Fluenz Immersion Program Combines Luxe Lodging and Grammar
By Brian E. Clark
When Sonia Gil graduated from Cornell University with a degree in plant biology nearly 20 years ago, she had no idea what the future held.
So Gil, who grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, returned to her homeland, joined an NGO (non-governmental agency) and worked in the jungle with a medical team. She stayed for six months and pondered her future.
“At that point, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” said the 40-year-old Gil, who would later co-found Fluenz (fluenz.com), which bills itself as “the most comprehensive digital language-learning program designed for English speakers around the world.”
In addition to one-to-one online teaching, Fluenz also offers a week-long, Spanish-language immersion program at posh locations in Mexico City; Oaxaca, Mexico; and Barcelona, Spain that includes cultural aspects including private visits to museums and archeological sites, as well as meals at fine restaurants.
Gil’s path to starting an acclaimed language school began when she was at Cornell and took an online class through the university.
“While the materials were good, the form was subpar with just pdfs and a chat room,” she said. “And this was one of the top universities in the United States. I thought it could be so much better.”
While working in the Venezuelan jungle, she took another online class, this time to improve her French.
“I hated it,” said Gil, who now splits her time between Mexico City and Miami. “It was well-known, expensive and was supposed to be fantastic. But it was terrible and I considered it a rip-off.”
When the jungle experience ended, she connected with future business partner Carlos Lizarralde, a fellow Venezuelan. Both had a strong interest in education. They decided there must be a better way to teach languages online.
“We thought we could certainly improve what was out there,” she said.
Gil’s next adventure took her to Shanghai, China to study Mandarin. But she had yet another disappointing experience.
“The idea was to go there and scout out the possibility of setting up a program to teach English in China,” she said.
“The premise was that I was going to learn Mandarin, to which I had no ties or concept of what a tonal language was,” she added. “I wanted to see what the experience was like.
“It was difficult to say the least. It was six hours a day in a classroom, but first we had to find places to stay. Worse, it was poorly organized and none of the course made sense. It wasn’t practical at all and I thought that was no way this language could be that difficult.
“I was completely lost. I didn’t know what the teacher was saying in Mandarin. It would have taken me forever to learn like that because I had no idea what words were. I’m an adult learner and I needed them explained to me. That’s how it all started.”
So Gil left the program and moved to another Chinese city where she posted a notice on a library bulletin board. She hired two tutors, told them what she wanted to learn. After six months she’d written a manuscript for what would become Fluenz.
“I figured I didn’t have to be a linguist to make it better,” said Gil, who ran her program by instructors who taught Mandarin as a second language. “But the first step was to apply some common sense.”
With her own plan, she was able to learn quite a bit of Mandarin, though she said she did not gain fluency.
“However, I do think I’m more efficient than people who learned in the classical way. I don’t have the ability to absorb a language from the air, though there are a few people out there who apparently can.”
Upon her return, she met again with Lizarralde, who encouraged her to proceed with a Mandarin program from the point of view of an English speaker.
“Carlos is also a dreamer and he said ‘go for it,” she said.
“I started with broad elements, and then vocabularies and structures that you can actually use,” she said.
“This whole thing was born from a crazy fantasy and nowadays I look back and am surprised I actually got on a plane and flew to China. I sometims wonder ‘what was I thinking?’
Gil and Lizarralde launched Fluenz in 2007 as a digital, online offering, starting with Mandarin and later adding French, Spanish and German. Today, the Spanish program has the largest number of participants.
Four years ago, after requests from numerous students, Fluenz launched its in-person, in-country immersion program in Mexico so students could walk out the door of their hotel and actually use what they’d learned in the market, a restaurant or in a conversation with a local.
“It was an idea that had been floating around for awhile because people were asking for something like this,” she said. “With online, we’d never met our customers in person before.”
Gil said Fluenz fills an unmet niche for adult learners.
“We wanted something for adults with an element of luxury in which everything was taken care of like eating at wonderful restaurants and getting access to great places that you wouldn’t be able to see on a private tour.”
Gil said the cultural experience goes hand-in-hand with the Spanish.
“It’s not just learning verbs and verb tenses,” she said. “That’s important, but you have to ask why you learn a language? And that usually has to do with culture, travel, telling stories, understanding people and being part of a place.”
Gil said language immersion programs she researched never had luxury hospitality as a priority.
“Many don’t even offer a stay,” she said. “Others provide lodging with a family, which for many is not an option.
“We care about where people sleep, where they eat, and the cultural experience when they’re learning a language. We curate nearly every hour of the trip to enrich the entire experience. We even meet you at the airport, so all you have to do is show up.”
In November, this writer participated in a Fluenz program in Oaxaca. The course featured 120-minute sessions, twice daily, with one-on-one and two-to-one student-teacher ratios.
My Spanish was middling at the start. But thanks to outstanding – and charming – Fluenz teachers and interactions with Oaxacans, I made a significant jump when the program ended. Still, it also made me realize I have much to learn, so I may be back. Or perhaps do a similar Fluenz offering in Barcelona, Spain.
My classmates (nine of us in total) were based in the lovely Pug Seal Oaxaca Hotel (pugseal.com) on Calle Porfirio Diaz near the city center, so we were within a short walking distance to numerous museums, churches, parks, markets, mezcal stores and other sites.
Opened several years ago, the hotel is the former home of a well-do-do merchant and includes a pleasant, open-air courtyard with ceramic artwork and a fountain in its center. The large guest rooms had a high-tech feel, while the walls were decorated with abstract murals painted by artist Rafael Uriegas.
