Ahh, public school Spanish classes. They have done just enough so that most people can ask for the restrooms and order cerveza, but beyond that – does anyone wind up being fluent purely because of learning Spanish in school? (Genuine question)
I won’t lie, my school district must have done a decent job. When a person speaks at a slow speed to me in Spanish, I can understand everything being said. In addition, I can ask for directions, understand them, ask questions, and have small, cordial, conversations with Spanish speakers. However, that is where the extent of my ability to use Spanish stopped for a very long time.
While staying in Jaco, Costa Rica, I JUMPED at the chance to take classes at Academia Tica to improve my Spanish. Some people yearn for the ability to fly, become invisible, or nail an array of Whitney Houston songs at karaoke. If I could have any “superpower” it would definitely be the ability to learn new languages with ease.
About Academia Tica
Academia Tica is a Spanish language school that has locations in both busy San Jose and sunny Jaco. Students learning Spanish at Academica Tica have the option to board at the school to fully immerse with the language at all times. We did not do this, and instead we stayed in the neighborhood at a nearby hotel. There is the option to take private classes, or actually pick up a course of study. Most people who take this option board at the school. In the latter case, group classes are available several times a day as well as private classes.
Academia Tica also hosts the Spanish traveling classroom. Students can take an intensive Spanish language course while traveling with fellow classmates to eight different destinations around the country. This is an incredible way to not only learn the language, but see the nature and culture that the country offers. Most meals are included in the tuition and the course is four weeks long
The school offers surf lessons as the beach is so nearby. Activities and outings such as cooking classes, chocolate tours, dance lessons, and “field trips” all with the aim to practice Spanish and engage with the culture. The Jaco campus even has a swimming pool so that students can cool off.
My Experience at Academia Tica
My husband and I each took two private classes. The method of language learning is complete and consistent immersion. Even as a brand new student we do not speak or hear English, only Spanish. How then, do students learn the language?
The teachers at Academic Tica are so talented and use the immersion method with ease. As my husband took his class, I sat in the entrance room playing with our son, Henry. Teachers would shuffle in and out of the room and introduce themselves. They began asking questions and engaging me in conversation. If I didn’t understand a word or phrase, they would begin acting things out, pointing to objects in the room, or giving examples. This was also true in our classes.
Even though it was my idea to attend these classes, and the class was private, I was fairly nervous for my first one. I began bouncing my leg quickly and clearing my throat for no physiological reason as I so often do when I’m nervous. Our class took place on an outside patio where I had a view of the beautiful greenery in the backyard and the cool breeze of the fan whirring overhead.
My teacher was a more beautiful version of Frida Kahlo, and so very kind right from the get go. She opened with asking me (in Spanish of course) what I wanted to get out of the class. I told her that I struggle greatly with conjugating verbs into past and future tense. I also struggle with my “ser” versus “estar” use. (Both verbs mean “to be” – yet have different uses depending on the context.)
By drawing so many diagrams, giving off many examples, and acting – she was entirely easy to understand. Something I really appreciated is that she was not patronizing. She did not correct every little mistake I made, or pretend not to understand me if I mixed up a word or phrase. For instance, I said something like, Donde esta una luego para almuerzo? In English, this is “where is a good place for lunch?” However, luego actually means later, and lugo means place. She simply responded with, “Ahh! Una lugo para almuerzo…” and began rattling off restaurants.
I cannot tell you how many native speakers and teachers of various languages act like EVERYTHING I have said is incoherent when I only mix up or forget one word. However, Spanish speakers are much more patient when learning a new language than most cultures. Try mispronouncing a word in French at a cafe in Paris, or Russian anywhere with a native speaker – forget it! My teacher always only spoke to me with respect and as though I was already excelling as a native Spanish speaker. This gave me SO much confidence. I loved every minute of class, especially when the lightbulb would go off in areas that were previously difficult for me. (Hacer, anyone?!)
Our teacher was never without a smile. She was genuinely passionate about her teaching and seemed to want me to learn the language as much as I wanted that for myself. One night I was even given homework, but it made the experience all the more authentic! Andrea was generous with her laughter and kindness. At one point we both laughed very hard at a particular narrative. She said in Spanish, “when I ask you what you want out of this class you tell me: to better communicate with students, to improve yourself, etc.
When I ask your husband he says, because my wife told me to and she was very clear about that.” She gave me her number at the end of our final lesson in case I had any questions that she could answer. My husband and I both agreed that if we were to attend the school and her classes for even only two weeks, there is no doubt we would be entirely fluent.
The atmosphere of the school is familial, and even the students seem to know each other well. The teachers are enthusiastic and passionate and all dotted so lovingly over Henry. I find it awesome that even at his young age he was engaged with the language and culture of the country during our time at Academic Tica.
Taking classes at Academia Tica made my trip to Costa Rica feel much more like slow travel. I’ve traveled to 25 countries and countless cities. Each and every time, my trips were about site seeing and packing as much in as possible. This is the only time that we really spent our lives each day as though we were living on Costa Rica. I’ll always have fond memories of attending class and interacting with other students and teachers.
Afterward, we’d walk down the rugged streets of Jaco going food shopping and picking out the perfect place for lunch. We loved using the new Spanish we learned and the confidence our teacher gave us to speak to cashiers and store clerks. I enjoyed looking at all of the products in stores and being able to read and understand the labels!
My husband and I practiced our Spanish with each other and tried to speak only in Spanish nearly everywhere we went for the week. I was really floored that my husband with no knowledge of the language was able to ask questions, understand directions, have some conversations, and order from menus all in Spanish after only two classes. Any endeavor without practice is futile. Our teacher made us so excited to practice at home, and I am currently teaching Henry everything that I know.
NYC Schools Can Learn a Thing or Two
Equipped with only a rolling white board, colored markers, and an innate talent I learned weeks worth of Spanish in only two lessons. Meanwhile, in New York City, big wigs often believe that the most drastic measures are the answer – even when this is often false. We need more technology, even though I have heaps of failed pieces of technology in my room just gathering dust. We need more scripts for teachers, allowing no room for creativity or autonomy – streamline everything! Pay the corporations more! Spend tons of money for the newest initiative, program, or idea that even sounds remotely good without piloting it first! As a teacher on the ground, these latter measures have not fixed a damn thing. It’s smoke in mirrors.
Some technology and programs are effective. Students who are non-verbal or have dysgraphia can do wonders with assistive technology. Students with behavioral and emotional struggles thrive working with teachers who take on training in programs like restorative justice. The vast majority of over-reliance on these things however is complete bullshit. In my opinion, and from this experience – it would be far better to insure that our teachers maintain a pure love for their craft and by using methods that are tried, true, and stand the test of time.
Which languages are you dying to learn?