This story is from Texas Monthly’s archives. We have left it as it was originally published, without updating, to maintain a clear historical record.
When I first arrived in Cuernavaca, I was determined to learn Spanish well enough to converse easily in the two months I planned to spend in Mexico. With a good ear, reasonable intelligence, and the inmersión total they talk about in the language school catalogs—why not? A tyro’s optimism. After three weeks of that total immersion, my mind shut down; even my English became incoherent. The shock of that experience made me realize how dependent I was on my own language and culture and it forced me to confront them and myself against the background of a very different language and culture.
There are Spanish schools in Mexico for all types of people at a wide range of prices and quality. The private institutions generally provide better teaching than the universities, where classes are too large and methods at best behind times. Many U.S. colleges and universities give credit for Spanish courses taken in private schools, but we strongly advise students to check with their own college or university Spanish departments before heading south. The GI Bill does not allow payment for veterans’ study in the private schools, with the exception of the Instituto Allende in San Miguel.
Normally, beginning students of Spanish learn basic vocabulary and grammar rapidly during the first three weeks. About that time, however, it is not uncommon for some students to start bursting into tears in class. There comes a point of total frustration—when the language categories you’ve held dear for years balk at this new and strange way of speaking. This mental darkness can last for several days or several weeks. It means that the shock of the new language has hit you full force, and your brain is trying to open up new channels to accommodate the material. It means, in short, that you are learning. The less English you speak, up to a point, the better. However, your mind needs—and will seize—daily lapses into English. Good schools do not use translation as a teaching technique. The urge to think from English into Spanish, and vice versa, especially at the beginning, is nearly irresistible, but if you try to pattern Spanish sentences after their English counterparts you won’t be speaking Spanish.
It will take at least two months in a good school to develop a reasonable command of the language. However, most schools offer shorter courses for the less ambitious or for those wanting to brush up on their Spanish.
If complete fluency is your goal, you will need at least three months of classes to approach it. After that, with daily practice, you will be free to explore the new communication possibilities on the other side of the language barrier.
What follows is a description of the leading schools in the various cities that offer courses to meet your needs.
Cuernavaca (population, 200,000) in the state of Morelos is the most important Spanish language center in Mexico. Five of the language schools here teach Spanish with a high degree of excellence.
In the words of one of its many resident intellectuals, Cuernavaca has been the bedroom of foreigners from Montezuma on. Since Cortés built his palace here in the 1500s, the numerous European and American residents have given the town a decidedly international flavor. Cuernavaca is intimate and relaxed. The “city of eternal spring,” it has year-round temperatures of 70° to 85°.
There is a degree of healthy competition between Cuernavaca’s language schools that keeps them constantly revising and improving their methodology. They encourage students to live with Mexican families (who charge $60 to $180 a month for room and board). The schools also maintain lists of hotels and rooms for rent ($50 to $140 per month); furnished homes and apartments ($120 to $220—it’s wise to share); and two Catholic convents (where life is peaceful and inexpensive).
CALE (Centro de Artes y Lenguas) is currently the best language school of its type in Mexico. It maintains a staff of twenty teachers, thirteen of whom have more than ten years’ experience. There is an absolute maximum of four students to a class; often there are only two or three. Students are placed in groups according to their proficiency and speed, and those with special problems are given a private instructor whenever possible at no extra charge. Classes run from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., with two short breaks. From 11 to noon, Mexican songs are taught or lectures are given on Mexican history and culture; or students may opt for individual tutoring. This means basically five hours of intensive instruction daily.
CALE updates the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Spanish Basic Course (developed in the 1950s by the U.S. Foreign Service), combining it with other methods in a unique new textbook, in which grammar explanations are omitted because they can be better presented in class. The emphasis is on oral communication, pronunciation, and vocabulary. The atmosphere at CALE is a happy mix of professionalism and alegría. Every Friday there is either a free excursion to a nearby place of interest or a fiesta.
In the summer, the school may have up to 150 students; January and February are also months of high enrollment. March through May and September through December are lighter. These slack and busy periods more or less hold true for all Cuernavaca schools.
