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Speak the Language and Enjoy the Journey More

By Nicole Minard

Traveling in another country is so much more fun if you can speak the national language - even just a little bit. If you can't speak it, learning the language can become a wonderful part of the journey. Here's a suggestion for your next foreign traveling event: begin your trip by attending a language school in your destination country.

Several years ago, I made a visit to Guatemala. I traveled there alone to attend a language school and arranged to meet a friend to tour the country later. The Spanish language institute I chose was in the city nicknamed Xela (Quezaltenango).

I selected this school partly because the fee included boarding with a Guatemalan family. That appealed to me because of its total immersion factor~ language and culture.

The institute had sent excellent instructions with my enrollment materials. The assumption was that I spoke no Spanish at all - which was basically true: two semesters of Spanish hadn't put me in the league of conversational expertise.

Arriving alone and travel-weary at the airport in Guatemala City, I made it successfully through customs and proceeded to the street for a cab. The driver looked at my information printed in Spanish and drove me to one of the hotels the school had indicated in the packet of instructions. The desk personnel spoke English and soon had me situated comfortably for the night.

Next morning, I took the bus to Xela, and after the several hours journey, watching the countryside change as we rolled by, I arrived at the school ready to meet my tutor, my host family, and start exploring the city before beginning classes next day.

It was exciting to be in another country, all on my own and yet to have people prepared to guide and assist me. It's far superior to using a Fodor Guide, and yet a bit more adventurous than traveling with a tour group.

Each student had a personal Spanish tutor. We met for a sit-down session every day, playing language games to build vocabulary and having conversations for practice. For lunch, all the students and tutors gathered to converse in larger groups.

Since we were there from around the world, everyone used the one language in common: Spanish. Some of the students were there only briefly, for a brush up before continuing their journey. The tutoring cycles were one week long.

There were also several students like me who were staying on for another week or more. We made plans for the weekends, with assistance from the school if necessary.

Once, we took the bus to the Pacific coast, staying a couple days at the beach. Another weekend we rented mountain bikes and rode to a hot springs resort. In a way, the Spanish school became a background and structure for exploring the country.

But my favorite part about being in Xela was living with my host family. By sharing meals and other daily experiences, I had a sense of the culture that wouldn't have been possible as guest of a hotel.

At the end of three weeks, I said good-bye to my Guatemalan family and my Spanish tutors, and connected with my friend to travel together to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. I was comfortable enough with the language by now that I could get around, although I really wasn't fluent.

We traveled to Tikal and Atitlan and Antigua. In these highly tourist locations, we wouldn't have needed even rudimentary Spanish; the people who work with travelers generally had better English skills than I had Spanish.

Still, I enjoyed being able to practice speaking the language, and it was the beginnings of eventual fluency. As it turned out, those weeks in Xela - at the school and with my host family - were highlights of my time in Guatemala, integral to the journey. The experience was life enriching, which is what travel is meant to be.

Nicole Minard is a contributing author to News about Travel, the leading resource for travel information. Visit Nicole's archive of articles at http://www.atravelto.com/

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