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Annual Tours for the Thinking Person: Latin America

Off to Learn the Lingo

In Mexico and Latin America, how to choose the best place to learn Spanish

January 11, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Twenty years ago, you probably weren't interested in learning Spanish abroad. But if you were, you almost certainly went to Spain. The language was born there, after all, and college towns such as Salamanca in the north and Malaga in the south had built language training into a minor industry. On weekdays you conjugated verbs in that pesky vosotros form; on weekends you gawked at the Prado in Madrid. Thousands of Americans still do so every year.

But these days, more Americans head south. In the generation since Jesuit priest Ivan Illich co-founded the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) as a training ground for American missionaries in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Latin America has been sprouting language programs almost as fast as its jungles sprout flora.

Today, CIDOC is gone, but hundreds of secular Spanish language schools for foreigners have opened in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador and beyond--virtually every nation in Central and South America. The cities of Cuernavaca, Mexico, and Antigua, Guatemala, have emerged as language-school capitals, each home to at least 30 programs.

Overall figures are elusive, but experts say tens of thousands of U.S. citizens last year ventured south for live-in language training in Latin America, and recruiters agree that their numbers are growing by 15% a year or more. Though some intensive programs offer one-week stays, most international students settle in for two to four weeks.

Aside from being closer than Spain, most of Latin America's live-in language schools are often cheaper. Because they usually involve living in a local household and participating in community events, the programs serve as courses in social studies too. Instead of settling into relative luxury like other vacationers, language students usually step into conditions that are slightly or dramatically more rustic than their own homes.

"You've never learned as fast as you learn in one of these immersion programs," says John Slocum, a veteran language-school broker.

"The first week, you're on sensory overload," says Ginger Mazzapica of Lakewood, who last summer spent three weeks studying in Cuernavaca. "You can't sleep, and you're trying to think in Spanish, and there are just words running randomly through your mind."

Mazzapica studied at the Center for Bilingual Multicultural Studies (telephone [800] 932-2068 or 011-52-73-17-10-87, fax 011-52-73-17-05-33, Web site http://www.bilingual-center.com), one of the largest schools of its kind in the Americas. With 27 classrooms and an executive program that has boomed since the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the school draws an estimated 5,000 students yearly, and as many as 300 foreigners studying at a time during the peak month of July.

Though some language training consultants worry that the program is growing too big, the organization's size gives it resources that most other schools can't offer--day care for children ages 6 months to 12 years in the summer months, for instance. Cost for registration, tuition and room and board begins at about $375 weekly. For more information, call the center's Los Angeles representative (tel. [800] 426-4660 or [213] 851-3403, fax [213] 851-3684), or contact an independent language-school broker.

*

Clayton Hubbs, publisher of Transitions Abroad magazine, runs an article every May on these programs because they offer a grass-roots introduction to a new language and culture, and because "they're so inexpensive. Guatemala is the cheapest of all, a real bargain, where people can still stay for a week, and have full room and board and four hours a day of one-to-one language instruction for around $200 a week. It's kind of a shockingly low figure."

A handful of high-end programs, mostly designed for executives on international assignments, ask as much as $2,000 per week and supply relatively cushy lodgings. But most Latin American language programs are priced from $200 to $500 per week, room and board included. Individuals paying the bottom price may share a bedroom and bathroom. Couples are usually able to get their own bedroom and bath. Here is a sampling of several popular Latin American language schools that have endured for a decade or more.

* In Cuernavaca, Mexico, the Cemanahuac Educational Community in Cuernavaca (tel. 011-52-73-18-64-07, fax 011-52-73-12-54-18, Web site http:// www.cemanahuac.com), founded in 1970, gets 1,500 to 2,000 students yearly. Admissions coordinator Charles Goff reports that the student body "has constantly been growing--every year, 15% or 20%." Aside from such traditionally good customers as American teachers, social workers and students, Goff says the school is now seeing more medical professionals, and non-Latino Catholic clergy eager to communicate better with their immigrant parishioners.

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