One of the things I set out to do when starting this blog was to in part document my own experience with learning Spanish, as well as providing advice and articles to help others who have moved to Panama and are trying to learn the language. For my first year-plus here, I was using only free methods. Either learning from practicing with friends or free programs like DuoLingo and Language Transfer. And while those have been immensely helpful, my progress has been moving along at a much slower pace than I would like. So when I got the opportunity to take a weeklong Intensive Spanish Course at Casco Antiguo Spanish School, I jumped on the opportunity.
Casco Antiguo Spanish School is located in the heart of Casco Viejo, and has been operating for over 3 years now. It was founded by David Gold, a former member of the Peace Corps, and their curriculum is based off of the immersive teaching methods that the Peace Corps uses to get their members quickly trained in a new language. Casco Antiguo Spanish School offers week long intensive courses (20 hours), semi-private small groups, and private lessons. All of their intensive courses are small courses as well, as they are all capped at 4 students each.
Both the intensive nature and small group size of the week long intensive appealed to me. Knowing that I only have limited time in my schedule, it made sense for me to just clear my schedule for a week as opposed to trying to keep up with lessons over a couple of months. I also liked the idea of small classes. I didn’t want to learn alone, but I also wanted classes that were participatory, and I didn’t want to have to compete with a large number of students for the teacher’s attention.
Regardless of what type of lesson a student will take, they first take a placement test to determine their level. Casco Antiguo Spanish School offers 9 levels, Beginner 1-3, Intermediate 1-3, and Advanced 1-3. You can take the test either at the school or from home. If you take it from home, one word of advice: DON’T CHEAT. It can be tempting the view the test as open book, and google what you don’t understand, so that you get the answers right. But that will only end up hurting you, as it could lead to you being placed in a level that you don’t actually belong.
Casco Antiguo Spanish School also offers a free introductory 45 minute private lesson for prospective students. I recommend that everyone take this lesson if their schedule allows. First, it’s an additional free instruction, and while it’s meant to be a basic overview of their courses more than an actual structured lesson, free is free. But second and more importantly, is that it will also act as an additional placement test to help confirm your level, as the instructor will gauge your spoken skills and make sure they match up with your level.
After my test and lesson, I was placed as Intermediate Level 1, which felt about right as how I would have described my Spanish skills. I was placed in a class with one other student who was also at my level. If they don’t have another student for your week who is at your level, they won’t try to mix and match and place you with someone who doesn’t belong. You have the option to either wait until someone who is at the same level as you or if you want/need to take classes that week, they will give you 15 hours of private lessons that week in lieu of the 20 hours of group lessons. This is about $40 cheaper than if you were to book 15 hours of private lessons on your own.
My main goal going into the classes was to get more comfortable with my conversation skills. There was a lot of Spanish I knew floating around in my head, but when it came time to actually use it in a real life situation, I would often get flustered and fall behind the conversation quickly. I was always good at saying my first line of a conversation, the one I had time to rehearse in my head. But once the conversation required improvising an answer to someone’s question, it got tough. Add to this that I always had a big problem understanding people when they spoke Spanish to me. Most people will tell you that they are able to understand a new language better than speak it, but I found that it was always the opposite. If I had time, I could think of what I want to say in Spanish, but hearing another person speak was often like listening to gibberish.
Casco Antiguo Spanish School’s classes are conversation heavy. For at least part of the class each day, we would just converse with the professor (and each other), Corvan, my professor, was very good at keeping the conversation flowing by talking in a Spanish level that was close to my Spanish level, so that if I challenged myself, I could understand what he was saying and respond back and keep the conversation flowing. After our first day, I found my comfort level with conversing quickly grow.
All of their classes are immersive Spanish classes, regardless of your level. This means that your instructor only talks to you in Spanish, and you are expected to only respond in Spanish. All teachers are full time staff, and are certified teachers, but they are not required to have English fluency (although Corvan spoke good English). On occasion during our classes, when my classmate and I wanted to learn how to say a certain word in Spanish, he would allow us to break into English and would help us along. But as much as possible, we kept to Spanish only. While I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating and challenging at times, ultimately I believe that immersion greatly helped with me getting comfortable listening to and speaking Spanish.
Our class wasn’t strictly conversation. There was a lot of different learning methods used. We used flash cards, we wrote stories, we did workbook exercises, watched and listened to presentations, etc. It was like being back in school, which is always a bit of a weird feeling for anyone who has been out of school for many years. The different methods of learning helped keep the class feeling fresh, so nothing felt too repetitive.
