An Immersive Approach to Language

A Spanish immersion class in Mexico City teaches more than vocabulary.

WORDS Brent Crane
November 2019
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Illustration by Joao Fazenda

Spanish for me has always been a distant aspiration. As most Americans born at the end of the Cold War, I had learned the basics in adolescence. I knew just enough to get by. But a recent move to San Diego upped my motivation to master it. I made flash cards, downloaded apps, frequented taquerias. Nothing really stuck. What I needed was a plunge.

Fluenz, a digital language learning platform, had invited me to participate in a new immersion program in Mexico City—in other words, a diving board. I didn’t think I’d reach fluency in six days, but I hoped to establish a foundation. I also wondered how one’s understanding of a place is impacted by an interrogation of its language. What might one notice with a little vocabulary? Setting out, these were my preguntas.

Classes, which lasted five hours a day, took place down a sleepy tree-shaded lane in a renovated old mansion in the historic Coyoacán neighborhood. The instructors were an eclectic bunch: a poet, a political scientist, a philosopher, a rock guitarist and a pop singer. They taught uniquely to our levels. (Before coming we underwent over-the-phone interviews and online language exams.)

The program stressed culture-learning as well. We toured the impressive National Museum of Anthropology with a private guide, where we gawked at the massive stone disk of the Aztec calendar; we dined on inky octopus tentacles and oil-dark mole at Pujol; we visited La Casa Azul, the home-turned-museum of the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; we listened, while sipping Alipús mezcal, to stimulating talks at the house, one from a bubbly Mexican playwright named Adrián Pascoe and another from a Mexican journalist, Fernando Fernandez, who talked about Spanish language as a mere footprint on the surface of a much older culture. Such well-crafted and intimate outings made the program feel like much more than simply a language class: We were learning Mexico from the ground up.

During a week of near-continuous language instruction, you don’t have time to digest. Your mind becomes like a sponge, absorbing what it can. It’s hard to know what you’ve retained until it pours out. There were times when I surprised myself: picking up snippets from an eavesdrop; comprehending radio DJ blather; seamlessly placing a food order. Gradually, in puzzle pieces, the city began to look and feel different because the sounds made more sense.

On my last day in town, I walked through pleasant weather to Chapultepec Park, a sprawling mass of green with a castle inside I’d been meaning to visit. On entering the half-opened gate, a flabby guard stopped me, looking flustered. “Cual es el problema?”

I asked.

“Park’s closed,” he shot back in Spanish, waving me off.

“Come back tomorrow.” Dejected, I walked off.

From the outside, the park seemed lovely. I wanted nothing more than to enter and see that damn castle. I watched from a distance as the guard sat back down on his chair and realized that my predicament was akin to mastering a new language. I was denied entry, but the guard had told me how I might gain it. All I needed was to make the effort, to return. And what is language learning but a conscious act of return, of coming back to where you left off, of making sure to re-enter the gates? That guard, I imagined, was my mind, preventing my entry while also letting me know how, eventually, to get in.

“Vuelve manaña,” he had said. Come back tomorrow.

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