In order to travel deeper, to get more out of the experience, I have to dig. It means seeking. It means connecting. And when I find myself in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, my lack of skills automatically means my relationship with locals is curtailed. That bugs me. Behind the eyes of our landlord, the lady at the weekly food market or the friendly waiter, I can sense their lives – families, likes and dislikes, their dreams. It’s important for me to make that verbal connection.
Conrad and I have fallen deeply in love with Spain, so when we signed up for a one-week intensive Spanish language course in Barcelona, we were hoping for eventual better relationships with the lovely folks we have come to admire so much in Catalonia.
But what we got was so much more. Yes, we gained confidence in speaking Spanish, but our benefits went way beyond. Olé Languages was a fantastic resource for city information, socialization, and cultural understanding. I was quite surprised to find that these tiny privately-owned language schools offer a leg-up for travelers of any age, whether you take a one-day or multi-week course.
I knew language schools existed in other countries also, so I interviewed two travelers who attended classes – one in Indonesia and one in Guatemala – to find out if their experiences were as positive as our own.
Here’s what I found out:
- Language schools are inexpensive
- They provide low-cost housing
- Private classes are the best bang for your buck, and won’t break the bank
- Meet, study, and socialize with people from all over the world
- Language school owners fully embrace the sharing society
I also talked with Rosa Ribas Lience, owner of Olé Languages. The growing school, tucked in an office and shopping center just a few blocks east of Barcelona’s old city, is little-by-little taking over more space in the building. The center atrium has turned into the perfect gathering place for students and instructors. Rosa and I slipped into an empty classroom to escape the chaos. And just as an aside: the chaos and socializing in this school – and in Barcelona in general – always involves lots of kissing. Once on each cheek is the custom. When meeting, leaving, or anytime in between. I like it!
Ribas Lience, animated and passionate, explained that she started this school in 2005 and it has grown every year despite the economic downturn that hit in 2008. She admitted the growth was slow, but growth nonetheless. Here’s my favorite thing she said:
“We wanted to be one of the cheapest schools in Barcelona. We don’t want to be rich, we just want to do what we like. It’s better.” She also doesn’t want to grow too large because she’s more interested in “more simple and the human thing.”
Ribas Lience has set the tone at Olé Languages. During our week there, Conrad and I experienced quality language teaching, plus the bonus of meeting people from around the world, (our classmates came from Africa, Switzerland, France, Japan, Australia, and Germany), and tips on many aspects of Barcelona, from shopping, best neighborhoods, pricing, customs, (such as this: if a nightspot is called a “Club,” it means the establishment is all about sex. If you want to dance and listen to music, go to a “Discoteca.”)
The young people enrolled in the school socialized in the evenings, especially on Thursdays for a sanctioned event at a local bar. Several of them stayed in the low-cost apartments owned by the school. We all had a ball and were sad as the week came to a close. That same day, a group that had been together for an 8-week course, hugged and cried together with their four instructors, sad to be saying goodbye.
Jason Birchmeier, 30, just off completing his masters at Eastern Michigan University, decided it was a good time to explore South America before settling down. It was 2008. The stock market had just crashed and jobs were non-existent.
He also has good reason to get emotional when he talks about attending a Spanish language school. He met his future wife, Julia, at Sevilla Language School in 2008 in Antigua, Guatemala. Birchmeier signed up for lodging and private Spanish lessons prior to arriving in Antigua. His apartment there was in one of two houses owned by the school and Julia stayed in the other house. Since all meals served were communal between the houses, the two met. Julia, from France, didn’t speak English but had a good handle on Spanish, so the two became study partners. Their budding relationship was a great incentive for Birchmeier to learn Spanish faster so the two could communicate.
Jim Manheim, 57, says he was a self-motivated language learner. Traveling to Yogikarta, Indonesia frequently meant he needed to communicate. And since he’s even considering retiring there, learning the language was vital. What he found at Puri Bahasa School of Indonesian went beyond learning the language. One of the workers there picked him up at the airport. The owner of the school helped him through the bureaucratic chore of acquiring a new, longer tourist visa. He went on a school-planned walking tour to Borobudur, a famous Buddhist temple. And when he requested learning Indonesian slang, they accommodated that, too. Manheim still keeps in touch with his instructors and fellow students, writing his correspondence in Indonesian.
Jason and Julia Birchmeier, the two who met and fell in love in Guatemala are now three, with number four on the way, living in Texas. They both agree the quality of teaching at the language school in Antigua exceeded their expectations. They had a wonderful time there too, learning salsa or taking volcano hikes, all organized by the school. Birchmeier feels very strongly about recording his experience there and advises anyone who ends up at a language school, “Keep a journal or travel blog of your time in the school. It’s such a sweet memory and one of the most exciting times of your life. You discover yourself.”
If you go
Enrolling in a language school is as simple as a google search. They are abundant and the owners quick to respond, in my experience. Even if your travels take you quickly through a region of this wide world, a quick course can help immensely with cultural barriers. And if you can take a longer course, you never know, it may just change your life.
Wishing you safe and happy travels,