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Susan Kraus Headshot

Budget Vacation? Try Language School

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Aqui was mi problema: "Quiero apprender mas espanol porque hablo solamente un little y solamante en el presente." I was tense challenged.

Think very bad Spanglish.

No matter. I wanted to upgrade my Spanish, to see if the old brain could still learn to conjugate. And with only a week for this experiment, I needed a flexible, individualized curriculum, not a 'canned' course structure.

Another priority: I wanted to be able to feel safe, as a woman, walking alone, at night, in Mexico.

And I wanted all of the above really, really cheap.

Clearly it was time to google.

Language schools abound in Mexico. First to pop up was IMAC, an international program that operates in Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, Argentina, Spain and Ecuador. It has a more set curriculum, classes starting every Monday, with both group classes ($220 a week for 5 hours a day) and tutoring ($100 a week for 1 hour a day, 4 hours daily for $368). There is a registration fee and book fee. Lodging costs vary, with the traditional "homestay" (live with local family, private room but often shared bath, includes meals) at $98 a week (hard to believe, but true.) You can also rent private rooms in posadas (inns) or hotels with rates from $160 - $328 a weeks (if you share a bath, cost drops.)

I looked at 3-4 schools, comparing costs, class size and flexibility of instruction. I preferred to start in the middle of the week, not a Monday, due to a conference I was going to attend a week later. And I needed to be in or by Guadalajara (the 2nd largest city in Mexico, capital of the state of Jalisco.) I looked at student reviews, and tracked a sequence on Trip Advisor.

I ended up choosing a school in Tlaquepaque (pronounced T-la-kay-pa-kay). Just outside of Guadalajara, Tlaquepaque has a classic town jardin (central square) with gardens and a rotunda, galleries, artisan shops, churches, decent restaurants, festivals and mariachi bands. For big city museums and night life, you hop a quick bus ride into downtown Guadalajara (6 pesos for the regular bus or splurge on the air-conditioned 'special' bus for 10 pesos... at about 12 pesos to the dollar).

The Guadalajara Language Center (www.glc.com.mx) is a small, independent language school in a reconverted house. I'd decided on 4 hours daily of one-on-one to maximize any hope of making progress, at $268 (compared to IMAC's $368). I had two tutors, for two-hours each, with a break in the middle to allow my fried brain to rest. The learning/teaching was the most personalized, engaging-yet-challenging, I've ever had... an intuitive process vs. a curriculum.

GLC also provides group classes: a two-hour class for $118 a week, four-hours for $208. Prices per hour drop with every added week. Owner Wouter Stut (a Dutchman who went to Mexico to travel in 2003, fell in love, and now has three kids and a language school) does whatever it takes to make it work for each student. It was off-season, and so classes were just a few students, mostly European.

But lodging costs are what make language school the best bargain vacation ever. I opted for a "home-stay" (private room, bath and meals) for $23 per day. (Yes, you read right: a room and three meals for $23 a day.) You can also stay in hotels or inns. But, when I return with my husband, or a friend, I'm doing a private apartment. GLC has some private apartments (you can peruse them on-line), including all utilities, for about $175 a week for 1 BR and $250-$350 for 2-3 BR (all with fully equipped kitchens, TV, DVD players, patio or garden, with monthly rates lower). Apartment costs are not per person, so couples or families score big-time. The 'secret' is that you can keep the housing even when not taking a class: take one week of class, and stay another week to play. Alternate school weeks with 'practice' weeks.

A month in a furnished, all utilities included, apartment for $550 a month?

That is way cheaper than home.

The school also offers shared apartments, which I don't recommend. You have no idea who will be sharing your kitchen, shower and living space and it could get ugly (literally.)

There are language schools, some more corporate, some privately owned, in every region of Mexico. Costs vary, as do housing options. But, especially for those with flexible schedules or who desire a longer term adventure, language schools provide a quality experience at bargain cost.

My week in Tlaquepaque was exactly what I needed. I discovered that my menopausal brain can still learn to conjugate. I immersed myself in village life. I felt safe walking alone, even at night. Families gather in the jardin in the evenings to stroll or sit, listen to mariachi, maybe dance. Walking to school each morning, I passed women scrubbing their front steps and sidewalks, children giggling in their uniforms on the way to school. Rush hour was at 1-2 p.m. as everyone raced home for lunch.

I loved how Tlaquepaque sounds so different: the Peruvian flute that means the knife sharpener is on the corner; the train-whistle woo-woo for fried bananas; cowbells for "basura," trash pick-up; the water man bellowing "Agua-a-a-a, Agua-a-a-a"; church bells on the hour; echoes of "Zeta, Zeta, Zeta gas" as the truck, loaded precariously with cylanders of gas for stoves and boilers, inches up and down ever back street and alley.

Tlaquepaque smells different too: street vendors hawking 'fast-food'; roasting meat emanating from cafes; the damp mustiness of hosed streets; the roses of the jardin, the fumes of the buses and junker cars.

For many here, life is poor as far as certain possessions. But life is also rich. I felt my anxiety levels drop. Every day there was time: to eat slowly, to read, to walk, to think, to nap. I stopped making 'to do' lists in my head.

On day 7, I was in a café. The waitress asked if I would like the pork special. I asked if the spices were very hot. We discussed the benefits of different sauces, moles to verdes. We spoke in Spanish, and I even used the past tense.

Next trip I'm gearing up for the subjunctive. I really think I can do it.