Traveling – Speaking the Local Language

Traveling in another country is so much more fun if you
can speak the national language – even just a little bit.
If you can’t speak it, learning the language can become a
wonderful part of the journey. Here’s a suggestion for
your next foreign traveling event: begin your trip by
attending a language school in your destination country.

Years ago, my first trip outside the U.S. was to
Guatemala. I decided to begin by attending a language
school and then tour the country with a friend. I enrolled
with a Spanish language institute in the city of
Quezaltenango (nicknamed Xela) on a colleague’s
recommendation. This particular school boarded its
students with Guatemalan families, which appealed to me
because of the total immersion in the language and culture.

The adventure of traveling abroad was new to me then, and
I was happy that the institute had sent an enrollment
packet with very clear instructions. They assumed that I
spoke no Spanish, (a good assumption in my case, since two
semesters of college Spanish hadn’t quite made a
conversational expert out of me!). Arriving at the
Guatemala City airport armed with passport and the school’s
instructions, I made it through customs and out to the
street for a taxi. The driver read my note in Spanish and
drove me to one of the three hotels the school had
suggested. At the hotel, the desk personnel spoke English,
and I was soon settled for the night.

Next morning, I took the bus to Xela, and after the
several hours journey, watching the countryside change as
we rolled by, I arrived at the school ready to meet my
tutor, my host family, and start exploring the city before
beginning classes next day. It was exciting to be in
another country, all on my own and yet to have people
prepared to guide and assist me. It’s far superior to
using a Fodor Guide, and yet a bit more adventurous than
traveling with a tour group.

Each student had a personal Spanish tutor. We met for a
sit-down session every day, playing language games to build
vocabulary and having conversations for practice. For
lunch, all the students and tutors gathered to converse in
larger groups. Since we were there from around the world,
everyone used the one language in common: Spanish. Some of
the students were there only briefly, for a brush up before
continuing their journey. The tutoring cycles were one
week long.

Students like me who were continuing at the institute for
another week or more made weekend plans, with assistance
from the school if needed. One time, some of us rented
mountain bikes and traveled to a hot springs resort.
Another time, we took the bus to a beach on the Pacific and
stayed a couple nights. The language school ended up being
a sort of frame for exploring Guatemala. One of the best
parts of my trip was living with my Guatemalan host family.
By sharing meals and being involved with them in other day
to day activities, I had a sense of the culture that is not
possible to have from staying at a hotel.

At the end of three weeks, I said good-bye to my
Guatemalan family and my Spanish tutors, and connected with
my friend to travel together to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. I
was comfortable enough with the language by now that I
could get around, although I really wasn’t fluent.

We traveled in Tikal and Antigua and to Atitlan. These
are heavily touristed areas, and we would not have had to
speak Spanish. The people who worked with tourists
generally spoke far better English than I spoke Spanish at
the time. But it was more fun to speak the language of the
place, and it was the start of becoming fluent. Most of
all, my weeks at the school and with the host family were a
highlight of my travels in Guatemala, not a precursor nor
separate from the journey, and the experience enriched my
life, which is what travel is meant to do.