In the 5 days I was there, we covered A LOT of material. We went over the present, past participle, past preterite, past imperfect, simple future, and conditional verb tenses, and even touched on the subjunctive tenses. Add that to pronouns, prepositions, masculine vs. feminine, por vs. para, and more, and we had an extremely full week of learning. This was because our instructor moved at our pace. Some of the lessons we moved quickly through because we knew them fairly well, others we asked him to stay longer on. This is one main benefit of small groups. The class speed moves at your speed, and not at one set speed for everyone.
At the end of the week, I felt like I had definitely accomplished my goal. My conversation skills felt much stronger, and I was no longer scared to use them. I also learned a fair amount of new material, and felt more confident with what I already knew. I’m writing this review a few weeks after my class, because I wanted to see how well the Spanish held up in the real world after I got out of my class and put a little distance to it. I’ll preface this by saying that it’s important to keep up study and practice after your classes are over, or you will lose what you have learned, just like any skill. But I’m amazed at how well my skills have held up in real world use since my classes. Not only am I more confident speaking, but my listening skills are a night and day improvement over before my classes. I understand people so much better when they speak to me now than they did before.
I’ll give you a real world example. A few days ago, I was taking an Uber car into Casco for a photo job I had. Before my classes, my conversation with drivers was usually limited to directions of where I was going, whether I was okay with the air conditioning and music, and maybe a few comments about traffic. On that trip, I talked with the driver not only about those things, but my job as a photographer and the type of pictures I took, details about my camera, how I liked the Uber service, about how I didn’t use Uber in the US because I owned a car, the problems with Uber in the US vs Panama, and the difference with regulations for taxis in the US and Panama. Was my Spanish perfect, and did I understand absolutely every word he was saying? No. But I was confident enough and comfortable enough to get through the conversation where we both understood the bulk of what each other was saying.
While being located in the heart of Casco Viejo makes it a scenic location and convenient for many travelers, having to get there and back every day from Plaza Edison was a bit of a hassle. I know for a lot of people, proximity to home is an important consideration. That being said, all Spanish schools are NOT alike. This is not to put down any other school. I don’t have any personal experience with them, so I can’t attest to their quality. But teaching someone a new language is not an easy task and places that do it successfully are hard to find, so you can’t just assume you can walk into any Spanish school and get the same experience as you would at another school. For me, that makes a little extra travel time a secondary issue to getting good quality Spanish instruction, which I strongly felt like I did. It’s also important to note that the school is only about a 15 minute walk from the Cinco de Mayo Metro and Bus Station, so if you regularly take the metro or the bus, it’s pretty easy to get to.
Intensive classes start at $229 for one week and get cheaper as you add weeks, going to $195 a week once you reach 4 or more weeks. Private lessons start at $79 for a block of 4 hours, and go down to $13 an hour if you book enough hours. Small group classes are priced in between the two. The full list of prices is available on their website. They even offer some other course option such as in home private lessons (more expensive obviously than taking it at the school). Overall, I think their courses are very reasonably priced, considering you get instruction with a certified teacher in very small group sessions. The intensive courses break down to less than $10 an hour if you do enough weeks, and to me that’s a very affordable price.
If I had more time, I would have loved to have taken more weeks of intensive at the school. I have no doubt that if I spent a couple of months there, I could go from where I started to functionally fluent. David estimates that it takes about 3 weeks of intensive on average for a student to complete a level (different students move at different speeds), which means that someone could go from no Spanish at all to fluent in 6 months. While it will be few students who will take that much courses, it does go to show that the school can help you improve quickly.
While free, self-taught learning obviously has its benefits (namely being free), it has it’s limits compared to getting good instruction from a proper Spanish skill. Learning a language is like any other skill. Can you teach yourself? Possibly, depending on your skills as a self teacher. But that doesn’t mean it’s a replacement for qualified instruction. Just like you’ll get quicker results working out if you use a personal trainer at the gym vs. using the machines yourself. Or learning how to write HTML code from a class vs. teaching yourself on the web. Top US university MIT offers all of their course materials online for free to anyone who wants them, but it’s still not a replacement for getting an actual MIT education. Self teaching is great, and I’ll still write about it on this blog as I continue my studies. But if you are interested in accelerating your Spanish, classes at a Spanish school is the way to go, and Casco Antiguo Spanish School is a strong option in Panama City.
Authors Note: Casco Antiguo Spanish School provided the weeklong Spanish course so that I could have the opportunity to write about it on the blog. My opinions of my experience are my own honest opinions and not influenced by this.