The interest in learning Spanish, among North Americans in particular, is growing at an incredible rate. Due in part to the immigration of many Latin Americans northward, as well as the emergence of new trading markets; people are starting to realize that Spanish is a very useful language to learn. Beyond purely utilitarian considerations, Spanish is a beautiful language to the ear and is relatively easy to learn.
Experts in language learning will unanimously agree that immersion into the language, ideally by living in a Spanish speaking country, is the best and quickest way to learn a language. Not only does spending time in a Latin American country provide you ample opportunity to learn and practice your Spanish, you have the added benefit of experiencing culture and society that is markedly different than that of North America.
My decision to learn Spanish in Guatemala was the result of a fair amount of research into the opportunities in various countries in Latin America. What I discovered was that Guatemala is one of the least expensive countries to live and study Spanish. Having had such a wonderful experience during my time there, I would have no hesitation recommending Guatemala to anyone who is interested in learning or improving their Spanish.
Most Spanish schools in Guatemala have websites, so rates and details about the schools are easy to find. Most schools that are frequented by tourists are in Antigua, the Lake Atitlan area, and Quetzaltenango. Antigua, just outside of Guatemala City, tends to be a little too touristy for my tastes. While absolutely beautiful, with stunning colonial buildings and surrounding volcanoes, it is not an accurate picture of Guatemala. Lake Atitlan, which is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my travels, offers a laid back atmosphere in which to study. It truly is paradise, and is a must see destination no matter where you choose to study.
Finally we come to Quetzaltenango. This is where I chose to study Spanish. It likely has the most Spanish schools of any city in Guatemala. In the Western Highlands, Quetzaltenango is a very authentic Guatemalan city. It has a very young population due to the post-secondary institutions located there. Many a serious traveler interested in getting involved, ends up here over the other cities. I fear as though as the word gets out, Xela (as it is known to locals) will slowly get more and more touristy.
Aside from the high-quality schools that employ university-educated teachers, there are many activities nearby to keep a restless traveler occupied for many weeks. Santa Maria, the large conical volcano visible just outside of the city, begs to be climbed. Further west, the largest Central American volcano, Tajamulco, provides a good challenge and wonderful sunrises, should the weather cooperate. Closer to home, dancing lessons, cooking lessons and showings of Spanish films are guaranteed on a regular basis. Most schools provide activities at a small fee, or as part of the tuition, depending on the school.
Xela also offers the rather unique opportunity to be involved in a huge array of volunteer organizations during your time studying Spanish. Many travelers simply fall in love with the city and stay on as volunteers for months at a time. From working with youth organizations, to helping with local textile collectives, to volunteering as hiking guides to the local volcanoes, there is truly something for everyone.
The truly unique thing that all of Guatemala has to offer, is the culture. The Mayan culture and way of life are very visible, particularly in the Western Highlands. Despite a troubled history, the Mayan way of life and language has survived. It is truly an unforgettable experience going to the market in Huehuetenango, where the indigenous inhabitants of the outlying areas come to sell textiles, art, food, and everything in between.
In short, Guatemala has every reason to entice the eager to learn Spanish student. Not only is it one of the least expensive places to live and study Spanish, it provides the chance to experience the culture, language, and absolutely stunning scenery of one of my favourite countries in the world.