Once my friend Sabina left to return to the United States, I had time to focus on one of my major goals for my trip: to learn Spanish. Due to the amount of eager backpackers in the area, Central America is chock full of Spanish schools. These schools offer weekly one-on-one Spanish lessons, often accompanied by homestays and meals with local families. All of this generally costs between $200 and $300 a week and is widely praised as a fantastic method of learning the language. After some research, I decided to study for a week at one such school in Esteli, Nicaragua.
Esteli is a small town in the northern highlands of Nicaragua. It draws a steady trickle of tourism due mainly to its proximity to Area Protegida Miraflor and the Somoto Canyon. In general, though, it is an authentic working-class Nicaraguan town. It has a cute town center surrounded by lots of residential neighborhoods and an endearing preponderance of street art.
This all appealed to me for the purpose of learning Spanish; I would not be surrounded by tourism infrastructure and therefore would have no reason to speak English.
As such, the day after I returned from Miraflor I found myself waiting for my new Spanish teacher to pick me up and take me to my homestay. I was a little nervous. My Spanish was a mangled mixture of Duolingo vocabulary, Italian, and guesswork. It had gotten me around well enough so far but was definitely not impressive.
I need not have worried. My teacher arrived and immediately proved himself to be a bundle of friendly, welcoming energy. He easily grasped the extent of my understanding and we were able to have a fruitful and satisfying conversation during the ten minute car ride. I left the car and entered my homestay with a newfound sense of excitement.
My homestay for the week was a sweet, homey, eccentric place. The family consisted of two abuelos (grandparents), two thirteen-year-old twin girls, a heterochromatic husky, and several parakeets.
The abuela was incredibly sweet and immediately bustled about making me lunch. Upon hearing my plans, she became extremely worried for my safety as I traveled around Central America. I spent much of the week assuring her that I would be smart and safe and that I would not travel in big, bad Guatemala by myself.
The twin girls giggled with embarrassment every time I mangled Spanish in front of them. Even so, they were happy to help me figure out how to say “pass the napkins”, “what is this sauce”, “no, please, I don’t need any more sugar in my coffee oh god stop no please no more sugar no” or anything else.
The grandfather, abuelo, was a character straight out of a sitcom. He spoke in low, sing-songy mumbles that would be difficult to decipher in English. In Spanish I had no chance. He was most often found lying on his bed, ears covered in big headphones, eyes closed, singing along loudly to Spanish ballads.
This was the cast of characters that would accompany my week of classes, and I could not have been happier.
I quickly developed a wonderful routine for the week: I got up in the morning, ate breakfast, and spent a few hours studying or sightseeing. Then I would have class for four hours in the afternoon.
I had chosen to attend Spanish School Nicaragua, one of two schools in Esteli. I could not have been happier with my instruction. My teacher, Rafael, understood that my primary purpose in learning Spanish was to improve my immediate ability to communicate. As such, much of my daily classes was simply conversation.
Though it may not have been the best structure for learning Spanish in a formal sense, it was exactly what I needed at the time. I became accustomed to hearing Spanish spoken, established a style and method of speaking to communicate what I needed, and had my errors gently corrected along the way. Every day I felt my understanding and comfort improving.
A few times, Rafael took me out into Esteli to sightsee and practice speaking with other people. One day, he took me to visit an amazing women’s cooperative in town. They collect old paper from the neighborhood and recycle it by hand to create beautiful cards, journals, and gifts. I loved seeing the process and was happy to put my Spanish to use!
Something Got Lost in Translation
Over the course of the week I was able to use my growing skills to converse with my host family. I was excited to be able to have real conversations with them. One day late in the week, I even attempted the unthinkable: asking abuelo a question instead of abuela.
I asked him whether I could do laundry in the house, and he responded immediately with coos of “Si, si, claro!” (Yes, yes, of course!) He then proceeded to move a pile of dishes off the pila, a large concrete basin of water with an attached concrete washboard. He patted the washboard, smiled at me, and returned to his room to sing.
I looked at the pila apprehensively–I had done clothing by hand in a sink before, but never with this contraption before me. I decided to dive in, trying whatever made sense to get the clothes clean.
Fifteen minutes later, my hands were red, my clothing was a sudsy pile, and I was standing over the pila trying to work out how to get enough clean water onto my clothes to rinse them. Abuelo walked in at this moment and cried out in confusion.
From the resulting muddle of mumbly Spanish, I managed to understand him saying “Why didn’t you wait for abuela? She’ll use the machine!” He gestured to a large shape in the corner covered with a sheet. It was a fully functional washing machine.
I stared at it and back at abuelo, relieved, embarrassed, and confused. To this day I still have no idea what happened–why did he clear off the pila? What did he think I was asking?
Clearly a week of Spanish classes can only do so much.