CALE is located three blocks from the centro. Classes begin every Monday and are open to anyone sixteen or older. New students must enter for a minimum of four weeks. Tuition is $200 plus a registration fee of $50 valid for one year; each additional week is $50. Textbooks, beginning and advanced, are $8 each. One full-tuition scholarship is offered to any organization or group sending ten students.
If you want a less intensive Spanish program, try CALE III, a half-hour drive from Cuernavaca in Tepoztlán, a tiny pueblo in a valley surrounded by beautiful looming mountains. In this rural community students live and learn Spanish amid the charms of pre-Hispanic Mexico. In the mornings students attend classes in weaving, pottery, embroidery, farming, or Mexican cookery; Spanish is taught in the afternoons. Excursions in this mountain village mean walking shoes, canteens, and often horses and sleeping bags. Tuition is $50 a week for classes; $25 a week for dormitory and food.
CALE/Esquina de Humboldt y Las Casas/Cuernavaca, Morelos/Phones: 2-82-58; 2-41-47; 2-70-69.
Cemanahuac opened only a year and a half ago and has already won wide recognition and accreditation by overseas colleges and universities for its creative programs of intercultural study. Its name is the Nahuatl word for “imparter of knowledge.” In addition to Spanish it offers a series of two-week courses in Mexican pottery, weaving, and other studio arts, Latin American literature and art history, anthropology, sociology, political science, social psychology, and audiovisual communications. Field trips are a part of many of the courses, and classes in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and the deciphering of ancient Maya, are available on request.
Spanish classes, which have a maximum of four students, run from 8 to 11:30 a.m. with short breaks. Lectures in English or Spanish are offered afterward, or there is an excursion in Cuernavaca or to a nearby village. Classes are divided into three one-hour sessions on grammar presentation, practice and directed conversation.
The eleven teachers use a mixture of accepted teaching methods. Cemanahuac’s weak points are its unrefined methodology and evaluation of individual student performance. But considering how new it is, its Spanish courses are impressive.
All students (45 in July) have access to a 17,000-volume library owned by one of the school’s anthropology professors and are encouraged to undertake supervised private study utilizing the library.
Programs may be taken by semester hour in two-week, monthly, quarterly, or full-semester schedules. The Spanish course tuition is $140 per four weeks or $35 per week; if taken by semester hour, $75 per 45 hours, including transfer of credit. For the other courses, the one-month interim program is $425 including four days of field trips; a ten-week quarter is $960 with eight days of field trips; the sixteen-week semester is $1375, including twelve field trip days. There are extra charges for studio arts materials. Graduated discounts from ten to twenty percent are offered for groups of ten to thirty.
Cemanahuac/Apartado 21-C/Cuernavaca, Morelos/Phone: 2-13-67/Street address: Calle San Juan 4 in Colonia Las Palmas.
CIDOC (Centro Intercultural de Documentacién), set atop a hillside overlooking Cuernavaca, is the oldest of the city’s schools. Its approach to teaching Spanish is completely without frills. Since its founding in 1961, it has stuck tenaciously to the FSI Spanish Basic Course. The method is based on stimulus-response (S-R) teaching techniques and dialogue memorization, and, although outdated, it does give the student a feel for the rhythm, structure, and intonation of the model Spanish sentence. Daily class time is structured into three hours of guided S-R drills, one hour of directed conversation or “grammatical briefing,” and at least one hour in the language lab. Classes are kept to a maximum of four and are highly disciplined. CIDOC’s twenty well-trained and experienced teachers, if rigid, are at least thoroughly professional. The school usually has 60 to 100 students of Spanish. Classes are offered Monday through Saturday at times arranged for both the late and early riser. Frequent lectures and films are offered. Spanish classes begin on the first and third Monday of each month. Tuition is $300 for the first four weeks and $200 for each consecutive four-week period, or $60 per individual week following the required first month. Private instruction is offered in 50-hour units at $300 per each 50 hours. There are no admission requirements.
CIDOC/Apartado 479/Cuernavaca, Morelos/Phone: 3-03-66.
