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An Easy Way to Learn the Lingo

September 28, 1986|BARBARA KENT | Kent is a Yuba City free-lance writer

CUERNAVACA, Mexico — The rain stopped as if on cue. I pulled my bags from the taxi onto the cracked concrete sidewalk, sidestepping the small torrent of rainwater that separated the world of hurtling taxis from the morning bustle of the bus depot. Travelers and vendors spilled from the open building.

I pushed my gear against a wall a few feet from the ticket line and took my place behind an elderly man who politely nudged along two bulky packages balanced precariously at his feet. Nostalgically, I turned to survey the scene. It was among my last views of Cuernavaca.

A month earlier I had stood in this same spot staring out into a drizzly night. I tried to ignore a mild but growing panic as I braced myself for the next encounter with my fumbling Spanish. Had I been wise to travel alone to this seemingly primitive area to invest my hard-earned dollars and four weeks of my time in a language school whose only recommendation had been a short description in a brochure?

Efficient Approach

That apprehensive question has since been answered many times over with an emphatic yes . Mexico's many language schools provide not only a wonderfully efficient approach to language instruction, but also a superb way to combine the practicality of schooling with vacation travel.

Students are generally housed with middle-class Mexican families who not only provide a pleasant, interesting living environment, but also augment the official instruction with daily conversation. Even as a shy person I found adjustment to my Mexican host family easy, and our ties grew steadily during my stay.

At Centro Bilingue in Cuernavaca, three of the six hours of instruction each day were language classes consisting of from one to five students. The remaining class time was filled with a choice of lecture classes in Mexican history, ancient culture and current events, plus well-run basic and advanced grammar classes.

All classes except the group grammar classes were conducted solely in Spanish. The between-class breaks allowed students to socialize and converse--but only in Spanish. Speaking anything but Spanish was strictly forbidden, as the instructional phase of the program was taken quite seriously.

How does a beginning student survive, one might wonder, if everything is conducted in Spanish? It really isn't that difficult. My own background consisted of a few isolated rules of grammar and a vocabulary sufficient for nothing more than travel survival. I had never taken any Spanish in school. Furthermore, it had been years since I had used what little I did know.

My initial attempts at conversation consisted of stumbling through the few things I could say. I spent most of my time listening. After four weeks I could see in the groping speech of incoming students what my own arrival status had been. I was pleased to find my ability to speak and comprehend growing steadily. At the end of my stay I was still far from fluent, but I could converse enough to meaningfully interact with others, and my comprehension of class lectures reached around 95%.

Gradually my increasing competency opened the door to easy, enjoyable travel within Cuernavaca and to nearby areas. After three weeks I set out for Mexico City with map and guidebook under my arm and a new confidence that I could handle anything. And I did.

Mexico abounds with places of historical and cultural interest, and the school itself provided many excellent, low-cost excursions to nearby points. Tours to historic sites were escorted by competent staff historians whose presentations enriched the academic program.

Change in Perspective

Having arrived with only a marginal interest in history, I was pleased to find growing within me a change in perspective and a new appreciation of the development of Western culture. Being at the actual sites and informed by people with inherited and cultural ties added spirit and meaning that a textbook or lecture could never impart.

Cuernavaca itself has considerable historical significance, and its proximity to Mexico City is fortuitous. I attended outstanding school-led trips to the Pyramids, the renowned Museum of Anthropology and the Ballet Folklorico.

My initial concern over traveling alone was unfounded. Many people of both sexes and all ages were also traveling alone. Indeed, a bonus of foreign schooling is the exposure to compatible people of varied backgrounds.

During my summertime stay in Cuernavaca, students included high school and college students from the United States and Germany, and Canadian and American diplomats, teachers and business people. Ages ranged from teens to well into the 60s. Children need not be excluded. Many schools have appropriate programs for them.

If you enjoy languages, or if some degree of fluency would be useful to you, consider the refreshing change of pace a foreign language school offers. You'll come away with new skills as well as a new perspective.

The average cost of tuition plus room and three meals a day with a Mexican family is $280 (U.S.) for the first week and $170 for each additional week. Local school-sponsored excursions were free. Half-day trips out of town typically cost around $8, and the price of a full-day trip is $12. Occasional special trips may involve admission fees. A trip to the Ballet Folklorico and Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, for example, cost $22, including tickets.

Information regarding selected schools in Latin America and Europe may be obtained from the National Registration Center for Study Abroad, 823 North 2nd St., Lower Lobby, Milwaukee, Wis. 53203. Mexican consulates in major U.S. cities and Offices of Tourism in larger Mexican cities are additional sources. For additional information contact the Mexican National Tourist Council, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067, phone (213) 203-8151.

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