My experience with the school was a good one. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. My first day, I sat down and the teacher started her lesson- speaking nothing but Spanish. The first two hours were a little rocky, with my trying to understand what she meant with my extremely limited vocabulary. There was a lot of "como se dice __" going on. By the end of the first day though, I got the jist of what she was trying to tell me, and our lessons had a predictable format.
Each lesson would usually start with some chit-chat and review of my homework, which consisted of writing 10-20 sentences and, toward the end, completing a worksheet or two. There were a lot of corrections. After homework, she would have me conjugate verbs. In English, for example, you can say "run", "ran" or "running". In Spanish, there is a word for each of the following: to run, I run, you run, we run, he/she runs, they run, I ran, you ran, we ran, he/she ran, they ran. And that is only in present tense and "preterit" tense, which is basically past tense. There are 12 more tenses that I have not even learned yet. My teacher Aura would alternate verb conjugation exercises with new concepts- things like pronouns, adverbs, and articles. Most nouns in Spanish are masculine or feminine. A masculine noun like "book" goes with the article "el". The feminine noun like "house" goes with the article "la". Therefore it is not simply "the house"- it is "la casa" or "el libro". Remembering which gender a thing is can be hard. Most of the time when talking to my teacher, I would use the wrong gender. It's something you just have to memorize, like the verb conjugations.
At 10:00 am, two hours into our lesson, all of the students got a 30 minute break where we could get a cup of tea or coffee, talk with the other students, go for a walk outside or buy something at the pastry shop across the road. This was SUCH a relief for me. I did not realize how hard it would be to sit for two hours talking and trying to understand only Spanish. A popular comment from the students (including myself!) was "my brain hurts". Using a language you don't understand well requires a lot of concentration.
In the 40 hours that I spent with my teacher, I felt like I learned a lot. But I had to laugh at this chart we found in one of the classrooms. Notice my level after 50-60 hours of study and Hubs' level after speaking Spanish for eight years.
Spanish school here in Antigua is a great deal, in my opinion. My 40 hours of instruction cost $232.50. That comes out to $5.81 per hour for a private Spanish tutor. Here are some things I learned about Spanish school and things I would do differently in order to get the most bang for your buck.
1. Learn as much as you can before you go. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to memorize vocabulary words and make flashcards. I would recommend going through the book Easy Spanish Step-by-Step by Barbara Bregstein. It has a ton of vocabulary words, grammar rules and exercises to give you a good (cheap) foundation. Best of all, it explains everything in English- which you won't get at Spanish school. Reading this book will help you understand and start conjugating verbs, which is what I spent a lot of time doing at school. If I would have memorized my conjugations well before coming down here, I would have had more time to learn new things instead of practicing verbs over and over.
2. Bring your notes from home and a Spanish-English dictionary. I spent weeks going through the above-mentioned book and taking notes- writing vocabulary and grammar rules. If I would have brought these notes with me, I could have saved a lot of writing time and could have studied better. Similarily, a dictionary would have been helpful as well. My husband makes a pretty good Spanish-English dictionary, but not everyone has that. Without notes or a dictionary, you will be limited to what vocabulary you learn at school.
3. Bring an unused full-sized notebook with dividers. I brought a dinky half-used notebook to school with me, and spent a lot of time flipping through pages trying to find stuff. When I get home I'll have a Spanish-only notebook with dividers for vocabulary, verbs, grammar concepts and homework.
The best part of Spanish school was not learning grammar or new words. A book can teach me that. The best part was having my own personal teacher to have conversations with; someone who talked back to me and corrected me when I made mistakes. I got to ask questions about making tortillas and why prisoners ride around in "cages" on the back of pickup trucks. I learned that if you have problems you have "nails", and that "taking the thread" means you are finally starting to understand an idea. These are things I never would have learned out of my book.
The other valuable thing about school was learning correct pronunciation and being forced to speak Spanish. Books attempt to describe pronunciation, but it is not the same as hearing it in person. About halfway through my classes, I noticed that Aura pronounced "n" sounds so that "en" sounded like "eng". I had never read about this or noticed it in other Guatemalans until I spent half a day listening and trying to repeat. Likewise, in my home study I never had to explain what homeschooling was or how far away I lived from my parents.
You may be wondering, "what if I pick up bad habits trying to learn on my own?" I wouldn't worry too much about bad pronunciation if you are trying to learn Spanish by reading and writing. 1) Because you aren't TALKING a lot, and 2) because a teacher does not guarantee good pronunciation. We heard plenty of bad pronunciation at school, from students that had been there three or four weeks. There were a few words that I habitually mispronounced, but after a week of correction I had broken the habit.
Spanish school is a great opportunity, but don't waste it learning grammar or writing down vocabulary words. Start with a good, cheap book and learn by yourself until you think you are ready to have a half-decent conversation in Spanish.