With walking tours, cooking lessons, bar crawls and surf classes on offer, Sam Howe discovers that learning Spanish in San Sebastian doesn’t have to feel like going back to school…

Let’s be honest: we native English speakers are pretty rubbish at languages. Most people’s memories of school lessons revolve around textbooks, tape recordings of French people asking for directions and writing letters to ‘Juan’ explaining what you did last summer. It’s hardly surprising to hear that the number of language students in the UK has halved over the last two decades.

Most people’s memories of school lessons revolve around textbooks, tape recordings of French people asking for directions and writing letters to ‘Juan’ explaining what you did last summer…

But what if you could combine language learning with your favourite hobby? What if you could learn whilst exploring some of the most beautiful, vibrant cities in the world? Whether you’re a food fanatic, wannabe surf dude, nature stomper, bar-hopping night owl, wine connoisseur, or culture vulture, Tandem’s ‘work hard, play hard’ philosophy offers you an unforgettable, fully immersive experience. I visited their San Sebastian school in Northern Spain to try it out for myself.

Immersion, Necessity & Leisure

“You don’t know a language, you live it. You don’t learn a language, you get used to it.”

Khatzumoto, Japanese Language Blogger

Anyone who has successfully learned a language will tell you that immersion is essential. But as a tourist this can be surprisingly hard to come by. In most European cities you’re almost certain to be served by that one pesky waiter who insists on practising his English with you. That’s why Tandem arrange for you to live with a native speaker in self-catered accommodation, meaning you are fully immersed from start to finish.

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The classroom is just a part of the experience

This sustained communication in a foreign language is tiring, but allows for a surprisingly effective learning experience. You can feel the cogs in your brain turning with increasing reluctance as fatigue sets in and this is where the second key factor comes into play: necessity. If you want clean clothes, you had better learn how to ask how the washing machine works. If you want to eat, you’d better find out where the chopping board is stored. And if you want to avoid those awkward silences, you’d better learn how to make some small talk!

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

Chinese Proverb

The third factor is leisure. Part of the excitement is that Tandem rotate the cultural experiences on a weekly basis. They are always looking to improve and add to the evening activities on offer. This not only gives you a reason to go back but means that you won’t be getting a churned out, pre-packaged experience. Here’s an overview of activities on offer:

Activities

Cooking, Food & Wine

San Sebastian has a proud, historical and thriving gastronomical scene. Away from the clamour of the city centre is a small town called Pasai-Donibane. Tucked in the corner of its quaint, picturesque plaza is Ziaboga restaurant where the head chef taught us how to cook some classic local pintxos(the Basque take on tapas) as well as traditional seafood paella. Whilst language nerds will relish practising their kitchen-related imperatives and common nouns, a translator was on hand to limit any confusion-induced culinary disasters.

From the classroom to the kitchen...
From the classroom to the kitchen…

Nightlife

Another established truth amongst language learners is that a couple of beers can help to shake away any self-consciousness (Science says so…honest!). San Sebastian is packed full of great bars and pretty much all of them will serve an exciting array of pintxos. The whole point of pintxos is that they offer a sociable way to eat, drink and bar-hop; you try the establishment’s speciality before moving on to the next.

The guys at Tandem will happily point you in the direction of some great bars as well as the best nights to go out. In some districts a tradition called pintxo pote occurs every Thursday evening 7pm-10pm where you can get a pintxo and drink for €2. Following the economic crash, bars began to sign up to the scheme as a way to get people back out on the streets. Needless to say it became an instant hit amongst students and young people. You’ll be fluent in no time!

Pintxos: a Basque institution
Pintxos: a Basque institution

Surf Classes

San Sebastian’s Playa de la Zurriola is becoming one of Europe’s most attractive surfing destinations. The school can arrange a series of lessons or a one-off class on your behalf. The neighbourhood of Gros lies just behind the beach. The multitude of bars and cafes allow you to enjoy some of the most affordable après-surf food and drink in the city. Paddle boarding is a popular back-up option for when the waves don’t feel like co-operating.

