One of the reasons I chose to travel to Cuernavaca this past April was that it is one of the world’s centers for Spanish teaching. Cuernavaca has in excess of 40 language schools and attracts language students from all over the world to this beautiful city with the near perfect climate. After all, Cuernavaca is “La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera”, the City of Everlasting Spring.
During my first week in Cuernavaca I had the oportunity to study Spanish at the Ideal School for Spanish and I enjoyed my one-on-one instruction with Estela, one of Ideal’s most experienced teachers. With humour and patience she put me through the usual torture of the Spanish subjunctive, of “ser y estar” and many of the other grammatical nuances that the Spanish language tosses at us non-Latinos.
During my stay at Ideal I really enjoyed the atmosphere, from our first guided walk with one of the teachers through downtown on our first day (with first-hand instructions on how to use the bus system), to our field trip (to a gallery opening), to the coffee breaks, to some of the tasty authentic Mexican snacks served (e.g. chilaquiles), to various birthday and going-away celebrations. The ambience was very personal and enjoyable, almost family-like.
The school itself is located in a beautiful residential neighbourhood with a tropical inner courtyard. My classroom was outside, under a “palapa” (a palm-leaf-thatched Mexcian sun umbrella) and learning Spanish open-air, amid blooming bugainvillas and chirping birds was an experience in itself.
Let me present to you Hermilo Brito, the creator of the Ideal School for Spanish, and also the president of the Association of Spanish Language Schools in Cuernavaca.
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself and your personal background. How did you get involved in the field of language teaching?
Now many years ago, on the 60’s, I had the great opportunity to work in the first Spanish teaching center in Cuernavaca. This center was established by Ivan Illich, a philosopher and catholic priest; the center was named CIDOC (Centro Cultural de Documentación). It actually wasn’t a school, it was a center, well known in the university and intellectual circles, to discuss innovative ideas about the end of the past century. Among the activities at CIDOC were the sending of volunteers to countries in Latin America; those volunteers were required to learn Spanish, so CIDOC had an important Spanish teaching department. In CIDOC, I acted as Spanish language teacher, Coordinator, Director of the Spanish Programs and General Manager.
In 1975, Ivan Illich decided to close the center, this represented an opportunity to establish IDEAL (Instituto de Estudios de America Latina) just like a Spanish school, following the path that I had initiated in CIDOC doing what I like: teach my language.
Over all these years I continued training myself to improve my skills in the language-teaching field, taking courses and attending conferences related to this subject. My concern has been to improve and develop our methodology, in order to become a leader in our area.
2. You are also the President of AIPEC, the Association for Spanish Language Schools in Cuernavaca. Please tell us about the association and Cuernavaca as a language learning destination.
The association of Spanish Language Schools in Cuernavaca was organized 11 years ago; 12 schools concerned with turning our city into a global center of Spanish learning got aid from the Mexican government to promote Cuernavaca. After 11 years, Cuernavaca’s overall cleanliness has improved, we have more tourist services available to foreigners, the city is safer, we have talked with our colleagues from the tourist services to coordinate our efforts to offer the best to our visitors, we have organized shows and cultural events for all Spanish language students, and we are in contact with different government offices to promote Cuernavaca as “The World Center for Spanish Teaching” among other activities and challenges.
Cuernavaca is the world’s second most important city teaching Spanish as a second language. The success of Cuernavaca’s language schools, in addition to the development of an appropriate teaching methodology also resulted from the city’s excellent location; we are 1 ½ hours away from the largest city in the world, Mexico City, and very close to various places where students of Spanish language and Mexican culture can get to know the different facets of this country, through activities which range from cultural visits to museums and archeological sites to recreational destinations such as Acapulco. Visitors can choose from among a wide variety of places to visit.
Cuernavaca, by itself, offers numerous cultural and tourist attractions. Above all, Cuernavaca offers the opportunity to admire and learn about the different times of Mexican history. Above all, Cuernavaca is best known for its weather; local temperatures are between 20 and 30 ºC (68 to 86 ºF) almost throughout the entire year.
3. Please tell us about the history of your school, Ideal Latinoamerica.
Our school, IDEAL, was established on 1975, after the CIDOC (Centro Cultural de Documentación) project ended. The CIDOC trained many teachers and people to teach Spanish as second language. I was one of the people involved with the Spanish-teaching activities and, jointly with a colleague, we established IDEAL (Instituto de Estudios de America Latina). With the enthusiasm of the first years, we reached our goal to create a place where students from all over the world could meet each other to learn Spanish and discover Mexican culture.
In 1996, due to the distinctive didactics and philosophy of the School, I continued this project by myself together with my son, who follows the tradition of Spanish-teaching. We both have in mind to develop the best method that will allow students to learn the language in the best and most dynamic way.
