Friday, August 5, 2016

Antigua, Guatemala: Spanish Language Schools

 
My Spanish school courtyard classroom. Antigua, Guatemala. April 2016.


There are dozens of Spanish language schools in and around Antigua.

Here are my thoughts on choosing a school, deciding on a schedule, and other considerations related to a language school.



School selection

In my not-so-humble-opinion, just about any of them will be good enough for most visitors to Antigua.

Yes, do check online reviews to weed out schools with a pattern of concerns noted by previous students.

Don't put too much weight on the number of AMAZING!!! reviews a school has from past students. There are just too many variables that contribute to such reviews, such as: 
  • Rating inflation, where people believe that anything less than FIVE STARS!!! is a fail
  • The desire to appreciate a teacher who was nice, notwithstanding other merits or demerits of the experience
  • Lack of comparison with other language-learning experiences 

If you're going to be in Antigua for longer than a month, then I recommend that you:
  1. Before arrival, weed some schools out, based on internet research; 
  2. After arrival, visit five or so schools so you can eyeball the environment yourself, get a vibe from the school administrators, and ask questions that are important to you; and
  3. Select a school, pay for one week, and then see if it's the school you want to stick with. If not, then move on to the next school on a short list you developed after your visits. After a week in the first school, you'll also have better questions in case you want to re-visit some others before making another decision. 

If you're going to be in Antigua less than a month: 
  1. Before arrival, weed some schools out, based on internet research;
  2. Before arrival, contact the school that seems to best fit your needs, and reserve a space for your first week (but do NOT send payment in advance); and
  3. After arrival, give the first week at the selected school a try.  If you know after the first or second lesson, it ain't gonna work for you, then hit the streets to find a different school you can start the second week. 
  4. Before paying for another week (or more) at a second school, book a sample lesson so you can make a more informed decision.

If you're going to be in Antigua only a week or two:
  1. Before arrival, weed some schools out, based on internet research;
  2. Before arrival, contact the school that seems to best fit your needs, and reserve a space for your first week (but do NOT send payment in advance); and
  3. After arrival, give the selected school a try.  If it's "good enough," then I invite you to just go with that. You're only in Antigua for a week or two. You want to have fun, and the time in school is just one part of your being in Antigua. Why invest more time and brain energy in hunting down an AMAZING school when what you've got is good enough? Instead, invest that time and energy in asking the teacher or the administrator for what you need to make your learning experience better for you. 
  4. If your first choice is unsatisfying and not fixable, then find a different school. Or consider changing your agenda and tossing out Spanish lessons altogether. Or reducing the number of class hours from what you'd originally planned.


Antigua, Guatemala - View from my school's rooftop terrace. April 2016.



Teacher selection

Actually, a school will assign you a teacher.

In my case, I appreciated my teacher's directness and we had quite a few provocative conversations that challenged both of us. When there was a time when I preferred that she share information with me in a different way, she accommodated me.

However, if I were generally satisfied with the school but not with the teacher, I'd not hesitate to ask for a different teacher. If, for some reason, that wasn't realistic, or if the school refused, then I'd simply go find a different school.



Schedule selection

For my month's stay in Antigua, I chose four hours in the morning, Monday through Friday.

If I were to do it again, I'd choose two hours in the morning, Monday through Thursday.

In theory, four hours a day of 1:1 language instruction should result in significant progress in language learning. But this theory assumes the student is vigilant about daily lesson reviews outside the classroom and is aggressive about tracking and entrapping native Spanish speakers in Spanish conversation. That student wasn't me.

Another factor in learning a language is accountability. When we're in a regular school or university, there are exams and grades and certificates awarded based on the achievement of certain levels of proficiency. In a language-school environment in which the student is the custodian of attendance, study, and progress, there is no motivating carrot such as a good grade or a certificate of proficiency.

So, for me, two hours of language instruction per day would be perfect, because every hour of instruction on top of that would provide only incremental progress.


Antigua, Guatemala - View from my school's rooftop terrace. April 2016.



Location

There are pros and cons to attending a school close to your accommodations.

My school was about a mile from my lodgings. There were a number of schools that I passed en route, one or two of them only a couple of blocks away from the airbnb.

I walked to and from school every day, although I could have taken a tuk-tuk.

The negatives to choosing a school so far from home:
  1. A 40-minute round trip walking commute every day. Even though this is wonderful exercise, there are opportunity costs in lost recreation, study, or work time.
  2. Daily negotiation through roads filled with school kids in the mornings and at noon. This isn't that big a deal by itself, but it does add to one's daily receipt of sensory stimulation, and this has a cumulative effect. 
  3. An earlier morning rise than you might want some days. 

The positives to choosing a school so far from home: 
  1. The 40-minute round trip walking commute was terrific exercise!
  2. Getting up early in the morning to walk to school - the schoolkid rush in the mornings is much less than at noon - and it was a pleasure to meander through parks when there were hardly any people about. 
  3. By walking every day, often varying my route, I encountered visual and audio sweets that I might not have otherwise.
  4. It was very convenient for me to do my food shopping after class, as the city market and the supermarket were fairly close to my school and only the slightest bit out of my way back home. There were no such markets close to my airbnb home, only the mini-markets with very limited inventories. 

Extras

Some schools add to their lure by offering "free" presentations or tours or cultural experiences. Eh. For me, these are kind of like "free" breakfasts at many chain hotels. For one, there ain't nothing for free - if it's a good spread, then the cost is just embedded in the price of your room. And some of the "free" breakfasts are very, very sad.

When it comes to the schools, it seems that some of the experiences are available to the public, free, and the school is just piggy-backing on these events. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, especially if the school has only a few students the same time you're there. My message to you is: Don't get too googly-eyed by the extras in your decision-making.

Homestays

Some schools will arrange for homestays. Depending on what kinds of experience you're looking for, I suggest considering the homestays that your proposed school offers, what other homestay opportunities you can find on your own (which could be much less expensive), considering an airbnb option, or renting an apartment if you'll be in Antigua for awhile.

Going with a school-arranged homestay could be great for you. On the other hand, you may find you like your homestay family but not the school. Or the reverse. How comfortable will you be about making a change to one and not the other?


Bottom line

At the end of the day, your learning experience will be largely what you make of it.

To maximize your satisfaction, I suggest you: 
  1. Define the over-arching goals for your entire trip to Antigua, not just for the language-learning portion;
  2. Do some research on realistic expectations for language learning with the time constraints you have; and
  3. Make an honest appraisal of the kind of student you are (not a projection of what kind of student you tell yourself you will be), including a realistic assessment of how much time and energy you will devote to language study and practice outside the classroom. 

Then hunt for a school experience that best matches up with the above.  Be clear about your desired outcomes when you talk to the schools.


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