Studying Español in Oaxaca

  • Article by: BRIAN J. CANTWELL , Seattle Times
  • Updated: July 31, 2014 - 8:14 PM

With classes, tours and home stays, Spanish-immersion schools teach tourists about local language and culture.

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Balloon vendors abound in front of the 18th-century cathedral in downtown Oaxaca City. The town in southwestern Mexico offers many cultural attractions and Spanish-immersion schools.

Photo: Brian J. Cantwell • Seattle Times,

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The first morning at the Spanish language school I proved just how much I needed to be there.

In my stumbling Español I had asked for directions to the baño — bathroom — and had been directed toward a door in deep shadows at the end of a hall.

As I washed my hands, a woman came in and stepped into a stall. Ah, unisex, it must be a cultural thing — I was cool with that. Only when a second woman entered and shot me a quizzical look did I catch on.

Quickly stepping to the door, I looked on the outside and saw the word Damas, which hadn’t registered with me on the way in. (The light was poor, I’ll say in my defense.)

I scooted down the hall. Just to confirm, I looked up the word. Yep, I’d been in the ladies’ room.

Embarrassment aside, it was true to the concept of Spanish-immersion education, for which I had come for a week to the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Take away interpreters, toss in a gringo and see if he can swim — or find the right restroom.

Other than what I’ve picked up in years of travel in Mexico, my Spanish education amounted to one year in the seventh grade.

That was a long time ago.

A week of classes wasn’t much, but my goal was to get a taste for the school and take the first step toward learning more Spanish for my travels.

Jamón! Delicioso!

Spanish-immersion schools, a popular fixture catering to visitors across Mexico, typically offer inexpensive home stays as a supplement to the language experience (which can make for a very cheap vacation). My first morning at Señora Amelia’s breakfast table, a five-minute walk from the school, was the start of my challenge: Her English consisted of the word “breakfast.” Other than that, we pointed at things and smiled a lot that first day.

I had forgotten to pack my dog-eared Berlitz phrase book. So while my widowed hostess prepared the first of a series of wonderful desayuno dishes, I madly pored over the bulky Larousse Spanish-English dictionary I had crammed into my luggage.

“Jamón! Delicioso!” I uttered. Ham! Delicious!

Eight options in Oaxaca

The first step at the school was to take a short written test to determine at what level I would study. Matching pictures of everyday objects (table, window, etc.) with a list of Spanish words wasn’t too hard; the Latin root is often the same.

Answering open-ended questions? Not so much. “Tell a story based on this picture,” I managed to figure out. But my answers got very short.

After that, a five-minute oral interview with a smiling woman at the admissions desk confirmed that I was hopeless at answering questions posed in rapid Spanish. Luckily I knew how to sheepishly say, “No comprendo.”

She wrote down my class assignment: Cynthia in Salon 3. I was with the novices.

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  • Cynthia Antonio Martinez teaches at Instituto Cultural Oaxaca in Oaxaca City. The school offers add-on workshops in dancing, cooking and weaving, plus guided tours to nearby attractions.

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