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Learning Spanish in Mexico City

Learning Spanish in Mexico City main image

Guest post: Darren Loucaides

When it’s raining in your home city yet again and the metro has ground to a halt for the third day running, upping sticks to spend time studying and living abroad in some far-flung destination can seem like a glamorous option. But the dream escape can fast become a nightmare if you’re not careful.

First, there’s the different climate (“20C at 11pm and merciless mosquitoes; how am I meant to sleep?”). Then, the initially alluring cuisine might turn on you (“How many chilies are in this? My mouth feels like a nuclear testing site”). And there’s also the potentially bewildering new culture to get used to (“Why do people keep ignoring the rules and calling me ‘guerro’?”).

One essential for adapting swiftly to your new home is, of course, to start learning the language. My first action on arriving in Mexico City was to seek out a Spanish language school – there are several – so as to be speaking the lingo, or at least be able to ask where the bathroom is, as quick as it would take to devour a taco (well, maybe not that quick). I preferred an independent outfit to a big international chain, and after shopping around, I decided on Frida School.

Learning about culture & language together

Named after the iconic Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, this small language school opened in 2001, and is situated on Avenida de los Insurgentes. At 30km long, running all the way from the north to the south of the huge capital, Insurgentes is said to be the second longest road in the world (it’s worth taking the zippy Metrobus that runs along most of the route for a glimpse of one end to the other). Although Frida’s particular stretch of the thoroughfare is noisy and hardly pretty, immediately to the west is the leafy, bar-packed Condesa, while to the east lies up-and-coming Roma boasting a mix of cheap family restaurants and hip locales.

My teacher for the first week is Michelle. Always smiling and joking, she’s a bubbly bundle of joy, and yet manages to etch into the minds of all six students in my class – including a Brit (me), a German, an Austrian, a Dutch and a New Zealander – table after table of present and past tense conjugations, including all the main irregular verbs. Within a few days we can say what we’ve done today, ask important questions – "¿Hay una buena mezcalería cerca de aqui?" – and discuss our likes and dislikes.

Frequently digressing to talk about subjects as diverse as matriarchal villages in southern Mexico and her country’s obsession with death, Michelle’s approach typifies the school’s ethos: to provide an understanding of the culture and teach the language quickly, while also maintaining rigorous attention to the rules.

"We aim to teach as fast as possible but with exceptional grammar," says one of the school’s directors, Gerardo Lopez. "The idea is that students will learn about Mexico, but also be able to communicate in any Spanish-speaking country."

Confidence building & cultural trips

For my second and third weeks, my group graduates to a slightly more advanced class taught by Héctor. His approach is less playful (at least in the classroom), but by the end of the second week I’ve learned another past form and when to use each one, I possess a much better grasp of prepositions, and am getting to grips with correct syntax. Like Michelle, although he can speak English and some German, Héctor teaches only in Spanish, but in such a way that's completely comprehensible to a newbie and thus builds confidence.

Dividing the day between a grammar-and-vocab-heavy morning, and a conversational post-break 90 minutes, Héctor is by the third week engaging us in discussions of Mexico’s infamous ‘narco’ trouble, the success of the city as a fully functioning megalopolis, and the principal linguistic differences between the different Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America.

Fridays feature cultural activities after the coffee break. One is a visit to Casa de Toño, known for its home-cooked style courtesy of the women chefs, where we all eat pozole, a rich maize soup containing offal and pork scratchings. For another outing, Héctor drives us to the illuminating Desierto de los Leones, a forest amidst the mountains on the city’s northern edge with a fascinating 17th century monastery.

Frida draws many different nationalities. Two Brazilians join in our third week, and are one of the most common nationalities after German, American, and French, while there’s also a frequent intake of Japanese students. An initial test determines the student’s level, after which they’re placed in a basic, beginner’s or intermediate class.

One of the most difficult balancing acts, the teachers tell me, is accommodating new students into the class without repeating the same material. The solution is to teach in a circular direction so that students can arrive at any point and immediately be picking up useful tools. In any case, I found revisiting the imperfect past two weeks after being introduced to it, a useful test of how deeply the information had sunk in.

Many students also opt for intensive classes before and after the group lessons – which never exceed six students, in my experience – affording one-on-one time with the teacher to focus on problem areas.

Once upon a time Frida was a hostel; some students still take up accommodation here. Apparently it grew into a school to answer travelers’ continuous demands for a good Spanish school in a central location. Frida’s decade-plus tenure and full subscription are testaments to how well it has fulfilled this remit. As for me, I don’t leave the school fluent, but Mexican friends are astonished at my rate of progress. From zero Spanish at the start to "Joven! Otra chela para mi, por favor" in just three weeks. Que onda!

 

Darren Loucaides is a freelance journalist whose work has been published in The Independent, the BBC and… Good Woodworking. He is originally from North London and studied English at the University of Leicester. As well as travel his interests include music, not being able to reach the top shelf and unpunctuality. 

 

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