How to learn a new language: my experiences with group and private lessons Spanish

Learning Spanish at Regina Coeli

Traveling is all about being astounded by new impressions of nature, wildlife and culture for me. And when it comes to the latter, there’s no better way to experience the culture by meeting locals.

Hello, Mingalabar, Pura Vida…!

I always learn how to say ‘hello’ in the language of the country I’m visiting. It’s an easy way to break the ice. My ‘Mingalabar’ in Myanmar made people smile and in Costa Rica I replied every ‘pura vida’ happily with another ‘pura vida!!’. But being able to truly talk with locals goes beyond ‘hello’. And since I love traveling in Latin America, I decided to learn (some) Spanish.

Ok, I have to admit, I did have some kind of advantage. I learned 6 languages at school. And even though I’ve forgotten most of it, somehow it made it easier for me to read in Spanish and to follow Spanish conversations. Some words are similar to the words I’ve learned in other languages and apparently these words are still somewhere in the back om my mind.

I started back home. I followed some audio lessons and I used Duolingo every now and then. And I just called my bluff sometimes. In English its ‘delicious’, so let’s try ‘deliciosa’ in Spanish. This, in combination with an offline dictionary (I work with the Linguee app) enabled me to easily survive in Latin America. But I wanted more.

I decided to go to The School of the World in Costa Rica. Read my post here! I loved this school and the combination with surfing and video editing was great. Plus, meeting so many other travelers was a big bonus! The Spanish lessons were definitely helpful, but group lessons make me a little bit impatient too; I want to learn faster. So again, I wanted more.

Since I moved on to South America, I decided to take some private lessons in Mendoza, Argentina. I signed up for 5 days, 4 hours of Spanish lessons each day at Spanish Courses.

The rule was to just talk in Spanish. My mornings consisted of two blocks of 2 hours each of lessons. First with Natalia and then with Daniela. We worked mostly on my vocabulary and I definitely improved my skills to express myself in Spanish. But obviously, 5 mornings didn’t get me to the level of being able to be fluent in Spanish.

Back home my friend Wies, arranged a coffee date with Nataly, a friend of her from Venezuela. Nataly wants to improve her Dutch so we decided to meet for coffees and talk in Dutch (Nataly) and in Spanish (me). And then it hit me. Nataly asked me all these questions I had to reply to in the past tense and I wasn’t able to. ‘What did you do last week?’ ‘Where did you go on vacation?’ –a theme I love to talk about for hours in Dutch or English, but in Spanish I simply couldn’t. So, then I took the decision to invest in grammar!

Regina Coeli, the ‘nuns of Vught’; surprisingly comfortable, friendly and efficient

There’s an institute in the South of the Netherlands (Vught) which used to be called ‘the nuns of Vught’ (you can read the background here) and now goes by the name Regina Coeli. I’ve always been curious about the way they teach languages, because I heard that ‘going to the nuns’ is a highly effective way to learn a language.

I booked myself 4 days at the institute. Not cheap, but hopefully worth it. The accommodation at Regina Coeli was already booked but I could still book a room at a hotel close by with shuttle services from and to Regina Coeli. A hotel with a spa and pool. Not a bad prospective after intensive days at Regina Coeli.

My days at Regina Coeli were as following: an hour of ‘multimedia’ behind a computer, alternated with an hour one on one with a teacher. A whole day consisted of 4 multimedia hours and 4 one on one hours. And trust me, that’s pretty intense!

Multimedia room

My teachers were all natives, they came from Barcelona (2 of them), Mexico and Honduras. And they were all super friendly, patient and enthusiastic. Not unpleasantly strict, as I somehow expected at the nuns.

The facilities at Regina Coeli weren’t sober either. Creative, well organized and with the friendliest staff. And the food… fresh juices, salad bars, ginger teas and cakes and brownies I tried to resist. And it gets even better: after the intensive days, I allowed myself to close my eyes for half an hour in one of the (free) massage chairs. Brilliant!

All around me people were learning Dutch, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and so on. And everyone was really ambitious and had his/her own motive to learn a language! It added up to the experience and suddenly I had a flashback of the time I studied in San Francisco (in 2004). I attended one singing class and stepping into the music building always gave me instant energy. The sounds of people singing, playing the piano and the violin… And I experienced the same energy here!

All in all, I learned a lot these 4 days. I feel I have the structure now to carry on. I still have to practice a lot, obviously, but I know now which past tense to use for instance. So now, when Nataly asks me what I did last week, I can tell her! Ánd I have a legitimate reason to watch Velvet, Las Chicas del Cable and Gran Hotel on Netflix!

The limits of your language, are the limits of your world

To come back to the question how to learn a foreign language, I guess you have to keep in mind the following:

  1. Language is about grammar and vocabulary. Make sure, you’ll get to learn both;
  2. Learning a language takes time (a note to myself…) and asks for the discipline to keep practicing (also a note to myself);
  3. Talking in a foreign language is out of your comfort zone, but bluff really helps (even though it can cause funny mistakes too).

Depending on your level of patience, goals and budget, here are some tips regarding choosing the way to learn a language:

You can already do a lot of self-study. Go on YouTube and type in Spanish Lessons for example. Or learn to conjugate verbs on and use Duolingo. It saves you quite some money to also learn some basic expressions by yourself;

  1. Take affordable group lessons to learn the basics and meet others;
  2. Invest in (most of the times somewhat more expensive) private lessons to work on your individual goals and make progress a bit faster;
  3. Don’t stop after your lessons. Continue with your self-study, read books in the language you’re learning and watch series in this language too (preferably with the subtitles in the language you’re learning);
  4. Find yourself a (native speaking) buddy to drink coffee and practice with. Ask him/her questions too, to understand why the language is used in a certain way;
  5. Go abroad for a while and force yourself to just talk in their language;
  6. And lastly: enjoy!! Learning a language broadens your world, or as Regina Coeli quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘The limits of your language, are the limits of your world’.