Whether your level of fluency hovers at "no hablo español" or you're already cachando all the chilenismos, chances are you wouldn't mind improving your Spanish if you're not a native speaker. For most us, this means signing up for Spanish classes and plowing through a grammar workbook, hoping that once the forty-five minutes are up, we'll manage to retain some of what we've learned and apply it to our next conversation: easier said than done.
Photo courtesy sxc.hu
After several rather tepid experiences with language schools in Valparaíso, I decided there must be a better way. What the city lacks in appealing Spanish instruction it makes up for in artists and craftsmen who offer classes to the general public, providing a singular opportunity for foreigners to learn a new skill, improve their fluency and immerse themselves in the local community.
Anyone confident enough in their ability to get by without formal instruction in Spanish should investigate the more interactive approach of taking classes in other subjects. Here are two of the more interesting options in Chile's cultural capital.
Almost everyone in Valparaíso has heard of the Cámara Lucida photography school, located in a beautifully restored house in historic Cerro Concepción. The school is widely known for the quality and breadth of its introductory and advanced courses, offered twice a year for about three months each.
Cámara Lucida's directors, Fernando Aceña and Carolina Vásquez, offer a broad introduction to photography, beginning with pinhole cameras, then allowing students to choose between digital and film (the school houses both a computer lab and a dark room, but students must provide their own cameras). Technical instruction, accompanied by contemporary photography presentations, reviews of student work and "salidas al terreno" (field trips, which may include the surrounding neighborhood, botanical garden or a dance performance) comprise the bulk of the coursework.
Anyone would agree that Valparaíso counts among the most photo-worthy cities in the world; studying photography while living here (or just passing through) provides a rare opportunity to engage with the city while perfecting your photographic technique in a Spanish-speaking environment.
Introductory classes composed of roughly twelve students start at CP$250,000 (US$458) for three hours of classtime a week over approximately three months (field trips are scheduled outside of class). Anyone interested in signing up for introductory or advanced courses (the next semester starts in September) should contact the school through email (see below).
Taller Escuela de Orfebrería
Although often referred to metaphorically as “La Joya del Pacífico" (The Jewel of the Pacific), Valparaíso also produces jewels in the literal sense. Cesar Muñoz, an orfebre (silversmith), offers personalized instruction in the fine art of jewelry-making at the Taller Escuela de Orfebrería, located downtown just off the Plaza Sotomayor.
An expert in his craft, Muñoz started working as a jewel-setter in his teens, but has run his own workshop for many years. He aims to provide his students with a foundation solid enough so that they can work independently once they leave his studio.
But Muñoz’s class offers plenty of perks beyond the one-of-a-kind jewelry his students produce every week: a popular local character, he entertains a steady stream of visitors from the neighborhood who regularly stop by to chat, eat and even play music (he's a member of the Club de Armonica de Valparaíso).
Also somewhat of an expert on local history and a self-proclaimed Valpo enthusiast, Muñoz is a rich source of information on the city and relishes the opportunity to share it with others. He also enjoys teaching foreigners all the chilenismos he sprinkles throughout his speech, providing some much needed insight into the complexities of Chilean Spanish.
Private classes are CP$ 55,000 (US$100) a month for four hours of instruction a week, but Muñoz also offers more intensive instruction for those with a limited amount of time. Contact him by email (see below) or just stop by the studio for more information.
Valparaíso has plenty more short-term courses to offer. If you've found yourself stuck in a Spanish school rut, consider pursuing another interest - whether you're taking photos or designing jewelry, your Spanish will have improved before you know it.