March 2009 issue

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¿Hablas Español?

American students were the primary business of many early language schools in central and south America, while the USA’s political influence also heralded the origins of one of Spain’s earliest private language schools. Amy Baker charts the rise of the Spanish as a foreign language industry in the Spanish speaking world.

We have had, in 2008, at least three students who were children of former students,” relates Juan Manuel Sampere of Estudio Sampere in Spain, underlining the impressive antecedents of his Spanish language school chain, established in 1956. In Spain and parts of Latin America, in fact, the origins of the Spanish language teaching industry go back a long, long way – giving the English language teaching (ELT) industry a run for its money.

Unlike the ELT market, however, which saw privately-run operations launching an industry before universities followed suit – as early as 1878 or 1912 (see LTM, February 2005) – it has been university departments that got the ball rolling in terms of setting up a teaching Spanish as a foreign language concept in the Spanish speaking world.

The earliest established Spanish language centre that Language Travel Magazine was able to unearth was in fact in Mexico, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Its Centro de Ensenanza para Extranjeros (Cepe) opened in 1921 under the name, Escuela de Verano, “Summer School”. It was founded by Jose Vasconcelos with the mission to expand knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican culture to foreigners as well as to academically support Mexican communities overseas.

Meanwhile, over in Spain, considered by many to be the precursor to the Latin American industry that exists today, the first known dedicated Spanish language school for foreigners was set up at the University of Salamanca in 1929. Still a renowned Spanish language teaching centre, the University of Salamanca claims on its website to be one of the “most prestigious institutions in Spanish education, methodology, creation of materials and evaluation”. Fellow university, Universidad Internacional Menendez Pelayo, established its programme just a few years later in 1932 and recognises its Spanish language and culture courses as an important and integral academic department.
Private enterprise enters the market

While early language learning centres were conceived as an extension of academic services, the earliest commercial venture that started in Spain can be pinned down to Estudio Sampere, which first opened its doors in 1956. “At that time, I think that very few public institutions like Universidad de Salamanca and Universidad Menendez Pelayo were offering Spanish courses for foreigners,” confirms Sampere, the second-generation Director of the school. He adds, “Since the 1930s, some American institutions such as New York University (NYU) and others ran a [Spanish language] programme too.”

He explains the motivation for his parents, Alberto Sampere and Isabel Villar, to open the first Sampere school in Madrid. “In 1956, the US goverment (under General Einsenhower) established four military bases in Spain, one of them just outside Madrid near the Barajas airport. A lot of Spaniards wanted to work for the Americans and some of the Americans wanted to learn Spanish,” he says. “This is the opportunity my parents saw and they opened the Estudio Sampere teaching English and Spanish.”

Sampere relates that another private institution, Instituto Mangold, offered Spanish courses in 1956 in Madrid – this school subsequently became part of the Eurocentres group after 1960. Another early operator from Spain was Gran Canaria School of Languages, located in the Canary Islands some distance from mainland Spain.

“My father José Lagartos started the school in 1964,” relates Mauricio Lagartos, Director of the school, “under the name Escuela Suizo-Canaria.” The school became part of the Berlitz franchise and then part of the Bénédict schools franchise, before operating under the name Gran Canaria School of Languages since 1988. Lagartos underlines that at first, the school taught both foreign languages to Spanish students and Spanish language to foreign students, in a similar vein to the English/Spanish approach of Estudio Sampere. “Later, there was a decrease in demand for foreign languages but an increase of foreign students for Spanish,” he says.

Students arriving by surprise
Student recruitment was not very organised in the early days, relates Sampere, who says that only in the summer would some international students venture over to Madrid and then look for a language school and accommodation once there. “There was no enrolment, or very few, in advance,” he notes, adding that some early students went on to act as agents. “Peter Bingley, Principal of Anglo-Continental school [in the UK] for years, was our student in 1962 and later became an agent under the name Cambridge Advisory. We have known him for four decades!”

Another pioneer in Spain at this time was Malaca Instituto, which was set up in 1971 by a young Danish girl, Ida Willedsen, who had gone to Malaga to study Spanish a year earlier (her mother thought it suitably out of the way). A chance meeting with a family friend of her host family led, eventually, to a marriage, and to Willedsen’s intention to set up a business and home in Spain with her new husband. The first students at the school were a mixture of overseas visitors needing to learn Spanish and local people needing English to deal with the tourist market – again, a combined approach to language learning.

Early students were sought among Willadsen’s friends, colleagues and teachers in Denmark, and the first four students (two Dutch, one American and one German) accepted the “bohemian nature of the school”, recounts Willadsen, “and helped out with the cleaning and decorating!”

In Spain, General Franco’s death in 1975 changed things dramatically, she recounts, with a bank account for women now being available, for example. “The death of Franco brought about radical changes and a flood of foreigners wanting to see what the new Spain was like,” she says. Sampere agrees. “A lot of Europeans were very interested to see what was going on in Spain and this was our first ‘boom’,” he remembers.

