Learning Spanish (and Maya) in Yucatan
About two or three times a week, we are asked why we moved from California to the Yucatan. And when we answer, we are reminded that one of the main reasons we came here was to learn a second language. We briefly considered setting up shop on the island of Bali in Indonesia, but decided that speaking Indonesian was not going to be very helpful outside of Indonesia. Spanish, on the other hand, is spoken around the world. In fact, according to a recent study by SpanishSEO, 6.78% of the world’s population speaks Spanish. On a web page entitled “Ten Facts About the Spanish Language“, we learned that with 329 million native speakers in the world, Spanish ranks as the world’s No. 2 language in terms of how many people speak it as their first language. There are actually more people speaking Spanish as their first language than English (328 million) but far less than Chinese (1.2 billion). So it seems like a particularly useful language to learn, don’t you think?
In 2002 we arrived with a lot of English writing and speaking skills (Working Gringo even has a degree in English!), and might have even been considered erudite in certain circles. But with only California place-names and one semester of a UCLA Spanish course under our collective belts, we were at a preschool level when it came to speaking Spanish. This was nothing if not a humbling experience.
As we were just normal gringos when we first arrived (we weren’t Working Gringos quite yet), we spent our days in the streets of Merida exploring, paying bills, finding needed items, and learning about our new community. We would come home exhausted at the end of the day with the stress of trying to communicate in this new foreign language. We would huddle in the living room and watch the Warner Channel on television just to hear spoken English. The comfort value was almost as good as a cup of hot tea with milk and honey and a cookie.
But the next day, we’d be ready again to brave the language immersion, and indeed, immersion is the best policy when it comes to switching idiomas (languages). Years later, we no longer need to watch the Warner Channel, though the voice of the announcer reminds us fondly of our early days here. We are far from fluent, but we no longer dread making a phone call to order pizza or inquiring about a strange charge on our bill at Telmex. We can even hold passable conversations with our Spanish-speaking friends about everything from what our children are studying in escuela (school) to what we think about current events. Though all this is true, we are still relieved when a conversation with Mexican friends is switched to English for our sake (and humbled…). We still have a lot to learn, and we are now convinced it will be a lifelong pursuit.
How did we get this far? When we first moved here, we took formal classes. We chose the Benjamin Franklin Institute because at the time, they provided the only classroom situation we could find without having to ask directions or get in our car. The three of us (one of our daughters was here with us) took classes three mornings a week, struggling through grammar and pronunciation in a classroom setting. If we had to do it over, we would still make a point of learning the basics, but some of us might have chosen a different venue. We discovered that we all learned differently and at a different pace. And being stuck inside a dark classroom for three hours a day is never our idea of the right way to learn.
At the same time, we hired a young bilingual Yucateco who had been introduced to us. His name was Oscar and we paid him to walk around town with us, explaining to us how things worked and helping us learn the names for places and things. Oscar was a kind, fun and thoughtful young man (who has since moved to Toronto… hola, Oscar!) and we have fond memories of our days of wandering through the markets and streets of Merida, Kanasin and even San Cristobal in Chiapas. We found these lessons much more enjoyable and effective, and the Spanish started to sink in.
Where we really started to learn our day-to-day Spanish, however, was where the rubber meets the road: when we had to. We learned to communicate with the albañiles working on our office restoration, with the woman who cleaned our house and with José on the street where we parked our car. We learned to talk with our neighbor who took us to la corrida (a bullfight), with our Cuban neighbor who fixed our plumbing and eventually with our clients who came to us for help promoting their services to an English-speaking public. None of this would have worked as well, of course, if we hadn’t had that foundation in grammar and pronunciation.
We have learned that our experiences are not particularly unique. Many expats who come here to live either see learning Spanish as a gift or a necessity. And everyone trying to learn Spanish in Mexico has told us how helpful and patient the locals are when it comes to listening, communicating and teaching their language. Anyone who has spent any time in France trying to use their high-school French will understand how important it is that the locals enjoy your attempts at mangling their native tongue.