4. Please tell us about your Spanish language classes, your class facilities, your weekly schedule and your teaching faculty.
The purpose of our courses is to introduce students to Spanish as a second language, as many have studied it as a foreign language in their countries of origin. Another goal is to encourage immersion not only into the language but in culture and everyday life.
Our program at IDEAL begins with individual Spanish of no more than 5 students and optional extracurricular activities which are a highly recommended compliment to the program. Every week these include charlas (informal talks) and conferences, round table discussions, songs and movies in Spanish as well as cooking classes, dance classes, coffee social and excursions to cultural and historical sites among many other options.
We teach 9 levels of Spanish; each level emphasizes communication and language practice as appropriate for each student’s level of proficiency, using various interactive techniques that allow the student to speak and communicate in Spanish from day one.
IDEAL has 5-student capacity classrooms (plus teacher); some of them are in the garden (palapas, small areas only covered by palm-tree roofs). IDEAL has 2 conference rooms with a capacity for 18 and 60 students, respectively. The meeting area at IDEAL is the cafeteria, where students socialize and enjoy the “Hora del Café”, the time when the school offers coffee and some snacks (at 11 am), Monday through Friday. Students are invited to enjoy the gardens and areas within IDEAL once classes are through, they can also watch TV, watch a movie or navigate on the Internet (wireless) which are included in the services offered.
A fundamental part of IDEAL is our teachers, who will accompany you every step of the way in the adventure of learning Spanish and discovering a new culture.
IDEAL’s teachers are specialists with university training or many years’ experience teaching Spanish to foreigners or both.
When teachers start working at IDEAL, they receive a course in “Techniques for teaching Spanish as a Second Language”, which covers the fundamentals of the method we use at IDEAL. All year we provide training courses in which teachers learn new techniques and theories, discuss existing teaching methods, and reinforce the teaching methods we use.
However, what distinguishes our teachers is their spirit of teamwork and enthusiasm for teaching and making the atmosphere at IDEAL pleasant and supportive.
5. Please tell us about your Spanish language teaching methodology and your pronunciation improvement programs.
The method of IDEAL is directed towards the development of the student’s ability to communicate in Spanish, especially in the spoken world. From the very first day students will able to immerse themselves in the language and culture. In this way students will become familiar with how we live, our beliefs, our history, our politics, our fiestas and why we celebrate them, and much more regarding the Mexican culture and social life.
According to Stephen Krashen (http://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash.html): “One can learn or acquire a second language informally, the same way one acquires the first. Formal, structured lessons represent another learning process and are not indispensable in the process.” For this reason our method is based on this “Natural Approach” (http://maxpages.com/thena/The_Natural_Approach), and we try to channel the teaching – learning process in this direction, so that students learn by interacting: teacher – student, student – teacher, student – student, student – surroundings.
Also our work is focused on maintaining an atmosphere of courtesy and confidence in the classroom and in the institution in general. Here the teacher’s part is fundamental, as it consists of creating an environment in which students feel relaxed and at ease, which, in our opinion, is the best way to learn an language.
At IDEAL we place special interest in the process of immersing students in culture, for the accessible points of reference it offers them. For a student to develop sound communication skills, she needs to assimilate cultural elements of the country or region where she learns a language. Moreover, language and culture are inseparable.
At the beginner’s level, pronunciation is not a great issue, since we only focus in correcting pronunciation when it turns into an obstacle to communication. In the more advanced levels of our program, pronunciation is more important, because intermediate and advanced students need to improve the way they pronounce the words and the way they modulate when they speak Spanish. Above all, Ideal is able to develop a specific program to improve pronunciation if a student or a group so requests. We had worked for many years on pronunciation before I realized it is not essential when speaking Spanish as second language.
6. Please explain your “Spanish for Professionals” program to us.
Each year our student body includes managers, attorneys, doctors, nurses, school teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, engineers, ministers, seminarians, nuns, and people in many other professions for whom it is essential to learn the specific vocabulary of their respective professions.
This program includes 4 hours of group Spanish lessons, designed to reinforce general language skills, and a 1 hour private lesson to study professional Spanish. Professional Spanish consists of vocabulary, aspects of Mexican culture, visits to places of professional interest for the student, analysis and discussion of documents and written information when needed, and meetings with professionals in the student’s field, if deemed necessary.
7. You also offer a “Family Program” in your school. What is this program all about?
Well, this program has now passed to a second term now, since we are pushing new programs: Basic Program (only 4 hours), Basic + Private Program, Cuernavaca – Cancún Program, and Volunteers Program, among others.
The “Family Program” is oriented to host full families (parents and sons) offering a complete solution to their needs such as classes for children, kid-friendly host families, child-oriented activities, and others. The Family Program has not yet had the success we expected, however, should families attend IDEAL to study we are able to provide them the best.