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A How-To Guide to Language Travel

18 Mar

The Plaza Mayor

When most people think of languages, they remember struggling through French lessons at school – strict, creepy German teachers and horrific verbal exams. To be sure, learning a new language can be tricky. In my experience, school is not the best setting for such a task. Usually, only a few hours a week are dedicated to the goal and progress seems impossible.

That’s why I decided to try a different approach. I signed up for a Spanish language travel in Salamanca, Spain. For two months, I would live with a host family, attend lessons four hours a week and immerse myself in Spanish culture. I did practise in advance, yes. Equipped with some basic knowledge of language and a shiny blue suitcase full of dresses and dictionaries, I flew to Salamanca where my host family awaited me.

Now, it has to be said that your typical host family does not speak any English. My madre espanola only knew how to say ”yes”, ”no” and ”I love George Clooney!” (which she said very enthusiatically). My Spanish ”father” picked me up and off we went. You can choose many different kinds of accommodation from student flats to studios. It all depends on your budget and needs. I chose a host family so I could practise my language skills with them and so I could enjoy their Spanish cuisine (you pay extra for meals).

What they call ”la comida” (lunch) was to me a big dinner. I was often told I didn’t eat much, along with the question: ”Un poco mas?” (A little bit more?) I rarely ate much during dinner (a small meal provided after 8). But other things I quickly grew accustomed to. The shops close during the afternoon in Spain. At first, I thought it a pain as I was at school in the morning and had no time to shop then. But after a while I joined the Spaniards in their habit of having an afternoon nap called a siesta. Sometimes I slept for quite a while but at least I was well-rested.

Salamanca is a beautiful, comfy little town with gorgeous architecture, friendly people (shopkeepers were always happy to chat) and a great atmosphere. I spent many afternoons in the Plaza Mayor – a large square with terraces and shops on all sides. True, it was expensive, crowded and a tourist hot-spot but it had a good view and provided entertainment in the form of musicans. My trip took place in August so I enjoyed a great deal of sunshine and learned to appreciate coca cola (they say a glass a day is healthy in summer).

The classes themselves were excellent. The teachers are all experienced native speakers who are used to teaching foreigners and lessons are interactive. Initially, I worried about learning Spanish grammar in Spanish but I found it surprisingly easy. It needs to be said that the teachers speak very clearly and use simple language at the lower levels. This difference is never noticed as much as when you watch Spanish cinema. They speak at airplane speed, omit syllables and they mumble. Thank God for subtitles!

However, the lessons are constructed well and progress is inevitable (unless you only came to party, which some of the youngsters do). Speaking of which, there is a good nightlife in Salamanca. Great tapas restaurants and good clubs. Although we were warned about the local men chasing us, saying: ”Rubia!” (blonde girl) They never did. I had no bad experiences in my two-month stay.

We also had plenty of activities at school. This includes tours, film viewings, excursions to nearby towns (I went to Madrid for a day), salsa (highly recommended), flamenco, cookery, etc. Depending on the language and location there are sure to be activities to appeal to you. They also have special programme’s such as history of art lessons or literature. Lectures on such subjects can also be attended.

My only gripe was with some of my classmates at the school. Beware of the Italians, French and Brazilians/Portuguese people. Because their chosen language is so similar to their own, they already have a good understanding of the language they’ve come to learn. As a result, they are constantly disrupting class with long stories full of words the others don’t understand. Sometimes I just thought to myself: do they EVER shut up? If you think Spanish is so easy, why bother come here and make a nuisance of yourself?

This summer I’m going to try French lessons in Montpellier. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes. It’ll be a combination of group lessons and private lessons (which should be a sure way to learn).

>In the Footsteps of Cleopatra

6 Jan

>So I went to Egypt this last August for a week. It certainly was an interesting holiday – the kind that makes you rethink what you know. Although it only lasted a meagre 8 days, it felt like an eternity. I’ve learned to appreciate the strange Muslim chanting to announce prayer and the funny guttural language that surrounded me. It was my first visit to Africa and it definitely left an impression. I thought it interesting to stand face-to-sand with the pyramids and crawl down the stairs into the empty treasure chamber. The crowds, the smells, the emptiness. It’s nothing like in the movies and that’s how it should be.

Hot is another word that comes to mind when describing Egypt in August. 46 degrees hot one unfortunate afternoon. Also, camels, not a very comfortable means of transportation. Those creatures are in desperate need of a seatbelt up there to stop you from gliding down again. We travelled in a luxurious cruise ship complete with paddling pool (advertised as a small swimming pool) and hunky Egyptian crew in hormone overdrive.

While there, we engaged in many excursions to the ancient temples built by the Pharaohs of Egypt. Luckily, we did not encounter any mummies (except in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo). The holiday had many highlights and few low points, most of which were self-inflicted (we arrived a tad late at the airport and had to have our luggage sent after us on a later plane which forced us to borrow someone else’s clothes for several days) so all in all, the experience was very satisfying.

The only real nuisance on the trip were the pesky salesmen one met with all over the place – mostly at the tourist hot spots, admittedly. We found ourself cornered, chased and tempted with phrases such as: “Beautiful girl! Everything is free here!” Many seemed to think that complimenting our appearance would open up our wallets but they were out of luck with our group. We rarely even acknowledged their request with a response and simply soldiered on. Ignoring them seemed the best solution. The locals themselves were all friendliness. The children, from a young age, happily greet the tourists with a bubbly “Hello!” and an old man helped us cross the street in a busy area.

We discussed religion, marriage and relationships with the crew of the boat (not with the hormone-driven ones mentioned before) and learned to put aside our differences and become friends. In a sense, this holiday taught me that no matter where we come from, what we believe in and how we dress, we’re all the same in essentials. I now look at the Muslims in my country through new eyes – more critically than before because my expectations are raised due to the decent Egyptians I met and befriended. Maybe we all need to travel to different continents once in a while – to get out of our comfort zone and expand our horizons. Plus, it’s a nice excuse to dabble in exotic fashion, try to learn a new language (they will undoubtedly teach you the bad words first as the rules of language acquisition dictates) and meet new friends in unexpected places.