As a native English speaker in South America, I have noticed that travelers following high-tourist routes in South America can manage to get by not knowing any Spanish. But this fact, although sustainable, inevitably means two things: life is more difficult than it needs to be and there’s an in depth part of travel that is left uncovered.
By not knowing the native language, we’re unconsciously excluding ourselves from the world at hand. Although this is not the intent for most travelers, it is a reality that without language it’s difficult to be an active participant in the culture. Learning a language isn’t easy and committing to classes on the road is contingent on both time and money. In the search to take classes, our specifications included finding reasonably priced private lessons in a place where we could apply language in everyday life apart from the gringo trail.
The result after some twists of fate was a small village in Colombia called Barichara, where artistry, environmental consciousness and architecture have created a relatively untouched beauty off the beaten path. It’s about eight hours north of Bogota and adjacent to San Gil, the adventure capital of the country. It’s nestled in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains and full of colonial charm. For accommodation I was referred to Margarita and Donnie, owners of hostel Tu Casa Barichara, who have a comfortable house up from the main square in town that they rent to visitors. They advertise an experience and not just a mark on the map. Their philosophy entails engaging foreigners by introducing them to what happens after the camera shutters quiet.
“Most people just come here for a day, visit the sites, take pictures and leave because there is nothing to do in town,” Margarita says. “Nothing to do unless you’re part of the community.”
A part of that community is 31-year-old language teacher Emerson Monterossa. Monterossa has a bold personality and a big curly head of hair to go with it. He is excited by everyday possibilities and enthusiastic about meeting new people. He’s able to dial into the serious responsibilities of teaching while creating a carefree atmosphere to make mistakes. He’s never short of smiling unless he’s delegating the conversation to political injustice or philosophy. Most enjoyably, Monterossa uses food and music when teaching because they are a foundational part of every culture.
“It’s not just about the language, it’s about the culture,” he says. “When you learn (a) language you learn more about the world.”
Monterossa teaches English as a foreign language to secondary students in the countryside where most students are hearing English words and songs for the first time in their life. His attentiveness towards individuals and positivity makes him a thoughtful teacher for future generations and a patient ally for adults learning a new language.
“It’s good when you feel (that) someone supports you and pushes you when you just want to give up,” he says. “You have to understand we need to push ourselves as well. Don’t give up. It’s an amazing thing of learning a language. It’s like opening a door to another world.”
Monterossa began opening that door in college. He graduated with a degree in literature from the University of Córdoba Monteria, Colombia. He then headed to London in 2009 to become a certified English teacher. Emerson’s evident love for people and vibrant pride in his coastano roots led him to discover that there was a market for teaching his native language to others.
After five years abroad, he returned to his home in Colombia. With a few years of teaching kids in Barichara under his belt, he’s settled and excited to continue his individualized Spanish classes that he started in London. He’s still rediscovering the beauty of Barichara everyday and noticing a growing interest in the city.
“You’re never going to understand if you don’t try to learn another language. I can quote, but I can’t remember the name of this philosopher (Charlemagne) who said, ‘To know two languages is to posses a second soul,’ and it’s true,” he says. “I’m just happy when someone wants to learn about my culture.”
The big cities and tourist towns in Colombia all advertise Spanish courses. A draw back to these classes is the larger population guarantees more English speakers and less emersion while learning. Being in Barichara means very few English speakers and more individualized studies. Barichara is brimming with possibility, perfect for harvesting new language skills.
“I feel so happy living here,” Monterossa says. “If the world comes, I will welcome the world and I will show the world how good it is to live (in Barichara) and how good it is to take (away) part of me—that would be my energy and my language.”
Having learned two languages and taking on the responsibility of teaching, Monterossa is keen on integrating real life situations into his lessons. When learning a new language there’s an intensity and hope to learn everything in a concentrated amount of time, but Monterossa instead focuses on the needs of the student. He dedicated several class periods to travel dialogue, directions, and shopping to meet our needs on the road. He then constructed worksheets for breaking down grammar in a manageable way which gave us a foundation to build off of.
“I think the good thing is to (experience) real situations,” he says. “If you want to be in a party, ok let’s go to a party and I will teach you the basic phrases to talk with people… If you want food, let’s go to a restaurant—real situations, real language.”
This philosophy allowed us a mobile classroom. We took language to the streets and practically applied every ounce of new terminology we could uncover. We shopped and cooked, we were even invited to a local bbq at the end of the two week classes where we managed to stay afloat in the Spanish only conversations.
When we met Monterossa in July of 2016, he was in the works of creating his own space to teach Spanish in the fun and practical style he’s worked hard in establishing. The vision was to be called Casa Quixote, with opportunities for students to live in an authentically Spanish setting. Less than a year later, the result is Monterossa’s own business called HolaHello. He’s teamed up with Tu Casa Barrichara to be an accessible resource to backpackers and to maintain the success of the mobile classroom.
At first it seemed like a brave and daunting task to market an independent language experience amongst the saturated market of schools in South America, but when it was evident that Monterossa cares more about the reality of helping people than the money, it suddenly wasn’t so overwhelming.
“I just want people to open their mind and feel the world is bigger and at the same time smaller. Just go out… Make friends all over the world and see how good it feels. Try another food that is not your food. Learn other languages. Go and party with other people that are not the same people you’ve been partying with your whole life and you will see how your mind and your life style will change.”
For more information on classes, prices, and getting to know your teacher, you can contact Emerson at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow the magic on his Facebook page. For the best stay in town with some humble and entertaining locals check out Tu Casa Barichara.