I used to tell people I spoke some Spanish, which was stretching the truth considerably. I spoke the sad remains of a language I'd studied more than 20 years earlier as a half-interested junior high-schooler. My "Spanish" was no more than a collection of single words, mostly nouns, which when strung together made perfect sense to me but often caused native speakers to scratch their heads or simply laugh. If this bothered me, I consoled myself with the thought that my husband could barely muster "Buenos días." When we traveled through Spain a few years ago, I was the linguistic hero. I could order up cervezas and tortilla española, and then we could both spout "Gracias" when the meal arrived.
It was hardly enough. We had fallen in love with Spain. Arriving in Madrid, we were met with a full orchestra playing in the Plaza Mayor at midnight. When we came upon Seville in the baking heat of day, everyone was sleeping, only to wake and elevate the art of fiesta to its highest sangría-fueled level. In Granada, we wound through the Alhambra lost in a fever-dream of history. Above all, we were taken with the people, who crowded the sidewalks of even the smallest towns well into the morning, doing what Spaniards do best—socializing. But for us, the language barrier felt like just that: a high, thick wall that blocked us from doing much more than admiring the culture from afar.
Back at home, determined to excavate my long-lost Spanish skills, I enrolled in an adult education course. Little came back to me. My husband and I drove around with Berlitz tapes playing in the car. We stuck little Spanish labels all over the house—la puerta, la mesa, la ventana. One night, I announced that we would speak nothing but Spanish at dinner. Somewhere amidst the prolonged and helpless silences of that meal, we decided it was time to really learn.
And so, last spring, we returned to Spain as students, enrolling for a month at the Estudio Sampere, a respected language school with branches in four Spanish cities as well as one in Ecuador. We chose Salamanca, home to Spain's oldest university, built in the 13th century and known as southern Europe's version of Oxford. There, students from around the world lug textbooks through streets lined with sandstone buildings, meeting for coffee in the city's 17th-century main square, one of the most magnificent in all of Spain.
At Estudio Sampere, we were given a placement exam and introduced to our fellow students—an eclectic mix of Europeans, American college kids, and a lone Chinese man—and were ordered not to speak any language but Spanish while on school grounds. This rule was enforced by the school's director, a feisty matron named Asun, who policed the hallways, offering firm but amiable rebukes. I was assigned to ºhours, five days a week—while Mike, my husband, was put in an afternoon session for beginners. We would meet at our rented apartment to switch parenting duties at lunchtime.
There is something undeniably thrilling about being a student abroad, even if you happen to be considerably older than your typical classmate. Sampere's focus is on building verbal skills—something I never did in my junior high school days—and my teacher, a hip thirtyish woman named Cruz with wild corkscrew curls and blazing brown eyes, began each day by asking everyone, "Qué has hecho?" ("What have you been up to?") My class consisted of a middle-aged Swiss chef, a married pair of Brazilian business students, a shy Swedish postman, and two frat boys from Virginia. In our faltering Spanish, we recounted tales of art openings (the chef), playing soccer with the locals (the postman), marathon nights in Salamanca's discos (the frat boys), Spanish cinema (the Brazilians), and the mighty adventure that was buying diapers at the grocery store (me). Inevitably, we turned the tables on Cruz, firing off the type of questions that arise from being a stranger in a strange land: Do people really go home and sleep during the three-hour daily siesta?What happened during the Civil War?Why do they sell pig snouts at the deli counter?
As a group, we plowed through the school's curriculum, a mix of free-flowing conversation, textbook work, games, and short videos that were meant to reinforce our knowledge of the linguistic and cultural touchstones of the country while ideally enabling us to do everything in Spain, from ordering comida at a restaurant to debating the finer points of Federico García Lorca's poetry. Any time I passed an English-speaking group being led around Salamanca by a local guide brandishing a bullhorn, I knew that we were doing things right. After a few weeks, I no longer thought of myself as a tourist, but rather as an increasingly experienced transplant, who could now give directions in the native tongue and offer my own version of a city tour.
Somewhere along the way, too, the school's no-English rule had stopped bothering me. Enough of my classmates were foreigners, anyway, that Spanish had become our best means of communication. And my nouns finally had some connective tissue. At the neighborhood café, I made chitchat with the waiters. I lingered at the market, squeezing fat Valencia oranges and discussing their relative merits with the old ladies who made a sport of such things. In the parks, our three-year-old had learned how to ask Spanish children if they wanted to play. And one afternoon our baby daughter surprised us by uttering her first word ever: Hola!
By the fourth week, it seemed that our teachers saw us as friends and equals, perhaps the most empowering gift for a Spanish-speaking wannabe. We could talk politics or complain about the bureaucracy of simply retrieving a package at the post office with an insider's perspective that bound us more deeply to the country and its people.
We signed on for an additional two weeks in the classroom, but eventually, of course, we did have to go. On a rainy May afternoon, I stood up and gave my farewell speech in Spanish, surprised by the emotion that welled up in me, the powerful gratitude I felt toward my teachers and fellow students. I'd love to tell you what I said to them, but I can hardly remember it. The words just poured out of me.
SARA CORBETT is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.