16 April 2011

pueblo inglés: the post-play report

Full confession: I had my doubts about Pueblo Inglés. Sure, the linguistic immersion program had come highly recommended by several writer friends, but I had trouble wrapping my language-learning challenged brain around an 8-day program that was, well, actually effective.

I’ve rendezvoused with Rosetta Stone more times than I care to share and spend on average, one-third of each year in Spanish-speaking countries. Yet still, my fluency ebbs and flows and is largely affected by cerveza consumption. Or ‘liquid courage,’ as I like to call it.

So when nearly three dozen Anglos and Spanish convened on a sidewalk near the Nuevos Ministerios metro stop in Madrid early one Friday morning, ready to embark on an 8-day linguistic immersion program, I really did not know what to expect. (I try to go into all volunteer programs with no expectations; I’m almost always pleasantly surprised.)

We drove six hours south to the idyllic digs of Coto del Valle, smack dab in the heart of Cazrola National Park. You could not ask for a prettier spot to take on the challenge of learning English. Surrounded by hulking mountains, lush greenery, waterfalls and wildlife, Coto del Valle is a remote slice of scenic Spanish heaven. And a carsick-inducing 45-minute drive from the nearest town, so there’s no escape for the weary.

I won’t lie. Volunteering at Pueblo Inglés is a big commitment. The program is highly regimented, and there are scheduled activities, every hour, on the hour from 9a.m. until 10:30p.m. (and often later). All participants speak English for well over 100 hours during the course of the 8-day program, so pace yourself and pack some throat lozenges. The first, and most important rule, of Pueblo Inglés is to never utter a word of Spanish. And not to get all mom on you, but it’s really important to get adequate sleep. There are plenty of windows of time to party, but the key to my Pueblo Inglés success was keeping a nightly, 8-hour date with Mr. Sandman.

The Pueblo Inglés program is a brilliantly orchestrated mix of make-your-head-ache-hard-work and shameless silliness. From one-on-ones and thought-provoking group activities and debates to theatrical presentations and conference calls, there is never a dull moment. But in between all the hard work lies the most beautiful, heartfelt moments with new friends over Spanish food, wine, new language and fantastic scenery.

For Anglos participants, Pueblo Inglés is a totally unique way to experience Spain and its culture. Where else can an Anglo traveler meet such a diverse cross-section of Spaniards from all over the country, each one eagerly willing to share their story? For some cost-conscious travelers, Pueblo Inglés served as an opportunity to take a feel good ‘time out’ from hostelling to live a four star lifestyle. For others, it was an excuse to come to Spain in the first place, then stay for leisure exploration.  Whatever the reason was for each Anglo participant, everyone gave the intense program their full attention and all.

It was the Spanish participants, though, that really humbled me and blew me away. I know this wasn’t an easy scenario for any one of them and they handled the stress and challenges and inevitable headaches with such incredible grace. They were relentless in their desire to learn, and for that, the Spanish have my utmost respect. I am grateful for my brave new friends and look forward to returning to this program in the future to help other Spanish wrestle and conquer the confusing English language. Now that I’ve seen it done, I’m a believer.

At the start of the program, Allan, the Pueblo Inglés Master of Ceremonies told the Anglo participants, “You will never see the fruit of your efforts here.” He was proven wrong on the return ride to Madrid when two of the Spanish, both of whom started at drastically different language levels, spoke fluently – in English – for six hours non-stop. Tears welled up in my eyes as I struggled with wanting to hug them for their valiant efforts or letting them carry on with what seemed like such an effortless conversation. I opted for the latter, but Isabel and Juan Carlos, please know how proud I am of you both. Pass the tissues, please.

I didn't leave Spain feeling my finest -- with the worst sore throat, semblance of a voice and jetlag. Would I trade this experience for anything? Heck, no. As emails from the Spanish come pouring in – in English – I’d like to think I played some small part in their newfound correspondence confidence. Now, it’s my turn to up the language ante and master my Spanish so I can properly reciprocate. After my week at Pueblo Inglés, I have all the inspiration I need. Muchas gracias.


Anonymous said...

You continue to be an inspiration. Thank you for the great photos and essay on your experience.

I empathize about picking up a new language...after 4 college semesters of French, all the French I now know is "J'adore Dior."

Charyn Pfeuffer said...

Thank you so much! Learning a new language is difficult and I give so much credit to the Spanish particpants who attend Pueblo Ingles. It's an intense program, but it's a lot of fun and it works. If a similar program were available to learn Spanish, I'd sign up in a heartbeat. I hear you re: college French. I'm pretty much in the same boat. Wah.

Maribel Zurita said...

Gracias, AMIGA

Luke N said...

A great account of your time at PI. I just thought I should let Charyn know that Pueblo Ingles are operating three Intenisve Spanish courses this year - the same format as Pueblo Ingles, but this time giving "Anglos" the chance to improve their Spanish speaking and listening skills. More info available by emailing anglos@puebloingles.com

Un saludo,