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Stand up paddling is popular…
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…as is regular surfing

Hikes & Horses in the Countryside

Shake the classroom stiffness out of your legs by taking a hike along the Basque region’s beautiful coastline. The rolling green hills, glistening ocean and striking cliff formations – much more akin to Wales or Ireland than Spain – are well worth seeing, with popular routes easily accessible by train or bus. Keeping Spanish conversation going over this more extended period of time requires serious dedication for beginners, but the stunning views give you plenty to marvel at. Horse riding lessons are also available for those still trying to pluck up the courage to practice their language skills on humans.

The countryside ain't half bad either...
Did we mention the beauty of the Basque Country?
A sunny day on the Bay of Biscay
A sunny day on the Bay of Biscay

Culture

“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”

Rita Mae Brown

Most language students will hopefully recognise a grain of truth in the above quote; understanding the history and culture of a place can hugely increase your understanding of how and why language is used. It won’t take you long to realise that in San Sebastian the road signs appear in two languages: Castilian Spanish and Basque. Even the city itself, known as Donostia to Basque speakers, has two names. One of Tandem’s walking tours includes a visit to the San Telmo museum which helps explain why. With the help of the guides, and English translations at hand just in case, you can learn more about Basque culture as well as its frosty relationship with the Franco regime.

Understanding the history and culture of a place can hugely increase your understanding of how and why language is used…

Doing a walking tour at the beginning of your visit is a must. It’s a chance to get your bearings, meet fellow-students, discover hidden gems, and listen to stories about the trials and tribulations of the city’s residents (the British and French don’t come across well…). Our tour covered the Old Town including a stroll down Boulevard, San Vicente Church, Abuztuaren 31 (the oldest and most famous street in the city), Konstituzio Plaza and a short hike up Mount Urgull for a stunning sunset view of the coast line.

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Getting to know the streets of the city

It doesn’t take long to pick up on the fact that San Sebastian has a historical rivalry with neighbouring city Bilbao (this sentiment is most palpably felt when their two football teams meet). This includes an ongoing battle over which city should be considered the true cultural hub of the Basque region. Tandem can help you decide for yourself as they frequently run Saturday day-trips to the world famous Guggenheim modern art gallery.

A glimpse of Gehry's Guggenheim...
A glimpse of Gehry’s Guggenheim…

The Lessons

Tandem have 25 years of experience. In addition to their successful philosophy towards language learning, a key strength is their flexibility. They accommodate large groups, all age-ranges, and all abilities. Some are studying for exams, some purely for leisure. Some students stayed for a week, some for a whole season. Some of the braver students had intensive, full day lessons, others just attended in the morning.

Given the diverse cliental they cater to, I was surprised at how personalised and well-pitched my lessons were. This in part was due to the rigorous assessment (reading, written and verbal) completed before I began to make sure I was put into an appropriate group.

To ensure the success of this flexible model, and with the make-up of their class changing on a weekly basis, the teachers also needed to be incredibly adaptable. And they certainly were! They were knowledgeable, experienced and had a wide repertoire of activities at their disposal. Co-director Bernd Kibbel told me that they strive to get to know all of their students, regardless of the length of their stay. This was true – particularly during quieter parts of the year – with the centre feeling more like a community than a language school, with everyone supporting each other on their journey irrespective of their level.

For me, Tandem has established a very appealing model for learning languages: a mixture of doing the things you love, living and conversing with native speakers, alongside quality teaching and learning in the classroom.

For me, Tandem has established a very appealing model for learning languages: a mixture of doing the things you love, living and conversing with native speakers, alongside quality teaching and learning in the classroom. And the good news is that they have a chain of 18 schools across five countries, allowing you to travel whilst learning Spanish, German, French and Italian. Be prepared for being out of your comfort zone, for those awkward, embarrassing moments, but sometimes, just like adjusting to a freezing cold swimming pool, it’s better to just hurl yourself in at the deep end.

Further Reading

This isn’t the first time Urban Travel Blog has enjoyed a fling with Northern Spain. Check out Ben Holbrook’s favourite places to visit in the Basque Country, as well as the Editor’s top things to do in the region.

Nor is it the first time we’ve expounded the benefits of studying a new language on your travels. Here’s what happened we took Portuguese classes in Rio de Janeiro, just a few blocks from Ipanema beach.

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