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In Mexico we would sink or swim, with no language lifesavers

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Akeen traveller/tourist for more than 30 years, I recently started to sense some "travel fatigue." I don't think I'm alone in this. Air travel can be an ordeal, globalization is making many places look disappointingly similar and there is, in fact, a limit to how many sites you can visit and still feel the thrill of discovery.

For me, there's something else: I realized that in all these years of visiting foreign places, I've never really spoken to anyone in his or her own language. Not that I'm completely monolingual. Like most serious globetrotters, I've managed to learn a few words of foreign languages, mostly to do with taxis, tickets, food, please and thank you - the basics. But never a real conversation. I was seeing the sites all right, but where were the insights? I realized that I knew almost nothing personal about the people I encountered. In a foreign country, I had, at best, the language level of a precocious two-year-old. And that was the real source of my dissatisfaction.

I came to the conclusion that either I had to give up travel or make a serious effort to learn the language of the next country I planned to visit.

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There is no dearth of ways to learn a language. You can read books, listen to tapes, take classes, get interactive online. But none of those methods would work for a person with my lack of self-discipline. I would need to make learning the language my primary destination. To that end, and perhaps a little rashly, I enrolled myself and my wife in a language school for two weeks of a three-week trip to Mexico. We would plunge into the language - not the warm waters - of sunny Mexico.

Our school, the Instituto Miguel de Cervantes in Guanajuato, arranged a Spanish-speaking-only home stay for us, so the immersion would be complete. It would be a case of sink or swim, with no language lifesavers.

I tried to assure myself that this was going to be fun. After all, it wouldn't be like school, really, since there wouldn't be any tests or homework (I don't do homework on holidays). And the setting was a beautiful Spanish colonial town. We would probably have classes on a sunny patio, with maybe some tequila to loosen the tongue. Hey, there was a Mexican word already: tequila! How hard could it be to add a few more?

Our first morning of classes dispelled my naive assumptions. The setting was certainly beautiful, a hillside villa overlooking picturesque Guanajuato, but we were escorted into a small room with a blackboard and two seats. Our teacher was a distractingly attractive young woman, an Aztec princess who turned out to be more than willing to command the sacrifice of my comfort for the learning of the Spanish language. And at the end of the first lesson, " tarea!" Homework!

She, and two other equally vivacious taskmasters, each in their turn shaped our pronunciation, filled us with verbs and syntax, until, to my great surprise, I actually began to get glimmerings of what they were talking about.

It wasn't easy. As an adult, being thrust into the position of a beginner requires some humility. But there we were, 10 o'clock at night, scribbling away in our notebooks to finish our homework and win the teacher's approval.

Finally, at the end of the second week, we were full to bursting with verbs, nouns and idioms. There was barely room for another preposition. It was time to step back and take a breath.

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We left the school, thanking our excellent teachers, promising to keep up with our lessons, and headed for San Miguel de Allende, about two hours by bus from Guanajuato.

We found a modest hotel, and I tried my halting Spanish on the proprietor, a no-nonsense administrator of a marginal business. She was not enthralled by my accent, gave me a dark look and growled something about paying in advance.

Not a good start, but the hotel turned out to be quite charming, circled around a lovely courtyard filled with flowers, dominated by a three-storey-high bougainvillea. Next morning, I saw her in the garden, carefully trimming the leaves of a calla lily. I managed to utter, in Spanish, "I have a garden at home. Not as colourful as this one. You keep a beautiful garden." She looked up, and the sunlight came out in her face. "Gracias," she said. "Gracias."

That was it. Not much, I admit, but that small, personal exchange in Spanish felt more wonderful to me than gazing at a white sand beach or an Aztec pyramid. And I can't wait to get back to class.

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