Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Learning Spanish In Cuenca

One of my goals before retiring to Cuenca would be to learn passable Spanish. No offense to anyone who doesn't share my beliefs, but I think it is presumptuous, offensive,and egotistical to move to a country and not even try to learn their language, especially if you expect the locals to learn how to communicate with you, instead of the other way around. In the United States, I knew people from other countries who have lived in the USA for thirty years and knew not one syllable of English. They survive by moving to an enclave with others from their country, isolating themselves from the local culture and local people.

I decided I did not want to be in this category. If you are a guest in someone's home, I believe you should try to learn how to do things as they do, not try to impose your way of doing things on them. This involves learning how to communicate with them on a basic level. It shows respect, good will and willingness to accommodate.

I actually had had Spanish (formal Spanish)in high school and college, so while I was still in the U.S. I figured, what the heck.......a little dusting off of the book and a little review and I'd be all set. So, I started practicing here and there (like ordering food at bilingual restaurants), but I noticed that whenever I said something in Spanish, the hispanics would answer me in English. Mmmm....not a good sign.  I also noticed that I couldn't remember most of what I had learned some 50 years ago (of course, in my mind, no way has 50 years passed).

So, still in the USA, I hired a language coach who was a certified bilingual teacher at $50 per hour. He was very good, but I could only afford one hour a week. No progress was evident after several months despite also studying English to Spanish videos and supplemental reading material.

My next step was to join a Spanish class sponsored by the city of Orange. Again, once a week for an hour. The instructor was very good, but after class I would forget most of it, as I returned to my normal English-speaking life. This class lasted for 6 weeks.

Fighting discouragement, I knew that my first trip to Ecuador was approaching, so I started asking other people how to learn the language. Their advice was universal: "Immerse yourself in the culture."  So, I figured that after three weeks in Ecuador I would come back finally speaking espanol and ready to have a serious conversation with Geraldo Rivera in his native tongue.

Alas, I immersed myself in the culture, even getting sick enough to have to be hospitalized in Quito my first night there. I tried to explain to 13 doctors in Spanish all about food poisoning and the symptoms I was having including....never mind; that is probably too much information.Anyhow, how much more could I immerse myself? My Spanish did not improve. I think it actually got worse (if that is possible).

So, one year later I am back in Cuenca for 4 weeks, but still couldn't speak even survival Spanish.This time I decided to try another approach. After one week here,  I found a school called Simon Bolivar which has an excellent reputation and only charges $8 per hour for individual sessions. Sessions are daily for two hours a day (they also have a 4-hour a day program). For three weeks that comes out to 30 hours for $240 - a great deal. The intensity of the program (daily two-hour classes) really makes a difference! Now, when I speak Spanish the locals look at me strangely, but at least they seem to be able to understand me.

There are many good schools here all of which work well for a percentage of people. The point is that a school, in my experience, is the way to go. You not only learn the language, but also learn about the Ecuadorian culture as part of the process. A side benefit is that you are teaching your instructor about America. My professora is very curious about America and Orange county, so we spend at least 30 minutes a day discussing American politics, problems in America, American social issues, etc.(in Spanish, of course).  I find it very stimulating.

Stay tuned for more information on the language issue in future blogs. For now, adios y buenos noches.


  1. Tony,

    I take it the program is divided into different levels of Spanish training? You have studied quite a bit of Spanish over the years. How do students new to Spanish who know little more than Hola function in a class that's discussing Orange County and politics in Spanish,or are they in a beginner's class?

  2. Tony,,

    I agree with all you've said about learning the language of the country you're living in. Here in the USA we have Latinos who have lived here for well over 10 years and can't carry on a basic conversation. How sad. But our government caters to them in their language and hospitals, courts and doctors hire translators for them, NOT at the expense to the foreigners. It sounds like in Ecuador, if you don't know the language, you have to pay for the translator, which is only right. Well, here we pay enough taxes to support all of these translators for those who can't speak or understand our language.
    To me it's very rude if you can't communicate in the language where you're living or visiting. Why should anyone expect citizens of another country to know their language? Yes, if it's some legal action you're carrying out you best get help so you don't agree to something you shouldn't. Day to day living should be in the native language whenever possible.
    You have the right idea Tony and with patience you'll learn it, just listen and practice. Good luck

  3. Jim: Yes, there are different levels of instruction, and they have both individual lessons and group classes. Plus, you have a workbook with homework assignments, so you are constantly improving your vocabulary and speaking ability - which is easier to do if you are explaining things that you know about (like what it is like back home). Hope this helps...

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  5. I agree with you entirely Tony, we are guests in their country and I fully expect to learn the the language ASAP, once I arrive and the school you mentioned is highly recommended. I also purchased the Fluenz program that I use on my computer, so at least, I will be able to ask where the bathroom is and order off a restaurant menu.

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