I meet Cristina Expósito in Seville on a sunny September morning, outside the Triana market. It's 10.30am and gearing up to be another hot day; locals bustle in and out of the market, catching up on gossip as they peruse meat, fish and vegetable stores. The former gypsy barrio of Triana, beautiful in the clean morning light, goes about its weekday business. This is hardly the setting for a typical language class. But then again, La Casa Sevilla (LCS) is not a normal Spanish school - as I'm about to find out.
The company was launched by 35-year-old Cristina last summer and teaches Spanish by way of cultural immersion. It's an approach that taps into a new trend in tourism, generated by solo travellers unfulfilled by tours of architectural landmarks. As the former journalist explains to me over a post-class caña, her students are "coming here because they've left their jobs, or they're travelling around, and they want experiences, they want to meet local people".
Cristina's clients head to the Andalusian capital from all over the world and their Spanish ranges from non-existent to accomplished. What they share, though, is a desire to experience Seville and to use the local lingo, as opposed to being hunched over a textbook in a classroom. Enter Cristina, who now runs the only Spanish school in the city that marries unforgettable experiences with language classes.
LCS's founder exudes a charm that would make even the most nervous students feel comfortable. And Cristina's pupil this morning, 31-year-old South Korean traveller Min, does seem a little on edge as she embarks on the "Market Experience". She's a complete beginner in Spanish and she says that a lot of the words sound "funny". But the first exercise seems to put her at ease: she's taught some essential market vocabulary - manzanas, jamón, yo quiero, cuánto vale - as a prelude to hitting the stalls and using her brand-new Spanish.
Before starting LCS, Cristina worked at academies in Oxford, Seville and Madrid, both as a teacher and administrator. But her experiences as a student taught her that classroom courses don't necessarily equip you for real life.
"When I finished university," she tells Min and I outside a noisy fruit and veg stall, "my mark [in English] was super-high." Starting an internship in London at the age of 22, though, wasn't as linguistically straightforward as she had expected: "I couldn't say or understand anything at all. On the first day, I was crying in my room because I couldn't communicate."
Using the senses
Before travelling to Seville, Min says she was looking for an activity-based approach to learning Spanish: "Your classes are so different," she tells Cristina as we wander to another colourful market stall. "This will be very memorable, because we're using three senses - taste, sight, smell." Sensory stimulation, in this case provided by the lively Mercado de Triana, replaces classroom-induced boredom at LCS.
Already Min's confidence is increasing, and we've only been in the market for half an hour. She practises what to say to the stall owners and films a short video, in Korean, for her blog. It strikes me that this morning she's not only learning her first Spanish words, but that she's doing so in yet another language that's not her own. Cristina explains everything in excellent English and shows meticulous attention to detail, making sure her student correctly spells every Spanish word she notes down.
Afterwards, over a crisp Cruzcampo, Cristina tells me that starting the company hasn't been easy, especially with her two-year-old daughter also demanding time. But she's driven - "I'll put in 20 hours a day to make something work" - and, more than anything, wants her students to be able to speak to locals and experience Sevillano culture: "I love meeting people from other countries and I love showing them Spanish." Her use of "showing", at once more vibrant and alive than "teaching", is telling and she radiates enthusiasm as she speaks.
Our chat on a sunny Triana terrace is interrupted by a gitano busker, whose performance reminds me that LCS also offers a "Flamenco Spanish" experience. Students spend an hour learning about this iconic Spanish art and the associated vocabulary, followed by a dance class with an experienced instructor. Or, for those wanting to immerse themselves in Seville's ridiculous beauty, there's "Survival Spanish" - a two-hour tour of the historic Santa Cruz neighbourhood that equips travellers with essential day-to-day phrases.
Glowing testimonials on La Casa Sevilla's website indicate that the experiential approach works. But what of Min in the Triana market? As Cristina winds up the ninety-minute session, her eager pupil seems to have left her fear of speaking Spanish back at the first carnicería. She heads to a spices stall and buys saffron and paprika using newly-learnt phrases, observed by her delighted mentor.
"Not scared of the market anymore?" I ask Min as we walk back out into the bright Seville sun; "No way", she grins - "I'm coming back tomorrow."