Updated on February 14th, 2020
“On my last day, my teacher asked me to describe my experiences in Cuba so far. I surprised myself by talking for 10 minutes. I had achieved my objective & was ready to travel for the next 2 weeks on my own!”
Havana, Cuba & Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
I had started learning Spanish at home in the UK but felt to properly progress I wanted to immerse myself in the language. In 2016 I chose Havana, Cuba to spend 2 weeks in class (it was on my Life List to visit & I kept getting the foreboding messages that I needed to go soon “before it changed anymore”). I had an amazing time & my Spanish improved in leaps & bounds. In Feb 2018 I decided to give my Spanish another boost by doing a similar thing in the Dominican Republic (DR) for a week. As I was in the land of Latin dance I also took lessons in this both times too. Here is how my experience of the 2 places compared…
What do you need to know?
Firstly, I’ll start with a caveat. I am sharing my personal experiences & I cannot guarantee that yours would be the same in either a positive or negative way. I booked both courses through Apple Languages in the UK & if you are keen to do the same I would recommend speaking to them to ensure your experience matches what you are looking for. Do bear in mind that they are only reliant on the information they are provided & a few of the details weren’t accurately portrayed before arrival.
In Cuba, the cheapest & most authentic places to stay are Casas Particulares – basically in a room in a family home. I spent my whole month staying in the casas & my course was the first experience I had of this. It proved invaluable as a starting point as it got me ‘into the system’.
“Cubans are fantastic at networking & very generous with it, so once I stayed in my Havana casa, they knew someone who could accommodate me in my next location & so on.”
To learn more please see my post A First Timer’s Guide to Cuba.
The casa was near the university in the Havana Vedado district which is a beautiful residential area with tree-lined streets. It was about a 45-minute walk from the old town (Havana Vieja) – either through Centro (amazing but a little confronting at first) or along the Malecon (seafront), or 10 minutes in a car. Although it was great to sample the nightlife in Havana Vieja there were also enough bars & restaurants locally to keep us entertained too.
For my time in Havana, I stayed in a family home (casa) where they did speak English but we were encouraged to speak only Spanish when we were all together. The house was run by Ray, the boss & our residents were Avis (his niece), her boyfriend Uri & our fantastic cook/Cuban mother, Carida (who I loved but couldn’t understand a word she said!).
We had breakfast & dinner provided which also gave us a focus for everyone staying in the casa & an opportunity to coordinate evenings out. The food was fantastic too. I’m not a fussy eater (if you are it will be more challenging) & I literally ate everything that I was given, with second helpings for most meals too!
I had a room to myself with my own bathroom, a few rooms had to share a bathroom but it was cleaned every day.
“Overall there was a great atmosphere in the casa, with 6 or 7 people there for most of the time and new arrivals, returning ex-students (I went back twice for 1 night at a time as I passed through Havana) & a core of us who were together on an ongoing basis. Each time I returned the atmosphere was equally as upbeat & inclusive.”
For my time in DR, I was given the option when booking to either stay with a family or in a shared apartment with 1 – 2 others. This time I chose an apartment & ended up having the place to myself. The block seemed to be owned/run by the school with 3 of my classmates living all together in the flat above & the house being literally around the corner from the school. It was good to have my independence & I spent most nights in & made my own food which helped save money. The kitchen was very sparsely resourced (one pan with a lid that didn’t fit!) & the cleanliness felt slightly compromised (I affectionately referred to the ants as my pets but kept all my food in the fridge).
The downside was that I did feel fairly isolated for the week. Living alone I didn’t get as much practice with either speaking or understanding & didn’t have the same bonding experience that I was hoping for. Again though, my home was in the university district with a 10 – 15-minute bus journey to the Zona Colonial (beautiful, old & tourist central area). However, in terms of bars & restaurants, there was less happening in the local area (although if Pizza Hut, KFC & McDonalds are your things it would be heaven!). I spent most nights ‘home alone’.
Again, I had a cleaner every few days but also a very weird experience when a woman (who I assumed was the cleaner) let herself in, we had a chat, but it turned out she was my neighbour who lived at the back of my apartment & could only access her place through mine. It was very bizarre to have a woman just walking through my apartment at random times without warning but I (almost) got used to it.
