Back To School: Learning Spanish In Playa del Carmen

I was quite excited to be going to Spanish school. I’d done the research, found a conveniently located school (that didn’t charge the earth) and paid my, or I should say, our, fees. Tyrhone decided at the last-minute he would like to come along, which considering our lack of shared personal interests (him: the gym, quantum physics and superheroes, me: the Kardashians, depilation and limes), was quite a surprise to me.

I was going to sign on for a two-week beginner’s course, but due to serious committment issues, booked us in for one.

“To see if we like it,” I told Tyrhone, which really meant, “to see if you like it because we’re not paying a fortune to have you pull out half way through.” But he didn’t know that.

He had his yellow note-book placed in his little backpack, slung over his tattooed shoulder. Lighting a cigarette, he was good to go.

Our school, on the ground floor of this building

Our First Day

I’ve never liked first days of school. In 1986, in a small classroom in country Western Australia, a small child clung to her Mum’s dress screaming, “don’t make me go in there!!!!!” or something to that effect, though you probably couldn’t have deciphered that through the snot and the tears.

That child was me by the way.

Whilst there was no snot on my first day at Spanish school, there were a few first day nerves. You know, just the normal anxieties like, “do I have enough of an assortment of coloured pens?” or “damn it, I knew I should have bought that dictionary, I bet everyone has one but me.”

My nerves subsided when we met our future classmates, a lovely young Swiss couple named Sabina and Phillipe. Ours would be a small class of four. Soon we met our teacher, Ixchal, who without a smile proceeded to tell us that we would have the day off on Friday.

Now a day off school when you’re 10 years old and a day off school when you’re paying $135 a week are two very different things. I was immediately peeved that I hadn’t been informed about the eight hours of lessons we had already paid for and would not be receiving.

That was the first thing. Yes, there are more things.

The second was that the teacher barely introduced herself, or asked us anything about ourselves, but just dumped four pink “Espanol Uno” books on the desk and asked us to turn to the first page.

She then proceeded to briskly read out all the basics like “buenos dias, buenas tardes, buenas noches, hola, adios, hasta luego,” like she was just checking things off a list. Tyrhone and I struggled to find our pens before she had finished with greetings and was on to the next thing.

Grammar! Woohoo!

Our heads spun as we tried to understand the masculine and feminine forms of words, because a house (casa) is feminine and a book (libro) is masculine, you know. And when you say ‘a house’ you have to use the feminine form of ‘a’, which is ‘la’ and vice versa for masculine which is ‘el’, and if there’s more than one, well then there’s a plural form for that , but don’t forget the feminine (las) and masculine (los) forms of those too.

Our eyes wide with information overload, we were relieved when it was time for lunch.

Our new Swiss friends were really sweet, sympathising with our complete lack of any European language skills, and telling us we were doing well (they were lying).

We shared snacks and introductions in the courtyard next to the ‘school’, a converted apartment that was thankfully air-conditioned. They had already studied a bit of Spanish, but had come to Playa del Carmen to study intensively for four weeks. They had booked accommodation through the school, and were very disappointed with it.

We got friendly with them immediately, and when we found out that they were paying double what we were for our studio, I felt sorry that they were stuck in a dirty, tiny room for $1000 per month.  Actually I was a bit angry.

It just added to the disappointment I already felt towards the school. But then I did choose the cheapest one I could find.

We muddled through the afternoon session, keenly aware that this was not in fact a ‘complete beginners’ class, as we had been informed. None of us were particularly happy, as the class was too easy for the Swiss couple, and too hard for us.

Day 2: Struggling Through…

I studied Japanese back at university. Now before you ask me to say something, I need you to know that I was 18, and to me, university was a really big school that you didn’t actually have to go to, with an onsite bar.

With my burgeoning adulthood blossoming in direct correlation with my penchant for jugs of beer at noon, I didn’t learn much Japanese. God only knows how I passed. I still remember the sweaty palms and complete panic during my final oral exam, but somehow I did manage to scrape through.

And then I went back to the pub.

Sitting in class on my second day at Spanish school, I hoped that things would be very different now. But apart from being sober, I still felt the same rush of panic whenever the teacher called on me, and a familiar desire to shout out, “Wait, wait! I may have got that one right, but I have no idea what it MEANS!!”

It was a baptism of fire. We were powering through the grammar lessons from a text-book written all in Spanish, with little translation from the teacher. I had about three pages of notes going at once, one for vocab, one for the notes off the board, and one where I tried to scribble down the lessons we were doing so that I might go through them later at my own pace.

We were learing about the verb “to be” (did you know that was a verb? ‘Cause I hadn’t really thought of it like that before!), and practicing phrases like “I am happy” (Yo estoy contento), and “She is beautiful” (Ella es bonita). At one point I found my stride, realising I had actually picked up quite a few words by osmosis during Ixchal’s military-style drills.

Perhaps things were going to be different this time after all…

Day 3: Hump Day

We walked to school with Sabina and Phillipe, since they had now become our neighbours (vecinos) as well as our classmates. Thankfully, they had been able to get their money back from the school and had moved into our apartment block four doors down. I was happy to have them as neighbours and happy that they liked their new home.

Despite my dissatisfaction with Ixchal’s teaching style, and missing out on a day’s worth of lessons, I decided to suck it up make the most of the time we had left. Even though I often went blank when put on the spot, I had picked up a lot more than I expected, and was enjoying being able to form ridiculous and completely irrelevant sentences like, “Mi Mama limpia el piso, por eso ella esta cansada,” or, “My Mother cleans the floor, therefore she is tired.”

