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Hola! ¿Qué tál?” This is not a good start. It’s the first day and we’re already bewildered, shuffling around, looking at the floor. One brave chica responds, “Estoy bien.” The rest of us collectively hang our heads in shame and an aura of embarrassment pervades. Why did we not try harder with our self-learning books and CDs? The hard realization of how little we know and how tough the next four hours will be is starting to sink in.

 

An efficient señora hands us each a chunky textbook, full of alien-looking words and exercises. She jabbers something at me—from her actions, I understand that I am to be taught by Mercedes, a woman with a pleasant, warm and friendly face. She beckons me to a room and my immersion Spanish begins.

 

There’s no hanging about. Within seconds of entering the class, the lesson commences, full-steam. Rapidly we construct sentences with the new verbs and tenses that I learn. Here, as in most of the Spanish schools in Quito, no English is spoken. I receive The Look every time I utter an English word. She rolls her r’s in a way that seems physiologically implausible. However, slowly, over the next few weeks, I do learn enough to get by and hold a relatively decent conversation. The learning is interactive and tailored to suit the individual. To increase my vocabulary we play Scrabble, exchange recipes, visit museums and explore local markets. It is fun; we laugh at my ghastly mistakes, and I swiftly learn what not to say. The dictionary is used sparingly—unknown meanings are described via comical charade-style actions or explanations rather than directly translated.

 

Competition is fierce and schools sell themselves on their extras. Internet use is free here. There are complimentary salsa classes, cookery classes, fascinating lessons in culture and Ecuadorian history and a free city tour. A small fee pays for optional weekend excursions to the beautiful surrounding countryside—Otavalo Market, Quilotoa Loop, Papallacta Hot Springs. The atmosphere at the school is welcoming and sociable—students and teachers alike are congenial. This enhances both the learning process and enjoyment. Many students also stay with local families to speed up their Spanish education and discover and integrate themselves into the local way of life.

 

Ecuador’s Spanish learning industry is thriving. With an easy-to-understand accent, inexpensive classes and its position as a kick-off point for many key points on the Gringo Trail in South America, Quito is well-positioned. The city’s popularity is reflected in the large number of schools that can be found within a few square miles of each other. Named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, Quito’s pretty colonial charm and stunning backdrop high up in the Andes add to the attraction of studying here. At 2,800 meters (almost 10,000 feet), whilst close to the equator, the gentle year-round spring-like weather is another draw.

 

At four hours a day (not including homework), there’s no doubt that the program is intense. However, most schools boast a six to eight week path to fluency. For price, surroundings and enjoyment, Quito must be the numero uno choice in Latin America.



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