I am now just finishing the second week of my four week grand learning adventure visiting different cities in Guatemala and El Salvador for some immersion Spanish language learning along with lots of other learning of cultures, customs, food and more. Here is the latest update as I finish up with week #2 in Antigua and get ready to head off to the very small village of San Marcos on Lake Atitlán several hours north of here.
I started the adventure by spending two weeks in the relatively large town of Antigua, one of the original capitals of Guatemala (they have moved their capital city 4 times due to volcanoes and other disruptions). I enrolled in an immersion Spanish language school there and had a great start to learning Spanish with my instructor Axel, who you can see here holding Ruby on one of our many excursion to the local area. in this case we are at a local “Finca” which I believe translates most closely to ranch however in this case it was also home to a simply gorgeous botanical garden surrounding an operational coffee plantation and processing plant combined with a coffee museum and a Mayan music museum. Both the coffee and music museums were excellent for me because the guides spoke very clearly and quite slowly and I suspect used a more “elementary” form of Spanish knowing that we were all learning Spanish. But it was still very good experience with the language, tracking lots of facts and figures and some out of the ordinary vocabulary.
You can see our music museum guide here on the right playing the native Mayan marimba which has a beautiful sound. I had not realized that the sound comes not just from the wooden bars that are struck with the baton as I had thought and as a xylophone does for example, but instead is amplified by either a square or round (in section) hollow tube or gourd which hangs down below each board. As you can see if you look closely here on the left, there is no physical connection between these two but when struck, the board seems set up the vibrations within the tube to make the lovely sound. Each board and subsequent “tube” is a different size to create the different notes and many of the ones in the museum used hollowed out and dried gourds (as in squash). The sound was truly wonderful to my ear and I bought several CD’s at the end so I have example of this and other Mayan music with me from now on. Music is one of the great joys of my life and having an ever enriched source of different styles and types of music is one of the things I’ve always valued from traveling. I also acquired several new CD’s of modern Guatemalan musicians and singers, several of them in jazz that I’m enjoying a lot.
As part of the Spanish language instruction we did several of these excursions into the local area and the school also organized an activity almost every afternoon that was optional and I went on several. I also got to know several of my fellow students at the school and we met up on several occasions during the afternoons, evenings and weekends, creating more opportunities for learning both more Spanish and more about the local area, culture and food. One memorable evening for me was when a large rainstorm, which was quite common, canceled our plans to walk the town and instead we quickly found a cafe that we ducked into to stay dry. There were about 20 of us gathered around the table, ages ranged from 17 up to me, there were about 13 different native languages and countries around the table from almost every continent and we just naturally assumed the rule of “Spanish Only” amongst ourselves and it was truly a phenomenal learning experience in doing so. There were some who had been there taking Spanish for several months and others like me for whom it was their first week, and everything in between so it all seemed to work out to have yet another great conversation. I was particularly struck by the fact that our conversation at the table went WAY beyond the typical small talk of a group of otherwise strangers that I find so typical and so unappealing. Learning and living at its best IMHO!
In the afternoons and evenings I worked on several large writing projects I have on the go with Autodesk and was most appreciative that the son of the family I was staying with had a wireless network setup and let me tap into it for a very reasonable fee. It is not at all common for individuals to have internet connections in their homes so most of the time you have to go to an internet café which is usually pretty easy as they are very popular. However this does require a different mindset and schedule when it comes to working online and it is easy to be spoiled by having a connection of your very “own” at home and start taking a contiguous connection for granted. I’ve become quite accustomed to the wide variation in the frequency of a net connection and so it was a big surprise and treat with the deadlines I had for a big article I’m writing for a UK journal to be able to have access to the web right from my room for the two weeks I was in Antigua. It has been interesting to see how the different cities and cultures operate when it comes to internet connections and so for example in Antigua there was quite a range of options from dedicated internet shops which are solely there to provide computers and internet access, to more “full service” cafés and restaurants that provide internet access, usually wireless, for you while you are eating there. It varied from one of these to the next whether they included the internet as part of eating there (no extra charge) or if they sold you time on the internet. Either way it is typically very cheap it seems to me, with rates of anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar per hour. Compared to the highway robbery that many of the high end hotels in North America and Europe this is a real bargain!
Intermixed with all this Ruby and I would venture out for walks to explore the city in the afternoons and evenings and we covered many many kilometers on these walks. I don’t usually use any maps as I like to walk about in my typical serendipitous fashion. In doing so I seem to find an unending number of surprise discoveries that are not in any of the guides or maps such as an interesting garden on the outskirts of town, an old ruin, a beautiful side street, an old church of no special distinction which makes it all the more beautiful to my eyes. I also find this puts me in touch with “the patina of life” I might call it; a glimpse into the typical lives of the people living in the area as you walk amongst them, catch a quick glimpse in the always open doors and windows of their homes, hear the sounds of life with kids playing, dogs barking, music emanating (often blaring) from every other house and the smells of meals cooking, trucks going by and so on. This picture on the right was simultaneously beautiful with the great bursts of bougainvillea purple surrounding this small church and the not so small chimney tower which apparently decided a while back that it wanted to see what things looked like from street level. I was glad to be there AFTER it made it’s leap for freedom!<g>
And so it went each day for the two weeks I was in Antigua. Axel and I spent every morning together from 8am through noon or more pretty much engaged in non stop conversation in Spanish. We spent almost no time with any structure or formal exercises and instead spent all the time talking about a great range of subjects as they came up in conversation. I’m again struck by the power of conversation; the way it wanders very constructively by following a path defined by the two engaged in the conversation, how it is a constant source of serendipitous discovery of ever more interesting and relative topics, etc. Now don’t get me wrong, the conversations were slow and would have no doubt been tortuous for any other Spanish speaker, but they also seemed to me to go relatively quickly and quite deeply as we truly talked about areas we were most interested in from local culture to world politics, geography, music, science, technology and families. Throughout these conversations we used up LOTS of paper taking notes, drawing pictures to communicate the idea or meaning we were trying to communicate, etc. We never reverted to English and only occasionally did I need to call upon Axel’s excellent English for a word or look them up in the Spanish/English dictionary. Similarly we spent very little time on formal grammar or structure and instead it was a matter of constant correction and some explanation as I worked to put thoughts and sentences together.
I am sure there may be some academics and language experts who would argue that this is not a very productive or effective way of learning as it is so unstructured and “aimless”. But isn’t it interesting how similar this is to the way we all learn our first language as children? To the best of my knowledge, observation and experiences as children and parents we don’t spend ANY time doing language exercise, conjugating verbs or any other structured forms of learning. Nor is there any dictionary to be consulted nor any “native” language to fall back on. Instead we have “conversations” we draw lots of pictures, we read books and tell stories, and we do a lot of word association by holding things up or pointing to things within our environment or in pictures and photos. Throughout the process we have a constant case of “course correction” to find the right words, pronounce them correctly and string them together properly. And so we DO learn the rules or grammar and build out our vocabulary and learn proper pronunciation (well sometimes). We just do it all indirectly, informally and to some I suppose very clumsily. Yet just look at how much and how fast we learn. And of course for this first language we are literally learning the entire concept of language as well as the first language or in some cases the first two languages, all at the same time and in a remarkably short time at that! So for me this was an extremely productive and effective method to my way of thinking and learning.
And then, in what seemed like a flash my two weeks in Antigua were up and it was time for Ruby and I to head out on our next adventure to the famous Lake Atitlán for week #3 at a Spanish school in the very small village of San Marcos. More on this adventure in the next posting.
Thanks for such a great time Antigua! I learned so much more than every expected and will remember for a long time to come.