|The school offered cultural events like salsa lessons. (David goodman for the boston globe)|
CUSCO, Peru - "Buenos días, estudiantes!" Nury said to her half-dozen tongue-tied initiates. Thus began my family's ambitious attempt to learn Spanish in a week at a language school in Cusco, Peru, last summer.
Our multinational gaggle took seats in an Español básico class: There was Christian, 22, a goateed, Swiss computer technician; Claire and Ross, both 27, a British couple on a four-month holiday through South America; and my wife, Sue, daughter, Ariel, 15, and me. Our son, Jasper, 7, was down the hall in a one-on-one class geared toward children.
We had carved out one week of our three-week trip to Peru to spend at the Amauta Spanish School. We wanted to do more than just pass through the country as strangers. My wife and I, inspired by living and traveling in Africa and Asia, hoped to show our kids that travel can be a way to experience a foreign culture from the inside. Learning the language was a key first step.
Amauta Spanish School is in Cusco, elevation over 11,000 feet, the onetime center of the Inca empire, and the starting point for trips to Machu Picchu (named one of the "new seven wonders of the world" while we were there).
Spanish schools for foreigners have become a booming cottage industry throughout Central and South America. Cusco has well over a dozen. At Amauta, we studied Spanish from 8 a.m. to 12:30 daily, and stayed and had meals with a local Peruvian family. Evenings were taken up with cultural activities at the school, including lectures about the history of Machu Picchu, and instruction in Peruvian cooking, playing the Andean pan pipes, and salsa dance.
Our family language experiment started with some bumps. "I hate Spanish!" Jasper bellowed after two hours of lessons. His outburst followed a morning when his well-meaning teacher spoke only in Spanish to him. I mollified him with some cookies and an Inca Cola and politely suggested to the teacher that she play him in chess, one of his favorite pastimes.
Back at my group lesson, I discovered that there is a risk to attending class with your teenager. Ariel, who had been doing verb conjugation drills in a high school French class just two weeks earlier, was picking up Spanish with relative ease. My main asset was the paternal talent of speaking confidently even when you know nothing, as I blundered through conversation using the wrong verbs and incorrect gender with great self-assurance.
Tea breaks offered the chance to mingle with the 60 or so other students who came from Australia, England, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. Most of them were spending about a month in classes, but about a third were enrolled in a two-month program, half the time studying Spanish, and the other half volunteering for local organizations.
Studying language in Peru was different from what I remembered of learning French in high school. For starters, the students, who were paying for lessons, were motivated to learn. Our immersion with a Peruvian family and in a Spanish-speaking classroom meant we were using what we learned right away. And we had fun: We learned by playing games of "guess who" in Spanish, writing about our families, and describing our lives to one another. On our fourth day, while Peru was shut down by a teacher strike, our class had a freewheeling discussion in Spanish about our home countries, with conversation ranging from healthcare policies, to education and politics. To our amazement, we could all actually express ourselves enough in Spanish to get the basic ideas across.
The week we invested in learning Spanish was certainly a bare minimum. But by Friday, Jasper could count confidently and respond to questions about his age, name and home, queries often posed by Peruvians we would meet. And the rest of us managed surprisingly well to communicate basic information as we traveled around the countryside.
A few days after leaving the classroom, our family took a two-hour taxi ride. We conversed in Spanish for the entire time with our gregarious driver, Enrique, who spoke no English.
"By the time you leave Peru you will speak like a Peruvian!" Enrique predicted.
"Like Peruvian toddlers," I corrected him in Spanish. We both burst out laughing.
David Goodman, a freelance writer in Vermont, can be reached at email@example.com. He is the co-author of the new book, "Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times."