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LEARNING SPANISH IN MEXICO CITY

Total Immersion: Yes, I Speak Español

Students take a break at the International House Mexico, a Spanish language school in Mexico City that offers 20 hours of classes a week. After the lessons wrap up for the day, the students are encouraged to continue their education by exploring the capital.
Students take a break at the International House Mexico, a Spanish language school in Mexico City that offers 20 hours of classes a week. After the lessons wrap up for the day, the students are encouraged to continue their education by exploring the capital. (International House Mexico)

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Cuando Brenda llegue, vamos a preparar los panques," said Bety Ochoa, using a patient kindergarten teacher tone on me. "Now you say it to Brenda."

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She pushed the phone toward me, across the kitchen table, as Brenda waited on the other end. I let the foreign words take shape in my mouth, then swallowed them down. They were not coming out. At least not yet.

Normally, I would not hesitate to mangle the Spanish language. If I were in a classroom in the States, talking about a stick figure named Brenda who planned to bake muffins once she arrived home, I would spit out that phrase, proper accent be damned. However, Brenda was a real person, the 21-year-old daughter of Bety, my homestay host in Mexico City for four days. I wanted to make a good impression on the family and knew that my broken Spanish was hardly charming. Yet, if I wanted muffins, and new friends, I'd have to speak.

Learning a foreign language in its native country is more than just a crash course -- it's survival. Immersion programs combine classroom sessions with homestays and cultural outings, so that you are all-consumed by the language. You eat it, read it, drink it, speak it, even sleep it. (Spanish words were woven into my dreams.) If you regress into your American self, you will get lost or left behind or order the wrong kind of salsa. So, you need to talk local, as best as you can.

To be sure, language immersion vacations can be intimidating. Take my case: I took Spanish in middle school. I was a sassy cutup and, at the end of the year, barely knew more than the menu at Taco Bell. Then I switched to French.

Despite my beginner status, I signed up for nearly a week's worth of classes through Spanish Abroad, a Phoenix-based company that sends students to schools around the world. I chose chaotic Mexico City for its ease of travel (less than five hours nonstop from Washington) and unflagging energy. The capital sways to a soundtrack of loud talkers, honking cars, pulsating music and the occasional street protest, complete with bullhorns.

To further my education, I opted to live with a local family, the Ochoas, a single mother and her college-attending daughter. (The company arranged the homestay, too.) Instead of holing up with CNN and room-service french fries in the hushed quarters of a four-star hotel, I watched morning cartoons in Spanish, ate rice and fried plantains, and lived in a cramped two-bedroom apartment where children played loudly in the courtyard below and a man sold bread at strange hours. This was authentic Mexico.

For the scholastic portion of my trip, I attended classes four hours a day at International House Mexico in La Condesa, a neighborhood of fading elegance near one of the capital's main thoroughfares. The classroom was on the second floor, a small square space with a few desks and chairs, a blackboard covering a wall painted the color of a harvest moon and an energetic teacher who flitted about like a hummingbird.

"Perfecto!" Laura Pavila exclaimed after I told the class in Spanish how my father is tall and thin, has green eyes and little hair.

Each week the class size grows or shrinks, depending on the comings and goings of participants. During my visit, the other students included Fabian from Zurich, Johannes from Vienna and a New Yorker named Sharon. The Europeans were learning Spanish so they could better communicate with their Mexican girlfriends; Sharon, who has Mexican family members, once had a firm grasp of the language and was hoping to retrieve, restore and expand her skills.

"This is the best way to learn. You really retain it," said the Brooklyn jewelry designer, who had signed up for three weeks of classes, two in the city, one in Playa del Carmen. "After being in class, I really feel like speaking the language."

At the end of the first week, Pavila told me in English that we should be able to hold short conversations in Spanish, as well as speak and write about ourselves and other people. In addition, we would know several present-tense verbs and time expressions, plus other odds and ends such as the various uses of "mucho" and "muy."


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