Language Resources & Inspiration

5 Reasons Why Study Abroad & Language Learning Are Like Kindergarten

Do you remember your first day of school ever? Nervous energy, anticipation of the unknown, excitement at the thought of starting school on Monday, coupled with that dread of heading into unchartered territory without your parents or siblings there to comfort you.

What will it be like? Will anyone like me? Will I like my teachers? What will we do for fun? How do I get to the school? What if I get lost? Do I have to take the bus to school? Will I have homework (sadly a question now facing many kindergartners)?

These are some of the flurry of questions posed to me prior to embarking on our Speak Our Language Third Annual Study Abroad Trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico on June 9, 2012.  These were not questions thrown out by five and six year olds going to kindergarten, but by my adult language students with far more international travel experience than the average person. I don’t know why their nervousness surprised me, but it did. It also made me realize that regardless of our age or life experience, we are all like kindergartners on the first day of school in any given situation that is new and “unknown” for us.



If you decide to do an adult study abroad, be prepared for the following situations to repeat themselves from your first days or weeks of kindergarten. The good news is that crying and pants wetting are not on the list…

1.  Someone will need to walk you to school, drive you, or get you on the right bus so you don’t get lost. One of our married couples, Mark and Melissa, were accompanied by their host mother, Señora Ortiz, the entire way to the Cemanánuac school since they did not live as close to the school building as our other travelers did. This is exactly what my mother did on my first day of school at Maple Elementary in Orrville, Ohio: pointing out landmarks to me so that I would know if I was going in the right direction home on the return trip from school. Mark and Melissa were glad to have the personal guide in Señora Ortiz that first Monday morning of Spanish class in Cuernavaca, and had no trouble getting back home without their “mother,” who also provided landmarks to them along the way.


2.  Know the name, address and phone of your “parents” in case you get lost. In this case the “parents” are your host parents,  but you still need to know where they live, particularly since you may be headed to their (your) home from a part of the city you have never been in before. I clearly remember my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Sommers, quizzing us individually at her desk. I spewed forth the necessary data and got a cool hologram card in exchange for knowing my address, phone, first and last name of my mother. 

In Cuernavaca, everything is located by the “colonia” or neighborhood, with street names being duplicated in many parts of the city.   Unfortunately one of our married couples last year found out the hard way why knowing the colonia was so important; they had an address, but not the colonia and did not have the house phone number with them either to call for directions.  As a result of their 45 minute, improvised sight-seeing tour via cab, I now make sure that all my travelers have the following document (click here for a copy) where they can record the name, address, colonia, and phone of their host family. This document also includes a list of words and phrases to use along with way to help get you home. Although not as cool as a hologram in exchange for knowing your address, it sure beats being dropped off in the wrong part of town.

3.  Make a buddy on your first day. Our students are grouped by language ability with people from all over the country, and in some cases from countries half way around the world. Everyone is in the same boat, regardless if you are with a 17 year old from Louisiana or a 75 year old from Ohio. Because the class size is five or less students, you get to know each other really well during your one or two week program. You will naturally gravitate toward that friendly face who will be your lifeline during or after class each day: you are never too old for a buddy! My buddy in kindergarten was Doug Zimmerman, who also walked to school with me almost daily. We both lived on the same block so it was all for one, one for all if we got lost! 

This year our traveler David was the epitome of creating a buddy system during his two week stay. He worked with fellow school chum Susan (a kindergarten teacher from Colorado studying at our same school) over a two week period to help girls from a local elementary school complete math homework, including story problems. Susan showed David where the café was downtown for the tutoring sessions, and David discovered that his Spanish didn’t have to be great as long as he could say his numbers and have Susan help him to communicate with the girls when he got tongue-tied. He also discovered if he just said “Tú, mi maestra,” (you, my teacher) in broken Spanish that the girls would tell him the correct pronunciation, after they giggled of course!   Here is David with his mentee, 12 year old Esmeralda, who funds her school by selling jewelry to tourists like us. 

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David also made it his personal goal to find a great “pub” near our school Cemanáhuac. When he made inquiries among the other students twenty years his junior, he quickly dashed all generational gaps and made fast friends, including his housemate Ed who was only too happy to oblige him as a guide / pub companion.In this case, having a buddy to help you get around the town, discover new places, and even work with a volunteer program in Spanish, not only benefitted the local school children, it also increased David’s Spanish skills, cultural experience, and helped create new friendships across generations and language differences.

4.  Know your ABC’s. Although anyone can participate in our adult study abroad program purely as a traveler and not as a student taking classes at Cemanáhuac, I do highly recommend that you know some basics before heading to Mexico. Simple things like: “Please.” “Thank you.” “My name is__.” “How much?” and being able to spell, are handy language skills that most people don’t think about when learning another language. 

Why is spelling helpful? You may need to ask someone to spell a name of a street or a business if you can’t understand their pronunciation. What if they need your name for a bus or hotel reservation but cannot understand it? So literally knowing your ABC’s can make your time abroad much easier and enjoyable. Speak Our Language offers beginning immersion Spanish classes prior to our annual Mexico trip to help simulate the immersion environment in Mexico. To help ease people into Spanish who may be rusty, we offer a fun conversation activity combined with tacos and trivia, appropriately coined “Talking & Tacos.” This is a free activity for our travelers (and only $25 for non-travelers) that helps to set the mood prior to the trip departure. Most importantly it provides some of those ABC’s to warm up your tongue in español.  

5.  Recess & nap time are still your favorite “subject!” Were you that witty kid who responded to your inquisitive elderly relatives that recess was your favorite subject? After a full two hours of immersion in Spanish, coupled with full immersion in the host family home and on the streets of Cuernavaca, the 20 minute break between your four hours of classes is like adult recess and is much needed. After all, you are processing simultaneously in two languages. Think of it like your brain doing push- ups for 120 minutes straight. Instead of slides and swings to rejuvenate you as a five year old, the adult you now needs good coffee, taquitos and guacamole from the school cafeteria at Cemanáhuac, and even shopping at the school courtesy of local vendors.

When class is over at 1PM and you have an all-afternoon “recess,” you can choose from excursions to places like Taxco, Tepotztlán, or you can do what some locals do: echar una siesta – take a nap. It is not unusual to need a nap after you return to your host home because your head is full of all that you have been learning. Also, learning another language, and functioning in it all day, is mentally exhausting. Period. So just like kindergarten when you had a chance to lay your head down for a nap from several hours of constant stimuli, don’t be surprised if you need to do the same thing during your study abroad experience.

So over the course of the fourteen days of our program that just took place June 9-23, my six adult students, ranging from late 30’s to mid 60’s, reenacted their first days of kindergarten, unbeknownst to them. The good news is that no one got lost, there was no crying or pants wetting, we had host mothers or housemates to show us how to find the school, everyone found a buddy or two to lean on, and recess was and still is the favorite subject as seen here!

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Click here for information on our Fourth Annual Mexico Study Abroad Trip or for our 2013 Day of the Dead tour to Oaxaca, Mexico.

-Article by Tonya Tiggett, Speak Our Language, LLC 2012

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Download this file (SOL_Spanish Survival Phrases 2012.pdf)Spanish Survival Phrases

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