Spanish Language School • Oaxaca • Mexico
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The Alberta Teachers' Association Magazine (Fall 2005)
Deirdre Swan

Have you ever wanted to
combine your vacation with
learning Spanish?

Last summer, my seven-year-old son and I journeyed to the colonial city of Oaxaca, Mexico, and took daily Spanish lessons at Academia Vinigulaza. The historically and culturally rich city of Oaxaca, in the highlands south of the capital, has a population of 400,000 people.


Spanish-language schools abound
There is a myriad of relatively inexpensive language schools in Central and South America. Students can study in small groups or privately, and choose between two and seven hours of Spanish instruction daily. Outside class, students can spend their free time exploring or joining excursions organized by the school.

The Academia Vinigulaza offered to arrange our accommodations. I requested a Mexican family homestay and were placed with the kind and welcoming Magdalena and Gilberto and their three children. For the equivalent of $ 22 each per night, my son and I had our own apartamento(bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen) breakfast(papaya,slices, fresh orange juice, eggs and tortillas, or tortillas with frijoles or beans). Sundays featured a special meal of cornmeal, chicken and spicy chili made by Magdalena or her 82-year-old mother(abuela, or grandmother of the house).Also included, free of charge, was all the conversation you wanted-in Spanish, of course. My son, Liam and Gilberto, the other seven-year-old in the house, searched together for iguanas or chased each other around the courtyard with water bombs.

With a pupil-teacher ratio of 3:1-two Americans and me-my Spanish classes were fun and enjoyable. Part of each class was spent discussing what we had done the day before and what our plans were for the next day. In this way, learning was practical and applicable to day-to-day life. The ring of the bell at 11 a.m. signaled our break, at which time the students, about 20 spread over several groups, met in the central courtyard for a chat or to sign up for excursions. The break also gave me a chance to see how my son and his classmate, a 12-year-old form Portland, Oregon, were managing with their piñata construction and ceramic painting.

Language courses are offered at all skill levels; students can begin at any level they choose. For example, Sam, from England, knew no Spanish but wanted to pick up a little knowledge before continuing his journey through Central and South America, whereas Kevin, from Virginia, was a recent law graduate who represented Mexicans´ labour claims. Many language schools offer lessons with a special focus, such as Spanish for medical personnel or business.

Seeing the sights
School excursions took us to the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec, where a 70-year-old man demonstrated his family’s tradition of making black pottery. His potter’s wheel consisted of two inverted curved plates. The pottery was burnished to a gleaming shine with a rock. Another tour took us to the ruins of a former Dominican convent in Cuilapam. The once beautiful convent had been destroyed by rebels. We visited the colorful open air market of Zachila, where Zapotec and Mixtec people (and members of 16 other indigenous groups) sell everything form avocadoes to peanuts to plastic ware to jeans to chapulines - grasshoppers roasted in lemon and garlic. Although we never summoned up the courage to try the grasshoppers, we heard mixed reviews ranging from how delicious they were to “There’s no other way to describe it - they taste like grasshoppers!”

If you want to plan your own adventures, there are plenty of museums, cathedrals, markets and interesting side streets to explore in Oaxaca or you can take inexpensive bus rides or colectivo taxis to nearby villages. Several students planned a weekend trip to the coastal towns of Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel, also in the state of Oaxaca.

Enchanting Oaxaca
The center of every Mexican colonial town is the zocalo, or main square. Oaxaca´s zocalo is shaded by beautiful trees and is teeming with people at all hours of the day. While sitting under the arch of one of the many restaurants bordering the square, you can watch the world go by, from the very rich to the very poor, and there are plenty of both. On any given day, there are children selling crafts or wanting to shine shoes, mariachi or ranchero bands in resplendent costumes, singing their hearts out, adolescents dressed in the latest fashions, indigenous people carrying baskets on their heads, balloon sellers with hundreds of colourful balloons and seniors proudly demonstrating the danzon- a slow Mexican dance.

Computers with Internet access are available throughout Oaxaca (about $ 0.50 per half hour), so keeping in touch with folks at home is easy. Leave your traveller´s cheques at home - ATM machines are accessible and have no line-ups.

Prices of food and lodging vary. A meal can be had from a street vendor for as little as $1, a hamburger and French fries at a fast-food place cost about $5, and dinner for two at a restaurant located on the main square will set you back $25. Accommodation ranges from low-end hostels to luxurious hotels.

If you want to blend in with the locals, leave your Canadian shorts and skimpy summer tops at home. Oaxaqueños dress modestly; women wear long pants, capris or skirts. Men and women save their shorts for beach wear. Year-round temperatures don’t fluctuate much, as the city is situated in the temperate highlands. Most mornings are cool, afternoons are hot and evenings are cool and windy, and if you’re lucky, there will be an afternoon or evening rain shower.

Of course, for those students who are dedicated to their studies, there is always homework to be done-grammar exercises for beginning students and excerpts of literature to be read by advanced students. The teachers , however, are forgiving of students who don’t do homework; your level of commitment is an entirely personal choice.

Deirdre Swan teaches Spanish and French
at Mount Royal Junior High School in Calgary.

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