Oftentimes, we have learned the most from conversations with waiters or bus drivers or tour guides who are happy to exchange on-the-spot Spanish lessons for a few English lessons in return. And listening to how Spanish speakers mangle English has taught us how the Spanish language works. As we try to fit Spanish into the syntax and expressions that are comfortable in English, we realize that our Spanish-speaking friends are doing the same in reverse. Parsing those mistakes teaches us how to do it right in Spanish. Entiendes? Sure you do… and if you don’t yet, keep trying. You will!
Learning Spanish is not just for those of us who live here. Turistas(tourists) come to Merida for the express purpose of learning Spanish. On extended vacations for anywhere from a week to several months, they come for Spanish immersion programs with one of the local schools. They stay with local families (home-stay), attend classes (usually in the morning) and go on field trips. All in Spanish, of course. Merida is becoming more and more popular as a destination for this type of study, competing with cities in Guatemala and other parts of Mexico.
In the spirit of assisting our fellow extranjeros (foreigners) to develop their Spanish language skills, or in helping travelers find local Spanish language immersion schools, we are listing here the schools in Merida and the surrounding area that we know about and can recommend. Some are better than others, and when choosing a school for yourself, it is important to remember that everyone’s learning needs are different. Many schools have classes that start every Monday. Some have programs that are geared towards college students, while others might be more appropriate for adult learners. We highly recommend that you speak on the phone or correspond with the school to ask them questions before you sign up, but we’re pretty sure that no matter which one you choose, you’ll enjoy your experience and you will learn some Spanish!
We are also listing the names of some language tutors that we know, though this is a more fluid list. We encourage you to write us with your recommendations if you have found a good tutor and we will include them. If you are in Merida, you could also check the physical bulletin board at the Merida English Library for tutors offering their services.
Before the list, however, we’d like to add a few thoughts for you to consider.
- Learning Spanish has probably been one of the most mind-altering events of our adult lives, although the effect has not been sudden or dramatic, nor particularly obvious to an outside observer.
- Learning Spanish has had the effect of rearranging the furniture of our understanding of the world around us.
- Learning Spanish has given us insight into the entire Latin culture that makes up such a large part of the world and its history.
- Learning Spanish has taught us subtleties and nuances in life that as English speakers we had never considered.
- Learning Spanish has opened up cracks in our worldview, allowing us a glimpse into an entirely new way of looking at the world.
- Learning Spanish has given us an appreciation for the way that Spanish-speaking people think, talk, love, party, plan, lie, count, pray, learn… it has taught us that it is probably impossible to really grok people who speak a different language until you can speak and understand their language.
More than anything, it has given us an increased appreciation for the intricate, infinite, delicate, magnificent and awesome differences that all somehow dance together to form humanity.
As you try to wrap your tongue around yet another verb tense, we encourage you also to keep in mind the well-accepted fact that Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn. English is one of the hardest. Learning Spanish has given us a new appreciation for all the Mexicans in the US that we know who have learned to speak English. Our own employee, Joseph, speaks English like an American and has not spent more than four weeks total in the United States in his entire life. How did he DO that?
We wish we had enough lifetimes to learn other languages, and to appreciate the myriad cultures that they represent. We are grateful for this time and opportunity to learn Spanish. And we can only wish you the same paradigm-bending experience. The following is an as-comprehensive-as-we-can-make-it list of Merida’s Spanish Language schools.
Spanish Language Schools in Merida
Contact: Diana Castillo
Address: Calle 23 #117 x 24, Colonia México
Languages taught: Spanish, French
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Private tutoring only.
YL Notes: Alianza Francesa is where local families send their children to learn French. But they also teach Spanish… but not Mexican Spanish. They teach Latin American Spanish, and there is a difference. They teach writing and reading, speaking and listening. One of their teachers speaks English, and the rest are Spanish or French (or both) speakers.