Watch this space for more ideas for different experiences in the Dominican Republic over the coming weeks.
2. Language Schools
In Cuba, most of us studied in a 1:1 capacity which was incredibly intense. Many of my fellow students had classes in their rooms but I was able to get out of the casa & had lessons in the neighbour’s house where I met my teacher at 8.30 every morning. The room I had most of my lessons in was small, hot (with the odd terrorising mosquito) & without windows. As with anything in Cuba, resources are tight so you have to accept what you are given.
Me & my teacher, Ileana then spent 3 ½ hours locked in this room together while she at times, dragged me through the lessons every day. Halfway through the morning, I had a 15-minute break when I would just walk, to try & clear my head. By the time I finished at 12, I just wanted to go back to my slightly dark room & lie down for a bit!
I was lucky that Ileana spoke some English. For the vast majority of the time we spoke Spanish, but it was useful when she could define the odd word for me in English. For many of my fellow students, this wasn’t the case. As with any lessons it was a mixture of repetition, reading, grammar & conversation. Whenever I needed a break I’d either write very slowly or ask a question, both proving brilliant strategies to slow things down for a bit! I am a very visual person, if it’s written down I get it, but trying to understand the accent & speed of speech in Cuba I found a struggle.
The course ran over the weekdays & weekends were free. I felt at times that I wasn’t progressing as much as I wanted to.
“On day 1 I could barely string a sentence together, but by my last day, Ileana asked me to describe my experiences in Cuba so far. I surprised myself by talking for 10 minutes. I had achieved my objective & was ready to travel for the next 2 weeks on my own!”
In DR I was in a class of 7 for lessons which had advantages & disadvantages. Although officially we were probably all at the same level (in comparison to others at the school), the more lessons I had, the more it became clear that we were all operating at vastly different speeds & with different attitudes to the classes generally.
The positive aspects were that I enjoyed classes a lot more. It felt less pressurised & intense & I didn’t have the same feeling of foreboding I felt in the mornings as I left for my class in Havana. It was good to bounce off my fellow students & seek to understand collectively.
Our teacher, Maria was great but as a group, I have no doubt we were a challenge. There were 4 of us who were very committed & keen to learn, but 3 young guys who had other priorities. They were out drinking every night & out of my 5 days, all 3 were there for only 2. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy nights out (& had many late ones during my time in Havana), but I had paid good money for the experience & never missed a lesson or came unprepared. They were missing things all the time & trying to get them caught up while they were on their phones (clearly not Google Translate, which was the only reason we used ours), was frustrating to those of us who were ready & keen to move on.
Again, although Maria spoke English, all our lessons were 99% in Spanish which was great to enhance understanding (although I still struggle when people don’t speak very slowly!).
“In the middle of the lesson we had a 30-minute break where they we got chance to interact with our fellow students, always only in Spanish. I think this element was also key to helping me progress just as much as the lessons themselves.”
I don’t feel that my Spanish progressed at the same pace as in Havana. By the end, I felt I’d had lots of practice & got back into the groove, rather than actually learning a lot of new stuff. However, I was energised at the end of the class & could happily have done more, as opposed to exhausted which was the case in Cuba. One of my fellow students took 1:1 lessons for 1-2 hours in the afternoon, which I think definitely gave him the edge with his learning.
3. Dance classes
Everyone you meet in Cuba asks you if you dance salsa & on day one a woman said to me “No salsa, no boyfriend!”. They take it all very seriously but thankfully every Cuban man also tells you that they teach salsa so there’s really no excuse not to have a go! Me & my friend Bella signed up for lessons on day 1 & loved it, not because we were any good, but because it was a good fun way to clear our heads after an intense morning of Spanish lessons. Most days we had an hours class, as we progressed we started to have 2 hours a day.
The classes were private & each of us had a ‘man’ for the duration of the lesson. I initially got through a few & at one point felt like I’d danced salsa with most of the population of Havana as none of them ever seemed ‘available’ for 2 days in a row. Then I found Adrian & we clicked. He was much shorter than me but kept telling me he was very strong & we had a lot of fun! See more in my video – Sue Does Salsa!
