It was hot, it was raining, and the mud made a difficult climb up a steep, rocky trail that much harder. Rambo wanted to give up. I refused. And when we emerged from the tangled woods to see the Pacaya volcano erupt, we agreed the effort was well worth it. At least I think we agreed. He simply let out a snort before munching on some weeds.
I'd met Rambo a half-hour earlier, when three seemingly heaven-sent words reached this New Yorker's ears: "Taxi to Pacaya?" The question came from a Guatemalan girl atop a horse. "Cuanto cuesta?" I asked. "Cuarenta quetzals [about $5]." "Excelente," I replied, and took her place on the horse. I'm no cowgirl, but I was studying Spanish in Guatemala and was lagging behind my fellow students as they tromped up the trail on this school-sponsored Saturday hiking excursion. I wasn't feeling well, and Rambo was a four-footed savior.
My motivation for going to language school abroad was one many travelers share: the desire to explore new countries and have interactions with locals that go beyond, well, good old "Cuanto cuesta?" I'd studied Spanish for years but struggled with speaking it. Learning in Central America while staying with a local family seemed a good way to break through the impasse.
Where to study was an easy decision for me. A friend and I wanted to explore Tikal, the Mayan ruins in northern Guatemala. Its steep-stepped temples rise out of a jungle filled with howler monkeys, parrots, and, supposedly, jaguars. They're just a few hours away by plane from the colonial city of Antigua, which has language schools around every cobbled street corner.
We used a less-than-scientific approach to picking a school. Swamped with information from the Web, we went to a bookstore and looked through all the Guatemala guides we could find and contacted the schools mentioned most often. The first to reply to my e-mail was APPE (appeschool.com), so we paid our $25 registration fee and waited to learn about our host family.
My friend and I tend to be do-it-yourselfers, but many prospective students use agencies to help them sort through the choice of country, city, and school. The registration fee may be larger going through agencies than if you contact the school directly, and there may be other markups as well. But they will arrange lodging (schools will also help you find housing if you contact them directly) and take care of the international calls and money transfers. Some throw in travel insurance, an emergency message service, and a pre-departure package with useful logistics.
If you're not sure where you want to study, you'll be amazed at the scope of your options. For Spanish there are the usual suspects -- Cuernavaca, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Quito, and the like -- but you can also explore a less traveled country such as Nicaragua or visit Peru's Cusco. Italophiles should check out Sicily or Sardinia. For housing you can choose from a hotel -- Antigua has some luxury accommodations -- or a room or separate apartment in a local home. Some schools offer their own housing.
HEAD FOR THE HINTERLANDS
Another option is to live in the home of your private instructor. Depending on the country, that can run from $2,000 to $4,000 per week. Agencies that offer this say they're able to hook students up with teachers who live in upscale homes, even by U.S. standards.
If I weren't so intrigued by Tikal, I might have chosen Costa Rica. Margot Haldenby, program director at agency Languages Abroad, favors Costa Rica over a country such as Guatemala because she says the instruction is better, thanks to a more established middle class and a better education system.
There are advantages to avoiding the large urban centers. People don't have the standoffishness of some city dwellers, and since fewer of them speak fluent English, you're sure to get lots of practice. "In big cities some people think they're doing you a favor by responding in English when you ask them a question in Italian," says Suzanne Martin-Reay, a friend who has been to three schools in Italy. "Others speak to you in a way that makes you feel like you're holding them up, and then I get tongue-tied."
That wasn't the case in Cefalù, a Sicilian town where Suzanne and her husband David went to the Kulturforum school (www.kulturforum.it) for two weeks last November. "People would take the time to chat with you," she says. "I went to the same bakery every day and felt like I was a part of the community."
If you're living with a family, that happens naturally. When I arrived at the home of Marta and Luis Emilio Cuellar and their 3-year-old daughter Marcela, three other English-speaking students were there. Other household members included the roosters outside my bedroom window that crowed from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. That sent me into the streets of Antigua on a quest for earplugs, or tapones de oído, which I learned are sold in hardware stores, or ferreterías, rather than farmacias.
You can make special requests. When Mitch Ginsburg, a school psychologist in Frederick, Md., decided to spend four weeks studying Spanish in Costa Rica with his 14-year-old son Sam last summer, he asked for a homestay with a nonsmoking family with kids. It turned out to be an ideal situation: On weekends, when Ginsburg went sightseeing, his son preferred to hang out with the family's 17-, 14-, and 6-year-old sons. Occasionally Sam would help the eldest, Esteban, with his English homework, while Esteban and his brothers taught their guest soccer moves.
Lynn MacDiarmid, head of worldwide tax services for Sotheby's (BID ) and a veteran language-school traveler, has tried many housing options. When she went to Lingua Sì (linguasi.it) in Orvieto, Italy, in 2002, her homestay consisted of a large apartment with a separate entrance, kitchenette, fireplace, television, and a little courtyard. The next year she went to Bologna's Cultura Italiana (culturaitaliana.it) and was disappointed in the accommodations. The room was "shabby and dorm-like," she says. So last year, when she enrolled at Il Sasso (www.ilsasso.com) in Montepulciano, she went to tourist site nautilus-mp.com and found her own place. The apartment was just outside the historic town center, with a large bedroom, living room, kitchen, and a small terrace.
School facilities and teaching styles can also differ greatly. Katandria Johnson, a trilingual speech-language pathologist from Fort Worth, Tex., encountered many of them in her travels to 11 schools over 14 weeks in 2004 to fulfill a licensing requirement. In Barcelona, the Enforex school (enforex.com) has lots of computers and a structured program that involves a two-hour oral and written test to determine a student's level at the outset. At Centro de Lengua y Cultura in the Dominican Republic, Johnson just sat down and talked with someone, then was paired with an instructor. "The school had lots of problems just keeping the electricity on," she notes.
GROUP OR ONE-ON-ONE?
Business-development consultant John Sturman wanted flexible, practical instruction when he went looking for a school in China. Agency FirstStep World (firststepworld.com) directed him to Mandarin House (mandarinhouse.cn) in Shanghai. Sturman wanted to learn how to ask a contact about Internet access or tell a manufacturer that a certain product needed to be darker or lighter. "One chapter we studied was how to get a haircut," he recalls. "So after that week I went to the barber shop and got a haircut."
Everyone in my school studied one-on-one with the same instructor, though you could ask to switch, which I did after one week. I enjoyed it and learned a lot. But some people prefer the energy of a larger group. Group lessons are less expensive, and many schools set a maximum number of students per class, often from 4 to 14. "I never sign up for private lessons until I get there, unless it's peak time," says Martin-Reay. "You can always upgrade, and you may wind up getting private lessons at the group price." But some schools may simply cut back your expected four hours of group lessons to 2 1/2 hours if it turns out you're going solo.
The cost of your trip depends, in large part, on your housing and hours of instruction. Most students take four hours of instruction a day, usually in the morning. AmeriSpan estimates that two to three weeks of instruction in Spain, with housing and some meals included, could run $690 to $1,425; the agency says the same program in Latin America would cost $385 to $1,390. In Italy you might pay $885 to $1,500; in France, $1,000 to $2,140; and in China, $600 to $1,315. Of course, none of those numbers includes airfare.
My trip was a bargain. The $500 airfare to Guatemala City was the biggest expense. Four hours of daily instruction costs $90 per week, and my homestay, with all meals except on Sunday, was $60 a week. Next time I'll upgrade my accommodations. Perhaps I'll spring for a private apartment in Costa Rica, just footsteps from a beach.
By Suzanne Woolley