Benjamin Franklin Institute
Contact: Rosy Cetina
Address: Calle 57 #474-A x 52 y 54, Centro
Homestay: They will provide names of families, but do not have a formal program.
Languages taught: Spanish, English
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Both
YL Notes: Housed in a big old colonial building, this is the granddaddy of language schools here in Merida. They teach Spanish to foreigners but we think the bulk of their activity is teaching English to locals (they are the oldest English-teaching outfit in Merida).
Calle 55 Spanish School and Crepería
Phone: +52 1 999 274 3130 (from abroad) or 044 999 274 3130 (from Mérida)
Contact: Agustín or Rachel
Address: Calle 55 # 480 x 56 y 58, Colonia Centro
Languages taught: Spanish
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Both. Intensive classes, semi-intensive classes, evening classes and private lessons.
YL Notes: Calle 55 is a new-generation Spanish school that aims to teach Spanish or French while enjoying all the cultural benefits those languages have to offer. Located in the historic centro, just walking distance to restaurants, churches, museums and shopping, Calle 55 provides many different levels of learning, can arrange a homestay, invites their students to relax and enjoy their environment outside the classroom and provides books, films and other resources for the full immersive language experience.
CIS – Centro de Idiomas Sureste
Phone: +52-999-923-0954 (Centro), 926-9494 (Norte), 920-2810 (García Ginéres)
Contact: Chloe Pacheco, Director or Jose Luis Lopez Espinosa , Spanish Program Coordinator
Address: Calle 52 #455 x 49 y 51 (Centro), Calle 11 #203-C x 26, Col. García Ginéres, and Calle 14 #106 x 25, Col. Mexico
Languages taught: Spanish, English, French, Italian, German, Japanese
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Both, as well as Business Language classes to companies.
YL Notes: With three locations and a wide variety of languages taught, CIS seems to us to be the most serious linguistic training school here. Chloe Pacheco, the owner, came here in 1968. She started working with CIS in 1978, teaching English. She and her husband purchased the school in 1980 and have been running it ever since. Their most popular Spanish course is a 5-day/week, 5-hour-day Intensive class that has classroom in the mornings and cultural activities in the afternoons. It is the oldest Spanish-teaching program in Merida. They also have special classes for Yucatan residents conducted every week at 5 PM for an hour and a half. Here’s a review from TripAdvisor.
Habla: The Center for Language and Culture.
Phone:+52 (999) 948-1872 or US Phone (401) 374-3237
Contact: María del Mar Patrón Vázquez and/or Kurt Wootton
Address: Calle 26 No. 99 B x 19 y 21. Col. México
Languages taught: Spanish, English, Art
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Spanish Immersion program, Locals Spanish classes and custom Spanish Courses. Private tutoring on request.
YL Notes: We have heard nothing but great things about this school. We’ve talked to a number of expats who are taking classes here, and thoroughly enjoying the multidisciplinary approach to learning. If you are living here and wanting to learn Spanish because you actually want and need to learn it (as opposed to taking it as a class to earn a degree), or if you are coming to Merida and would like to take a Spanish Immersion course, we encourage you to check this school out. It was started and continues to be run by a brilliant, young and innovative couple with new ideas and lots of interesting connections. We’re thrilled that they’ve decided to set up shop in Merida. Read more about this school and their owners in our interview here. Also read about a recent mural that was painted at the school here.
Institute of Modern Spanish
Phone: +52-999-291-2717 or toll-free 1-877-4MERIDA
Contact: Miguel Ceron, Director. Our contact was Janese Ott.
Address: Calle 15A x 16A, Col. Maya (Family First Cultural Center)
Homestay: Yes (and dormitory style housing)
Languages taught: Spanish
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Classroom training or Private classes. Also have business training.