Cuauhnahuac, the Nahuatl name for Cuernavaca, meaning “the place of trees,” is a collective language school, in which all fourteen full-time professors are members and co-owners. The school’s principal text is the five-part Curso intensivo de Español published by IMNRC, the well-known language institute in Mexico City. The IMNRC method tends to encourage absolute rules for word usages which in many cases are not absolute at all, but fortunately Cuauhnahuac’s teachers have an eclectic approach and draw on other methods and their own auxiliary materials.
Classes are held in thatched-roofed buildings built by the teachers. Cuauhnahuac offers four types of intensive group programs: normal, advanced, short, and special. Class size in the two- to three-month normal intensive program is limited to four, with a daily schedule of five hours in the classroom with short breaks. Classes begin at 8 a.m. and consist of grammar explanations and exercises, then practice via imitation, memorization, individual expression, and structured conversation. Special pronunciation workshops are offered at no extra cost. The short program is the same as the normal, but runs from 3 to 6 p.m. The advanced program is limited to two per class. The activities program includes area excursions, and teaching of Mexican songs, cooking, customs, history, folk dancing, and linguistic games. Tutorial services, at $3 per hour are available for special problems.
In all the classes we observed, we noted a good balance of discipline and flexibility and careful attention to individual student progress. Cuauhnahuac lacks real professionalism but is open to new ideas and is actively experimenting with the latest teaching methods. The school is open to anyone seriously interested in learning Spanish. There is a nonrefundable $15 application fee and a $50 enrollment-deposit. Tuitions are as follows: intensive—$55 per week or $200 per month, $50 per week after first month; short program—$35 per week or $125 per month, $31 per week after first month; advanced—$75 per week; special—$40 per week or $140 per month, $35 per week after first month. Private lessons are offered at $4 per hour. The IMNRC series is $2.80 a book. There are a limited number of scholarships to students of Latin American descent.
Cuauhnahuac/Apartado Postal C-26/Cuernavaca, Morelos/Phones: 2-36-76; 2-16-98/Street Address: Avenida Morelos Sur 1414.
One of the least expensive and most interesting of Cuernavaca’s five best is Instituto Fenix. Only two years old, it is the first school in the city to introduce the “silent way” and is still the principal user of this system. This method takes a cognitive approach to language learning—children learn their first language by ear, so adults with their second should likewise. Hence, Fénix stresses hearing and speaking rather than grammar and drills. The method is called “silent” because the teachers make the students do most of the talking. The school’s newness shows when the students, like children, tend to speak fluidly but often make glaring grammatical and pronunciation slips. Students who begin their Spanish studies in Fénix often experience difficulty in switching to another language school. The method is very well suited, however, for those already trained in Spanish grammar in U.S. schools, but who need conversational practice.
Classes range in size from two to fifteen, depending on the class activity. Those who do not function well in groups are given individual attention at no extra cost until they can rejoin regular classes.
Students attend classes for four hours a day beginning at 8 a.m.; there is one additional hour of informal talks led by students and another hour of games, lectures, and similar activities. These features, plus its small size (25 to 40 students), old buildings, gardens, and outdoor classes, help encourage a friendly and cooperative atmosphere.
Fénix offers a three- to four-week excursion for intermediate and advanced students to the untouristed town of Chalchihuites in the state of Zacatecas. The program includes morning language classes, afternoon projects that involve students in community life, and living in the homes of local families.
Admission to Fénix is open to anyone twelve or older. The registration fee, deductible from tuition, is $10. One week’s study costs $40; four weeks cost $150.
Instituto Fénix/Apartado Postal 102-B/Cuernavaca, Morelos/Phone: 3-52-28/Street address: Dr. Manuel Mazari 107 in Colonia Miraval.
Mexico City, smog- and traffic-ridden and populated by over nine million, is hardly ideal for uninterrupted study. But if you want to learn Spanish amid this city’s exciting wealth of culture, here are three reasonable options.
Berlitz School of Languages, with five locations in Mexico City and branches in Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Nuevo Laredo, is for those who wish to take very expensive lessons in complete privacy. A normal Berlitz course runs three to five months and costs between $8 and $13 per hour depending on how many units you register for (the more, the cheaper). In six weeks (90 to 150 hours), they promise you a 1500-word vocabulary minus the subjunctive (an extremely important tense in Spanish). However, other cheaper schools promise and provide the same. No advance arrangements are necessary.