Central America emerges as a destination
While the 1970s also saw early entrepreneurial activity in a few central American destinations, Harriet Goff Guerrero of Asociación Mexicana de Institutos de Español (AMIE) points out that again, Mexico was slightly ahead of the pack. An early pioneer in Mexico was Peruvian artist and diplomat in exile, Felipe Cossío del Pomar, who set up the Instituto Allende, in San Miguel de Allende, in the mid-1950s.

The college obtained the endorsement of the University of Guanajuato for a Master of Fine Arts program and, thus, international recognition by several universities in the USA. It taught language, literature and art classes – American students, enticed by the possibility of obtaining academic credit for studies in Mexico, attended in increasing number.

In 1961, the Center for Intercultural Documentation, in Cuernavaca, began a Spanish immersion training programme for religious personnel and was another early pioneer in the fledgling Spanish language teaching industry. “By the mid 1960s,” says Guerrero, “others found out about the programme and came to study not just Spanish but other issues as well, including social justice in Latin America.” This school closed in 1974, by which time, others were opening, catering for international clients. For instance, in 1974, the Centro de Idiomas del Surestre (CIS) in Merida, Yucatan, was established. Chloe Pacheco of CIS explains that she and her husband acquired the school in 1980.

“It was founded in March 1974 by Franz Fortuny, a local sociologist and linguist, along with Sam Larson, an American linguist who later went on to start schools in other parts of Mexico and Bangladesh,” she reveals. “The founders and teaching staff wrote their own small textbook called Got it?,” says Pacheco, “based around a couple called Joann and Steve, and other languages such as Russian, German and French were also taught.”

In Costa Rica, US entrepreneurship was also at play and three Americans set up Centro Linguistico Conversa in 1975. Dave Kaufman, one of the partners, remembers that there were only two other schools present at that time: “El Instituto de Lengua Española was one of them. They were established sometime in the 1950s, I believe. They are known locally as the ‘missionary school’. Their students were mostly American missionaries who came for a language programme of several months.” He continues, “The other school was the Centro Cultural Costarricense-Norteamericano, sponsored, in part, by the US Information Service. Their director and director of courses were USIS employees.”

Kaufman, who had previously been a language coordinator for a Peace Corps training centre in Costa Rica, had lost his partners and acquired a new school location by 1980 and the school has continued to develop since then, teaching Spanish in both San Jose and Santa Ana, a campus based on an old farm site that has been tastefully converted to include a 50-foot swimming pool for students!

“Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a proliferation of Spanish schools,” says Kaufman, who estimates at least 50 in the country. “Some are quite good, and by now well established. Others are perhaps less well established, less well known, etc., but they all have websites with lovely photos of parrots and white-sand beaches, even though they might be operating out of someone’s garage.”

In Mexico, Guerrero reports that an Internet survey by school association AMIE resulted in an approximate 80 language schools in Mexico being identified. A separate survey in 2001 suggested that half of the 13 language schools canvassed by UNAM had been around for 15 years or more, which suggests a number of language schools starting around 1985 or earlier.

Guatemala on the map
The other central American destination that established itself as a Spanish language learning destination in the 1970s was Guatemala. “Our school was founded in 1979. It was founded, primarily for the necessity of having a way to earn a living during difficult times in Guatemala,” relates Founder and Director General of Centro Lingüistico Maya in La Antigua, Arturo Miranda.

He remembers 11 schools in existence in 1979, “but due to the internal war, many schools were closed and only three schools continued operating – Centro Lingüistico Maya, and two others. In 1984, the Spanish business began to grow again, and so, many other schools have been founded since that year”, he relates.

“Guatemala during those years had very difficult times due to the war that took place for more than 35 years, so running a Spanish school during those times was complicated,” he says. “Students at first came to study one by one. Our first students were backpackers that were in Guatemala for a few months. At the beginning there were no teachers so we only had a student at a time.”

Miranda remembers that other students were en route to Nicaragua to try and assist during the war there too, so learning Spanish had a humanitarian goal. He believes Guatemala’s industry helped set a trend that South America would follow. “Spanish schools for foreigners were first founded in Guatemala in the 1970s. After some years, the idea spread all through central America at first and then to South America to countries like Argentina and Peru.”

South American scene
Of the South American countries now active in the market, Ecuador seems to have been among the first countries to see Spanish language schools setting up. Diego del Corral, President and Founder of Academia Latinoamericana de Espanol, which has schools in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, remembers that in Ecuador, “Prior to the late 1980s, one could find a couple of tiny schools scattered throughout the capital city of Quito, mostly along Avenida Amazonas. Basically these were one room walk ups in gloomy buildings, teachers and students crammed two at a table, working out of a book, trying to learn over the noise and cramped conditions of such a setting.”

Academia Latinoamericana was set up in 1989 and was one of the first professional schools to launch on the scene. Sandra Quishpe, Academic Director of Simon Bolivar Spanish School in Quito, attests to this. She says, ”20 years ago, there were only a couple of schools in the city.” Her school opened in 1994.