YL Notes: The Institute of Modern Spanish is geared to those people who are coming to Merida to learn the language and immerse themselves in the culture. Classes are held in Spanish, but they also have other offerings such as Business Spanish, Mayan Culture, Yucatan History and Spanish-American Literature. They provide students with the option of booking tours of the local sites as well as participating in student excursions (at an extra cost). They can provide college credit for programs of two weeks or more. They also have a program for assisting local children with their English, allowing Spanish language students to work and offset the cost of their programs.
Instituto de Lengua y Cultura de Yucatan
Contact: Cecilia Novelo
Address: Calle 13 No. 214 x 28 y 30, Col. Garcia Gineres
Languages taught: Spanish
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Classroom
YL Notes: This school offers Spanish language training in an immersion program of their own design. They combine classroom training with real-life situations such as going to the bank or cooking a meal. They also provide specialized classes upon request such as Spanish for Legal, Medical or Diplomatic needs.
Address: Calle 37 No. 539 x 72a y 74, Col. García Ginéres
Languages taught: Spanish
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Classroom training and private tutoring.
YL Notes: This school offers ten levels of Spanish instruction. The average length of stay for their students is 12-16 weeks. They cater to college students taking Spanish for credit. They also offer holiday courses for families wishing to study together, as well as Spanish for Business, Secretaries and Assistants, Medicine and Healthcare, Emergency Personnel and for Teachers.
Contact: Gabriela Bojorquez
Address: Calle 13 #214 x 28 y 30, Col. García Ginéres
Languages taught: Spanish
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Tutoring only.
YL Notes: This school has five English-speaking Spanish teachers who are available for one-on-one tutoring. They also have teachers who can teach French or German.
Spanish Center Mérida
Phone: +52 999 926 68 19
Address: Calle 13 No. 108 por calle 18 y 20, Colonia Itzimna
Homestay: Yes, with walking distance to school.
Languages taught: Spanish
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Minigroups with a maximum of 5 Students and private classes. One on one, private tutoring upon request. Online Spanish tutoring is also possible.
Spanish level: From absolute beginner to advanced speaker.
YL Notes:This school offers Spanish immersion classes, including teaching of Spanish, Mexican culture, history and other Mexican-relevant topics like political and economic situations. They use a workbook from Instituto Cervantes, the organization that promotes the Spanish language around the world. Group courses start with 3 hours a day to a maximum of 6 hours per day. Class begins at 9:00 AM. Courses start every Monday. You must reserve your spot the week before you want to start.
Spanish Institute of Merida
Phone: From U.S. and Canada: 1-800-539-9710. From Mexico and the rest of the world: +52-999-925-4475
Contact: Christian Cuellar, Academic Director
Address: Calle 60 x 37 #358, Centro Histórico
Homestay: All our students get private accommodations with private bathroom and A/C.
Languages taught: Spanish
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Group classes and one-on-one classes.
YL Notes: The Spanish Institute of Merida has received the “Educational Excellence Award” for 2007 from UNESCO, and was named the “Best Immersion Program” in Mexico in 2006 by Language Learning Magazine. It is a non-profit organization that specializes in teaching the Spanish Language and its culture and has been doing so since 1984. Their program conforms to ACTFL standards. More than a 100 Universities in the USA and Canada have given credits for classes taught here. All teachers have University degrees in Spanish as well as experience teaching Spanish as a Second Language.
Spanish Schools Outside of Merida
Na'atik Language and Culture Institute
Address: Calle 57 entre 78 y 80, Colonia Francisco May, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, Mexico 77240
Homestay: Accommodations range from private rooms in a family home to private guest quarters on a family's property.
Languages taught: Maya and Spanish
Classroom or Private Tutoring: Both are available
YL Notes: Weekend Immersion is a great way to break a language plateau. This is one of only two schools in Yucatan that we know of that teaches the Maya language to foreigners. Also, Felipe Carrillo Puerto is a traditional Yucatecan town with strong roots in Maya history and culture. Just being there will be an education!!
Interested in languages? You might like our article on basics of the Mayan language.
If you are looking for schools for your children in Merida, read our article on Schools in Merida Mexico.