Berlitz Escuela de Idiomas/main office: Insurgentes Sur 107/Mexico 6, D.F./Phone: 5-28-95-23.
Cenlemex (Centro de Lenguas de la Ciudad de Mexico) was opened less than a year ago by a professor from IMNRC and a linguist from the United States. Although it is still new, its self-developed method is excellent and two of its teachers are highly qualified. Given time, it could develop into a fine language school. Right now, unless you get one of the best teachers, you go at your own risk. It also offers courses in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Japanese. Unless you are studying Spanish at its special large group rates, there is a six-student maximum per class. Six intensive 30-hour courses, beginners through advanced, are regularly offered two hours daily in morning, afternoon, or evening, but can be given on request for up to six hours on request for up to six hours a day, on a schedule of the student’s choice. Private and semiprivate (two to a class) courses are also available. Other Cenlemex services include seminars for Spanish teachers, advanced conversation courses, and Spanish for business. Cenlemex, like Berlitz, will send private instructors to homes or offices at extra charge. Free group excursions and cultural activities are often arranged. Cenlemex is in the Zona Rosa just down the street from IMNRC. Enrollment fee is $8. Group classes are $70 per person for each of the 30-hour courses; semiprivate classes are $5 per hour; private lessons cost $8 per hour or $240 per 30-hour course. A discount is offered if 60 to 90 hours are paid for at once. Cenlemex has special group discounts of 20 to 25 per cent for groups of 20 to 30; about a 10 per cent discount for groups of 10.
Cenlemex/Hamburgo 63 esquina Havre/Mexico 6, D.F./Phones: 525-9296; 511-5970.
Instituto Mexicano Norteamericano de Relaciones Culturales (IMNRC) is the publisher of the well-known five-part series Curso intensivo de español used by many schools and universities in Mexico and the United States. Relying somewhat on its reputation, it has enjoyed 31 years of prestige and a convenient location in the heart of Mexico City’s Zona Rosa. Its primary focus is English, which is taught to thousands of Mexican students a year, but it also maintains a staff of Spanish teachers. Class size ranges from 12 to 25 (average of 15). “Intensive” sessions run from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and from 6 to 9 p.m. for three weeks, but the large size of the classes seriously impedes the intensiveness. Semi-intensive three-week sessions run from 9 to 10:20 a.m. daily; special advanced sessions are given from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
IMNRC emphasizes development of oral skills over reading and writing, but teachers often use too much English in the classroom and students are frequently too parrot-like. Texts are built on a structural sequence of pattern drills, dialogues, and exercises. Tuition for intensive and special advanced sessions is $72 for three weeks; semi-intensive three-week sessions are $36. Textbooks are $2.80 each. No help with housing arrangements is offered, but there are free cultural activities. Write for registration dates.
IMNRC/Hamburgo 115/Mexico 6, D.F./Phone: 5-11-47-20.
Saltillo (population, 175,000), the capital of the state of Coahuila, is a friendly, unpresumptuous town three hours south of Laredo. The climate varies from hot to dry and cool. It attracts many Americans, especially high school students, to its five Spanish schools, and its families seem to be exceptionally welcoming to student boarders (the cost to live with a family runs about $30 a week). Saltillo’s Spanish schools range from acceptable to bad. In general, the “intensive” courses are not intensive at all. The most conspicuous flaw seems to be inadequately trained instructors, most of whom teach more about Spanish than how to speak it. The most successful technique we observed is the one-to-one tutorial system where students spend one or two hours a day conversing with Mexican youths of about their same age. We mention two of Saltillo’s schools here.
The Instituto de Estudios Iberoamericanos offers only summer courses in Spanish and Latin American culture. Classes of fifteen to twenty students are too large to allow much individual attention. Español a lo vivo, a textbook developed in the United States, is used for beginning students; IMNRC, for advanced. Instructors present Spanish much as they would to Mexican high school students. We recommend the school primarily for advanced students who will benefit from their literature courses. Tuition is expensive: $99 for a two-week presession; $245 for the five-week regular session, $329 for seven weeks, $460 for ten, and $534 for twelve.