My favourite part of the day was making up our own sentences. I flicked furiously through my notes to find the words for sentences like, “Los ninos estudian sus libros y muchachos tocan sus guitarras” (the children study their books and the fellas play their guitars).

Ground breaking stuff.

Day 4: School’s Out! Our last day…

By now we had our routine firmly in place. I’d go to the beach in the morning whilst Tyrhone was at the gym, then we’d meet up at home and do our home work. We’d walk to school with Sabina and Phillipe, and giggle our way through the morning lesson.

At lunchtime, we’d make our way to the juice bar on the corner, chat to the Canadian owner about how difficult learning Spanish is, then meander back, sipping our fruity concoctions whilst dreading the afternoon session.

I found I was at my best in the mornings, sometimes even keeping up and following on, but after lunch my brain was like an old sponge, the holes too big to absorb anything. Come my turn to answer something, all the information I thought I knew two seconds before just packed it’s bags and left.

“Are you continuing next week?” Ixchal asked us on our last afternoon. We’d just bought her a fruit smoothy as a parting gift which seemed to sweeten her up.

“Umm no, ” I answered, thinking our inability to keep up with our classmates was pretty self-explanatory..

We then had a bit of a chat, the first one we’d had, and I realised she was actually quite a nice lady. Despite her stern teaching style, I suppose she did her best.

And after sixteen hours of lessons, I had actually picked up more than I thought, which meant that even though I couldn’t introduce myself or count past 12, I could say:

Yo nunca tomo cerveza, por eso nunca estoy borracha” (I never drink beer therefore I’m never drunk), which I could not have said at university in Japanese with any shred of truth.

I guess going back to school wasn’t really for me. I really like learning Spanish, and would like to keep going, but four hours per day in a class-room is just too much for this chica. Of course Tyrhone felt the same. Using a side of his brain that he hadn’t in years was quite a test for him (you know the side that doesn’t work computers and such), but I think he actually did pretty well. It was good to focus on something other than a computer screen for both of us, and to humble ourselves in a classroom situation whilst learning something new.

I’m not sure if I’ll get a tutor, do online course, or just continue watching loads of subtitled “Grey’s Anatomy” re-runs, but just because I’m not cut-out for school doesn’t mean I don’t want to continue learning this lovely language, because actually, I really like it.

And I really, really like being able to say, “El bebe esta en la mesa,” (“The baby is on the table”), because you just never, ever know when that is going to come in handy.

Photo courtesy of Playa Esperanza Tulum


I’m doing the Rickshaw Run India 2013! Support us by donating  to our charity, Frank Water and subscribing to our blog!

Subscribe to Sarah Somewhere here!




Back To School: Learning Spanish In Playa del Carmen — 12 Comments

  1. OMG how I relate to this post. My head was near exploding at the end of the day. Brian and I would purposely distract our teacher, get him on tangents about the Ecuadorian government and such… and then I realized that all we were doing was wasting our own money!

    • Ha! That’s hilarious!!! Its funny how its voluntary but you still slip into ‘old school’ mentalities when it comes to getting out of work! I think four hours per day is just too much unless it involves some sort of role play or game (which ours did not!).

  2. Remember that languages take a long time. It appears to me that you’ve learned a ton already. The Swiss couple probably know French and maybe Italian, so for them, Spanish will go 15 to 30 times faster than it will for you guys. Don’t give up, just think poco a poco. Know the numbers and Cuanto Vale or How much? so you get ripped off less. Focus on functional Spanish for now, what you need, stuff on menus, how to order food, buying bus tickets, e.g. Quiero or I want. Hang in there, it seems like you’re doing great. Suerte!

    • Thanks Mike! I think thats what we struggled with the most, that we didnt learn much functional stuff. Quiero – never heard it, but definitely going to look at that one! Gracias!!

  3. I enjoyed reading about your Spanish learning episode Sarah! Something I can relate to after 6 years in Andalucia and attempting to wade through the quagmire that is the Andaluz accent to have at least a basic conversation with my rural neighbours. Countless classes with our brilliant Argentinian teacher Eduardo has taught me enough ‘proper’ Spanish now get by … but still don’t know half of what my neighbours are saying! They say here that Andaluz involves ‘comiendo las palabras’ – eating words. Now all I need is a few hundred classes in the rural dialect of Southern Spain…

    • Hey Wendy! Didnt realise you lived in Spain! Well we have a guy from Madrid living in our apartment block, and he struggles to understand the Mexicans!!! What hope do I have?! The dialect thing is a whole other ball game, but I like the sound of those eating words. Theyre about food, right?!

      • I spent my 6-month study abroad in Granada, so I can totally relate to the whole dialect issue. The first month I was there it felt like I knew NOTHING about Spanish after 6 years of studying it. But eventually it sank in and when I went back to visit my family further up the coast in Elche, they were making fun of my accent. Guess that immersion thing works.

  4. Ah yes, being back in school. I tried taking Spanish in college but after tyring a few times, I vowed I’d only learn by moving abroad. Then I moved to Spain for 9 months and realized full immersion doesn’t guarantee fluency, it takes studying and lots of speaking… so here I am for round 2.

    I went to sign up for classes at a nearby school and was denied since I dont have my residency card… yet and last day to sign up was a few days ago… I got to love the loop holes. I’m determined to take some courses but man, it will be interesting to see how it is to be in school again!

    • I know, I don’t know why I thought it would be easier!! Plus it takes dedication, which is something I am lacking in at the moment! I did ask someone for simple directions today in Spanish, and was quite chuffed with myself. Good luck Lauren :)