Over to del Corral: “Academia Latinoamericana de Espanol set the standard from day one, presenting classes in a former embassy building along with classes outdoors in a beautiful garden setting, adding activities, day trips, lecture series. Then, broadening to internships and volunteer projects a full decade before ‘service learning’ became a catchphrase of the 1990s.” He adds, “We wanted to show our students that learning was more than sitting in a class, but an active involvement in activities and having interactive events with their host families.”

The school expanded to two campuses in Peru and one in Bolivia in 2000 and 1999 respectively and all have excellent reputations, asserts del Corral. “The academia is now the South American campus for Alma College of Alma, Michigan, USA, and its own university: Universitas Equatorialis, offering degree and certificate programmes of International Entrepreneurship, Environmental Science, Spanish language, and Business Administration.”

Later starters
Other countries such as Argentina, Chile and even Cuba are now on the map, but these industries were also established a little later on, prospering in the last two decades. For example, in Argentina, the industry really took off after the economic crisis in the country in 1999/2000 that saw the Argentinean peso devalued. “Our currency was devalued and Buenos Aires began to receive more tourists,” relates Lorena Belcastro, who set up her school BASP in 1999. As President of AACELE, the Argentinean association of Spanish language schools, Belcastro divulges, “In 2001 there were 38 schools and in 2008, 211 schools.”

One of the early operators in Argentina was Instituto de Español Rayuela in Buenos Aires, set up in 1993 and Alejandro Michel, Director of Studies, remembers a few schools existing in 1984. “I began teaching Spanish as a second or foreign language in 1984, when I was 26, so it has been about 25 years since I started,” he says. “At that time, I was an English teacher only, and there were a few Spanish schools, perhaps three.”

He continues, “In 1993, I decided to become a professional Spanish teacher and start my own research and teaching project, which I named Rayuela (Hopscotch) as a tribute to Julio Cortázar’s world-famous novel, and as a reminder that teaching a language should always be an enjoyable game of communication.” Mariela Tort also set up a school called Executive Training in 1993, teaching only executives, and established Mundo Español in 1997 when she realised the market was growing. She remembers a nascent industry with few schools at that time.

In Chile, one of the first language schools to market the country as a Spanish study destination internationally was Bridge-Linguatec, remembers President, Jean-Marc Alberola, who was living there at the time. “There were other schools in Chile offering Spanish but not to the language travel segment,” he recounts. “All the rest of the [well known] players – Tandem, Latin Immersion, Coined, etc. – began to appear on the scene in the late 1990s and some even after 2000.”

Alberola remembers being given some very useful advice by a German agent in 1992. “He showed me a very colourful and vibrant brochure for Ecuador with photos of native Indians, local markets, and other tourist attractions. He told me our brochure was nice but that if we wanted to attract more Europeans, we needed to emphasise the culture/tourism more and less about academics. He also mentioned there were no other schools offering these types of programmes at that time.”

Possibly the latest Spanish destination to have been added to the map is Cuba – a communist country that is not open to the idea of private enterprise. It was a significant achievement then when Sprachcaffe opened its school there in 2001. “We welcomed the first students at the beginning of 2001, after several years of intensive preparation and the development of good relations with governmental institutions… and negotiations with governmental institutions,” says Alberto Sarno, Director of Sprachcaffe Languages Plus, which has schools around the world, including one in Mexico.

“Central America is definitely getting more and more popular,” he says, and Antonio Anadon, President of the Ideal Education Group that operates the Don Quijote and Enforex Spanish chains, agrees, although he forecasts a slowdown in growth. “In the last two years there has been tremendous growth in Latin America but I don’t think this will continue [growing as quickly],” he ventures. He points to Costa Rica and Argentina as most popular among his locations offered. “Argentina because it has been so cheap and Costa Rica because of the beach and its reputation as a safe country,” he says.

Alberola, who has schools in Chile, Brazil and Argentina, agrees that Argentina has performed well in particular. “Chile was more popular in the mid-1990s, but this changed after the maxi devaluation of the Argentine peso in 1999. Since that time much of the market shifted over to Argentina.”

Belcastro, President of AACELE in Argentina, sees their greatest competition being Chile, Ecuador and Guatemala. She notes that the industry currently lacks government support, but says, “We are working to become the priority in Latin America to study Spanish.”

Timeline to key dates in the history of the Spanish language teaching market

1921 - Spanish language department opens at UNAM, Mexico

1929 - Spanish language department opens at Universidad de Salamaca, Spain

~1954 - Instituto Allende opens in Mexico

1956 - Estudio Sampere and Instituto Mangold open in Spain

~1975 - Early private schools open in Costa Rica and Guatemala

1984 - Record of first few language schools in Argentina

1989 - Academia Latinoamericana de Espanol among first in Ecuador

1992 - Chile emerges on the Spanish language scene

1993 - Other early operators open in Argentina

1996 - Amauta Spanish School opens in Cusco, Peru

1999 - Fedele association established in Spain.

2001 - Sprachcaffe opens in Cuba

2005 - AMIE association established in Mexico

2005 - Enforex chain (est. 1995) buys Don Quijote group of schools (est. 1989) and emerges as major player in Spanish market

2007 - AACELE set up in Argentina

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Sara's New York Homestay LLC  

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