Instituto de Estudios Iberoamericanos/Apartado 358/Saltillo, Coahuila/Phone: 3-89-99/Street address: Guerrero 312.
The Universidad Internacional offers summer school, plus a “winterim” session in January. The school is divided into departments of language, history, literature, and art. Maximum class size is fifteen. Its colonial surroundings are beautiful, and its Spanish courses, though far from perfect, seem to be the best in Saltillo. Conversation seminars in place of tutors are offered to advanced students to help build a literary vocabulary. The cost for a full schedule of study, including use of arts and crafts material, and room and board, is $80 per week. Write for dates of the six- and two-week sessions.
Universidad Internacional/Apartado 293/Saltillo, Coahuila/Phone: 3-84-40/Street address: 167 Calle Hidalgo Sur.
Good climate, beauty, and the relaxed atmosphere of colonial San Miguel de Allende attract writers, artists, and students from the world over. Like its neighbor city Guanajuato, it is a national monument and nothing noncolonial can be built within the city limits. There are two language schools—one mediocre and one good—in San Miguel. Its prices match its charm; living with a Mexican family costs $150 to $225 per month. Sharing hotel rooms or apartments is cheaper; both schools maintain lists of available housing.
If what you want is a pleasant vacation learning a little Spanish in beautiful surroundings at reasonable prices, the Academia Hispano-Americana is the place for you. The Academia has been using the IMNRC books for fifteen of its twenty years and unfortunately perpetrates the major faults of this method on its 140 to 150 students. Teachers follow the book closely, skipping rapidly from one grammar point to another. Students are not always encouraged to correct their mistakes and teachers often resort to English for explanations. Spanish is offered in morning or afternoon classes of three hours each (two hours of grammar and drills, one hour of conversation). In the early morning the student may choose between an extra hour of pronunciation and diction work or a course on Nahuatl literature. Students will be moved from a group if it goes too slow or too fast for them; there is a maximum of twelve to a class. Excursions for a fee are offered weekly to Guanajuato and other nearby places. Admission is open to anyone; the required $10 deposit is applied to tuition. Fees for the fall and spring three-month terms are $330 for all three months or $120 per month. For the ten-week summer session the charge is $270; for five weeks $150. The special three-week December session is $90.
Academia Hispano-Americana/Insurgentes 21/San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.
Instituto Allende is well known for its fully accredited university-level courses in the arts, crafts, writing, Spanish-American culture, and sociology. These courses, taught in English, are open to students of Spanish with the necessary requirements. Spanish is not the main focus of the school, but it offers a surprisingly good intensive Spanish program as well as a daily one-hour course for those with a secondary interest in the language. Intensive Spanish students take a minimum of fifteen class hours per five-day week, plus optional laboratory work. One and a half hours daily are spent on grammar and drills, one hour on practice of grammar in directed conversation, and one hour on guided conversation. The method is a well-presented version of the FSI. Classes in the intensive program consist ideally of no more than six, although they may be larger.
El Instituto’s charming buildings, erected in 1735, were once the palace of the Counts of Canal. They have been converted into classrooms, studios, two large art galleries, lecture hall, theater, language lab, and arts supply store. This fall’s intensive Spanish courses begin September 15 and October 13. Write for later dates. There are no admission requirements. Application fee is $10; required activities card $5. Tuition for the first four weeks is $125, each additional four-week period costs $110. Private “total impact” lessons are offered at $495 per four-week period. Textbooks are rented for $12.
Instituto Allende/Apartado 85/San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.
We cannot recommend the schools we visited in the cities of Guadalajara, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Morelia, and Puebla. That is especially regrettable in the case of the latter four, which are lovely old colonial towns full of visual delights for the visitor. The Guadalajara and Morelia branches of the IMNRC offer two-hour daily Spanish courses which will suffice if you are going to be there anyway. Beware of any school boasting of sophisticated mechanical devices; face-to-face teaching is far more effective than machine programming.