I REMEMBER THE EXACT MOMENT I DECIDED to spend my next vacation at an intensive Spanish-language school. I was in a cab at a traffic light in Acapulco when an American woman rolled down her window to ask my driver for directions. “ Say-nyor!” she called out, speaking loudly and slowly, as if he didn’t understand much Spanish. “ Don-day es-tah el aero-puerco?” Without batting an eye, the cabbie gave her directions—not to the destination she’d requested but to the airport. Either he was accustomed to hearing his language butchered every day of the week, or he simply didn’t know the way to the flying pig.
A few months later I found myself climbing the steep hills of Guanajuato, a picturesque town in the mountains of central Mexico, to the Instituto Falcón, a private school that teaches Spanish as a second language. Locating the school’s small sign above a nondescript door, I climbed on, this time up a long flight of steps, thinking that this truly must be an instituto of higher learning.
It had been a long time since my four inattentive years of high school Spanish. When school director Jorge Barroso handed me the placement exam, just opening it caused my palms to sweat. I had hoped to be placed in an intermediate-level class, but I didn’t have a clue about direct object pronouns or copreterit tense conjugations. Proving that I had not come so far since high school, within minutes I was reduced to peeking at the exam of the woman next to me. Finally, Señor Barroso returned and gave my papers a cursory glance. “Oh, so you haven’t studied any Spanish at all,” he said.
That was the first time I thought about sneaking out of school and never coming back, and it wasn’t the last. But I stayed, mostly because I’ve got 300 million reasons for wanting to learn Spanish. That’s the number of Spanish-speaking people in the world—people with whom I can’t manage more than a perfunctory exchange. I’m tired of being an ignorant gringo, and I can’t afford to be one: Mexico bought $27 billion in goods from Texas last year. We’re a bilingual economy, so we might as well start acting like one.
The Instituto Falcón’s teaching method is simple: Classes of no more than six students speak Spanish all the time with smart and energetic teachers. The program is flexible, with new students starting every Monday and staying for as many weeks as they like, and my two weeks of study cost $220. I had five daily classes, and during each I filled page after page with copious notes: vocabulary, rules of usage, and conjugations, all the while feeling as lost as the lady searching for the flying pig. Somehow I couldn’t quite keep up with anything. I’d open my dictionary to look up a word I didn’t know, and while I was doing that I’d miss five more.
Exhausted at the end of the day, I excused myself as my classmates made plans for drinks and dinner, and headed to my hotel. To provide a total immersion in the language, the instituto recommends that students stay with local families, a bargain at only $19 a day, including meals (arrangements should be made in advance through the school). But long set in my traveling ways and unwilling to give up my privacy, I was staying at the venerable Hotel y Museo Santa