Each morning before my fellow estudiantes and I began classes, we were treated to delicious Zapoteco gourmet breakfasts that featured everything from French Toast sprinkled with raspberries (perhaps because French troops occupied Mexico City from 1862 to 1867?) to delicious hibiscus-flower omelets, mushroom tostadas, chilaquiles (bake corn tortillas served with salsa, pulled chicken, avocado, refried beans) and vegetable enchiladas.
In addition to the outstanding instructors, the program featured Erica Heidepriem, who could be best described as the Fluenz concierge/producer/
She made things flow smoothly and was graciously responsive to student requests beyond the classroom, going so far as to acquire a guitar for me to practice and batteries for my tuner.
Most evenings, Heidepriem guided us to excellent Oaxacan restaurants, including the Cafe Criollo, a creation of famed Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera – which has an open-air dining area and an open, wood-fired ceramic comal. We feasted on mole enchiladas with organic pollo (chicken), quesadillas with herbed guacamole and other delights, all interspersed with shots of mezcal and wine.
We also dined at the Alfonsin, which is operated by chef Jorge Leon, who cooked at top restaurants in Mexico City before returning to his native Oaxaca to work with his mother Elvia at their eatery, which had the feel of being invited into someone’s home.
For lunch in the middle of the week, we went to the Baltazar, a cafe which provided delicious Oaxacan dishes prepared by chef Olga Cabrera, as well as a wide offering of different mezcals in an adjacent shop, Casa Convite.
And one evening, under a full moon, we had the ruins of Monte Alban all to ourselves for a guided tour. Founded in 500 B.C. by Zapotec rulers, it is made up of a series of huge stone platforms, tombs, a palace and a stone ball court. One of the earliest cities in MesoAmerica, Monte Alban was important as a political and economic center for more than 1,000 years before it was largely abandoned around 600 A.D.
Heidepriem said the focus of the Fluenz program in Oaxaca – a similar course is offered in Mexico City – “is definitively on Spanish, but we really try to seek out cultural offerings that make the whole experience meaningful. The fact that you can stroll out after a class and use your new language skills adds context and cements what you’re learning.
“We want you to leave Oaxaca not only with improved Spanish, but with a better understanding of this wonderful corner of Mexico and perhaps seeing the world in a new way.”
I flew into Oaxaca on a Sunday night and after a program orientation on Monday morning, dove into my first Spanish lesson, focusing on useful vocabulary and the simple forms of the past tense: preterite and imperfect.
Lunch that day was across the street at the Boulenc Bakery and Restaurant, which served delicious salads, baked goods, pizzas, sandwiches and fermented vegetables. The walls were decorated with giant, colorful plaster-of-Paris heads that may once have been used in parades.
We returned several times over the course of the week to eat. And, truth be told, it became one of my favorite dining spots.
That first afternoon, fellow student Diane Gould of Seattle and I set out for the 20 de Noviembre mercado where we encountered the abuela selling roasted and spicy chapulines (grasshoppers).
In a word, they were crunchy.
Inside the market, we made our way past a variety of booth with everything from bread to cheese to fish to fruits and vegetables on colorful display. But our goal was the market’s Passillo de Humo – which translates as “smoky corridor.”
The narrow passageway was lined with stalls where a multitude of meat cuts and sausages were being roasted over fires and served at tables. Beams from a skylight cut through the haze, giving the passage an almost mystical feel.
One evening, we were treated to a private tour by Enrique de Esesarte, a history professor whose family operates the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic art, which is housed in a former colonial home not far from the Pug Seal Hotel.
Rufino, an abstract painter from Oaxaca who lived from 1899 to 1991, is considered on par with other famed Mexican artists such muralist Diego Rivera and portraitist Freda Kahlo. Rufino collected Zapotec, Aztec, Mayan and other indigenous ceramics, which influenced his surrealistic work.
On the final day before I returned to snowy Wisconsin, my classmates and I headed into the countryside with Oaxacan guide America Schulz to visit several women-run cooperatives.
The first, a pottery studio in the town of San Marcos Tlapazola, is operated by Marcina Mateo Martinez, whose works have gained international acclaim and been shown in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the Vatican.
She told us how countless generations of women before her dug red clay from El Picacho Mountain above her village and formed it into functional and beautiful pots, bowls and clay figures.
But it wasn’t until Martinez left her home 40 years ago – a scandalous act for a single woman at the time – to display her works at regional markets that the village became known as an art center for pottery produced by the Barro Rojo (red clay) collective.
The second, a weaving cooperative in Teotitlán del Valle, was founded as a way for indigenous women who were single mothers or widows to support themselves. There was pushback from men in the beginning, but the weavers’ efforts have helped put the village’s textiles – some of their geometric designs taken from local Zapotec ruins – on the map.
Pastora Gutierrez, a leader of the “Nueva Vida” (New Life) guild, showed us how to spin wool and then dye it using leaves, herbs, nuts and other native plants and tree bark.
Gutierrez, who had an impish smile, gave several of us the opportunity to work on a loom before guiding us into a showroom where we could purchase blankets, rugs and shawls as “recuerdos” (memories) of our brief time in Oaxaca.
When I told Gil of my Oaxacan experience and how it had altered my perception of Mexico, she said “Me allgro” (I’m glad).
“We want people to come away from their weeks with much more than a bigger vocabulary. It sounds like you got that and then some.”
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.