my Spanish while living with local people and getting a feel for the country. Both of them also kept my bank account intact.

In Quetzaltenango, Guatemala (or Xela, pronounced "shayla"), I attended the Centro de Estudios de Español Pop Wuj (pronounced "pope-woo"). Unlike most language schools in Guatemala, generally located in the touristy town of Antigua and run solely as profit-making ventures, Pop Wuj is collectively owned and operated by a group of idealistic teachers. They use the profits and volunteer labor provided by the students to implement community development projects for local indigenous communities and fund scholarship programs for deserving youth. The result for students of this arrangement is a cozy communal atmosphere and the knowledge that you are doing more than simply boosting your language skills.

But language is at the forefront at Pop Wuj, regardless of whether you volunteer at an orphanage in your off-hours. Since the teachers own the school, they take heart-felt interest in the quality of the language training. All teaching is one on one, allowing teachers to calibrate instruction to each student’s level. I arrived with one semester of college Spanish under my belt and left speaking in the subjunctive.

The school offers four distinct programs: general Spanish language immersion, a supplemental excursion and cultural field trip program, a program for professionals in the field of medicine and healthcare, and another for those in social work and community development. The medical and social work programs, in their beginning stages, are a good way to learn specialized vocabulary and get some field experience in clinics, schools, and other institutions.

A major advantage to studying at Pop Wuj is its ease on the pocketbook. A week of tuition, including language training, room, board, and other school activities, is $160 to $175, depending on the season. The other programs vary in price, as does the registration fee, which ranges from $65 to $185 and is actually a mandatory contribution to a foundation that supports the community development projects undertaken by Pop Wuj.

The majority of Pop Wuj students stay with local families, which allows them to easily improve their Spanish and feel at home in Quetzaltenango. My host family had two boys with whom I played board games and shared funny stories. I learned a surprising amount from simply watching the telenovelas (soap operas) that their mother loved. Though the family was warm and welcoming, the showers weren’t. Fairly basic accommodations are the rule.

Guatemala Family
The family for which Kate and her fellow volunteers were building an outhouse.

A few years after my stay in Quetzaltenango, I decided to polish my language skills with a trip to Andalucía. Where Pop Wuj was the model of a community-oriented, values-driven school, the Centro de Lenguas e Intercambio Cultural (CLIC) was a paragon of business-like professionalism and efficient result-oriented training. I spent two weeks in the beautiful city of Sevilla and two weeks in a small coastal town called Vejer de la Frontera, learning Spanish in group classes and participating in numerous field trips, excursions, and cultural events.

A notable element of CLIC is its international student body. As a result of savvy marketing—the website appears in nine languages—and efficient organization, CLIC is able to attract students from all over Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere, particularly Japan. With Spanish as the only common language, students improve their language skills by communicating with each other. As many of CLIC’s classes are group sessions, it is easy to become friendly with other students in your classes and keep speaking Spanish with them outside the school. I took several weekend trips with two classmates from Germany, switching between Spanish and English as we toured museums and enjoyed picnics together.

CLIC offers a wide variety of class options, allowing students to tailor a program of study to their particular needs. The school also offers semester programs, classes for younger and mature students, and the possibility of studying in your teacher’s home or at the beach. The teachers are well-trained and enthusiastic.

The school keeps a full schedule of extra-curricular activities, which range from an evening of flamenco dancing to trips to Morocco. Students can participate in cooking classes, salsa lessons, wine tasting, visits to cultural sites, and trips to nearby towns such as Córdoba and Cádiz. Excursions outside the school generally cost extra, but all fees are affordable. If you are eager to see a place other than Sevilla, you can opt to study in the school’s Vejer de la Frontera branch. Though this option is not well publicized, I would recommend seeking it out for a nice change of pace; the town and the school are much smaller and have a cozier, less cosmopolitan feel.

Tuition varies greatly depending on the program, but in general it is remarkably cheap for the amount and quality of instruction provided. For example, two weeks of a 4-hours-a-day group class costs $390. Accommodation is as low as $114 a week to stay with a family. Students can choose between living in a shared flat, a CLIC residence hall, with a Spanish family, or renting an apartment from the school. n

For More Info

Centro de Estudios de Español Pop Wuj, Primera Calle, 17-72, Zona 1, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala; Tel./fax: 011-502-7761-8286. For all program, registration, and availability info: International Registration Coordinator, Jorge Archila, 011-502-5210-3739; www.pop-wuj.org, info@pop-wuj.org.

Centro de Lenguas e Intercambio Cultural, c/ Albareda, 19, 41001, Sevilla, Spain; Tel. 011-34-954-502-131, fax 011-34-954-561-696; www.clic.es, clic@clic.es. Download free brochures in seven languages.