Why I wanted to learn Spanish and how I founded the agency Go Study Spain
In this article, I want to explain what it was like growing up in a non-Spanish speaking country with Mexican roots, why I decided to learn Spanish and how this finally led me to set up the study abroad in Spain agency, Go Study Spain.
I know that there are many people in the USA with Latin American roots that have, in some way or another, experienced some of the things I will go on to talk about.
Although I was born in Mexico, my parents decided to move to the USA when I was only a year and a half old. They didnât have work permits but my father managed to find work in the restaurant sector (he attended boarding school in the USA and speaks perfect English).
After about 2 years in the USA, my parents divorced and my mother moved back to Denmark along with me and my elder sister.
I was 3 and a half at the time and had started learning Spanish during my time in Mexico, before going on to learn English at kindergarten in the USA, at the same time that my mom was trying to teach us as much Danish as possible- so I assume that I must have felt a bit confused trying to juggle 3 languages.
The result was that while in Denmark, I didnât want to speak any Spanish at all and quickly forgot all the Spanish I had learned.
During my early years in Denmark (between the ages of 4 and 9), we had very little contact with my father or my Mexican family. He visited us perhaps once or twice and called a few times a year. At that time, I spoke to him in English and didnât have much of a relationship with him.
In Mexico (and other Latin American countries), people have two surnames: the fatherâs surname followed by the motherâs. Therefore I was born Christian GutiĂ©rrez Samuelsson. When we moved back to Denmark, however, my mother changed this so that GutiĂ©rrez became my middle name and Samuelsson my surname (it wasnât possible to have more than one surname in Denmark at the time).
As I grew older (between the ages of 9 and 14 years old), I remember hating my middle name. Whenever a new teacher, doctor, dentist, etc. saw my âexoticâ middle name they always wanted to hear my personal story. I felt 100% Danish and during this period I had hardly any contact with my Mexican family and hated having to explain my roots.
At the age of 15, I had to apply for secondary school. I decided (with the approval of my mother) to apply without including my middle name on the forms.
I still didnât like all the questions about my Spanish middle name, but in this case it was more because of the fact that I had decided to take Spanish classes for the first time in my life and felt embarrassed about not even being able to pronounce my own middle name correctly.
During secondary school, my attitude gradually began to change. My sister had spent a year with our Mexican grandmother and I also started to have more contact with my Mexican side of the family, therefore my desire to learn Spanish grew.
The main problem was that I didnât like studying languages at school. Aside from Danish and English, I had studied German from the age of 10 and once in secondary school, I started to learn Spanish. The conversation part of classes was fun but I didnât enjoy learning grammar and, even though I studied Spanish for two years in total, I canât say I learned a great deal.
Between secondary school and university I thought about taking a year out to go to Mexico or another Spanish-speaking country to learn Spanish, but in the end I decided to go directly to university.
During the last year of my Bachelorâs degree in economics I started to look around for different Masterâs degree programs. I found out about a Masterâs program offered by ESCP which involved combining studies in different countries. The program genuinely sounded interesting and also represented the perfect opportunity to learn Spanish, combining studies in the UK and Spain. However, to be able to apply for this program, I first had to learn to speak Spanish fluently.
I decided to spend the summer at a small private language school in Tarifa in the South of Spain.
This was back in 1998, and although the internet was just starting to become popular, not many Spanish schools had a website. In actual fact, I found out about the school through a windsurfing website! Tarifa is one of the best places to windsurf in Europe and as I had tried windsurfing before, I thought it would be a great idea to combine my Spanish studies with having fun at the beach.
I didnât know much about the school or what the teaching situation would be, but decided to book a program along with accommodation with a Spanish host family for 8 weeks.
After 8 weeks of study, I was able to hold a basic conversation in Spanish and when I returned to Denmark I was extremely proud of being able to speak Spanish (although at a basic level) for the first time with my Mexican family.
Ines was studying in Malaga and as I still had to learn Spanish fluently for my Masterâs program, I decided to look for a school in Malaga.
I wanted to study for a full academic year (October-June) and found out that the University of Malaga offered a Spanish program for foreign students.
I tried to sign up from Denmark but even with help from Ines who was living in Malaga, this was so complicated that I decided it would actually be easier to travel to Malaga and sign up directly at the school.
Ines and her sister (who was also studying in Malaga) helped me find accommodation, as there wasnât much assistance from the university. At least I didnât have to do this part on my own.
I later found out that most students had signed up either through agents or their home universities and that they didnât have much, if any, support once they arrived in Spain.
My experience at the University of Malaga from an academic point of view was great. At both the private school in Tarifa as well as the University, the teachers made the learning experience enjoyable and interactive- even the grammar lessons were interesting! I really noticed the improvements I made day after day.
The main difference between the two options (a private school and public university) was all the extra services offered at the private school. The school in Tarifa helped me find accommodation and it had been already arranged upon arrival, whereas at the University of Malaga, I was presented with a list of landlords and told to start looking for my own accommodation when I arrived. The same was the case for extra free-time activities: the private school offered a full program to keep students entertained, whereas at the University it was up to the students to arrange things for themselves.
During my studies in Malaga, I got the idea to start up an agency to guide other foreign students in the process of booking a Spanish course in Spain- it was there that I realised just how complicated the process was and in general how limited the services on offer were.
Of course, I had to finish my Masterâs program first, but after the two years were up, I started Go Study Spain. Although it initially was just a hobby as I was working full-time in Citigroup in Madrid, our service (which initially consisted of only helping to book courses at a Spanish university and find accommodation) started to become more and more popular, so I went full-time with the project and developed the services to include all-inclusive packages with free-time activities, excursions, etc.
During my time in Madrid (in which I completed the second part of my Masterâs, worked for Citigroup and finally set up Go Study Spain), my relationship with my Mexican family grew stronger.
My Mexican grandmother started to call me every so often and I am very glad I got to know her more, albeit only over the telephone, as she passed away during my second year in Madrid.
I also started to form a closer bond with my father. I saw him for the first time in 15 years when my sister had her first child and the two of us went to Denmark to visit her.
Later on, he invited me and Ines to Mexico a few times and also visited us in Spain. I now talk to him on the phone almost every week and although I still feel much more Danish than Mexican, after having learned Spanish, visited Mexico a few times (I actually got married in Cancun) and rekindled a relationship with my Mexican family, I now have a much stronger connection to my Mexican origins.
Besides, having a Spanish middle name isnât such a bad thing- especially taking into consideration that I ended up living in Spain where ironically nobody knows how to pronounce or spell my Scandinavian last name, Samuelsson!