In Santo Domingo, I arranged for dance classes to be included in my package, so from Mon – Thurs I had 2 hours a day. I started with Merengue (the most popular dance in DR) & salsa (slightly different from Cuban salsa), then added bachata to my (still slightly inept) repertoire. The teachers were fantastic & good fun again & although I went to a dance school for the first few days they were effectively private lessons.
“I was told that I had Latin hips (I think I asked them to repeat that 3 times to check I’d understood correctly!) but the head of the school looked with great contempt when I didn’t straighten my knees, my steps were way too big (the problem with being tall) & my main instruction was usually ‘traquillo’, basically calm down!”
It was great fun learning a few different dances, although I’m not great with change so often took a couple of songs & some very confused looks from the teachers to get into the swing of things when we changed the beat. I still don’t think I’d be able to recognise which dance matches what music, which I know they would find incomprehensible!
On most days, a few other people came along to class but mostly seemed to sit around for ages just watching me which was a little intimidating at first, but I got used to it. Thursday was the more social day, meaning I had to share my men around with the rest of the class which was a bit disappointing! I was keen to do some more merengue but the main focus of the group was salsa, which dominated in the end. See how (not to!) dance Salsa & Bachata in my Best of DR Video Diary.
These were very different between the 2 venues. In Havana, resources are so scarce that there were no manuals or books. All examples & learning materials were handwritten by my teacher, a stark reminder of the realities of life in Cuba. Photos for discussion were cut out of magazines. There were no copies of anything so everything that I took away had to be handwritten myself. Top advice – always have a notebook & pen (as with many things in Cuba, they’re not so easy to buy once you’re there).
Santo Domingo was another story, I was given a manual & a folder with the welcome on the first day. I had a pad, a pen, handouts for most of the key points we covered & the lessons were naturally focussed on a whiteboard, allowing a good discussion around each topic. Also, with the class environment, it was possible to ask & help each other with our understanding as a group.
5. Social Life
The school in Santo Domingo was much bigger than the one in Havana. In Cuba, we all lived in the casa & ate together, giving us a great opportunity to organise activities for the evenings. In DR people came from various different home stays & apartments across the city. The school did arrange a number of activities for the students but only being there a week, I had limited opportunity to get involved which was a shame.
What is my advice?
1. How do you want to learn?
If you have a lot of time, then I found the group class a more enjoyable way to learn Spanish. The classes were less intense, there was more camaraderie & if you are here to meet others then this is a great way to do it. Although you will find that progress is slower as a result so, if you’re serious about progressing in a shorter period of time then 1:1 lessons are for you. As mentioned before, one of the guys in my DR class took 1:1 lessons for 1 – 2 hours in the afternoon which I think is a fantastic option to get the best of both worlds.
2. Where do you want to stay?
If I do the lessons again I would always opt to stay with a family. The experience can’t be beaten in terms of immersing yourself in the culture, eating local food & there is no better way to practice what you’ve learnt, especially as the family may not speak any English.
3. Do you want to dance?
My advice is to leave your inhibitions at passport control & take some dance classes. I found the 2 together, a great combination – using your brain in a different way can refresh your thinking for tackling homework or learning what you have taken on board after an intense morning.
4. How long have you got?
Finally, 1 week is definitely not enough. I felt I did more revision & practise as opposed to actually moving forward with my language skills – next time I will do at least 2 weeks, especially if the classes are group classes. By the end of my lessons in Cuba I felt ready to stop, when I finished in DR I felt I was only just getting started.
As I said at the start – I can only comment on my experiences & everyone’s will be unique. I would recommend Apple Languages but whoever you choose to progress your skills with I would advise you to speak to someone directly before booking to make sure you are getting what you want out of the opportunity. Their information is only as good as they are supplied with, but it will definitely help to get you the best chance at the experience you are looking for.
What do you think?
Where else have you learnt a language & how was your experience?
What experiences do you have of learning Spanish overseas?
Where would you recommend?
To see more of my photos from The Caribbean & more please visit my Gallery page!