Interview with Personalized Spanish Founder Gaby Cerrate
Every year, thousands of tourists visit Costa Rica for Spanish classes at one of the country’s many language schools. There is a school outside of San Jose, tucked in the Valle Central, called Personalized Spanish, and the name is very intentional. In this interview, the school’s founder, Gaby Cerrate, talks about how she went from Peru to Russia to Costa Rica, and why, despite all the challenges, she decided to run her own Spanish school, and her proudest achievements through that decision.
Where are you from?
I was born in Peru, which makes me Peruvian by birth, Costa Rican by choice.
You are trilingual! English is your third language, Russian is your second after Spanish. How did you learn to speak Russian?
In Peru I was awarded a scholarship to study in the former USSR, where I learned Russian. The language is what allowed me to really get to know the culture and be able to communicate with students from all different parts of the world: Africa, Asia, and, at the time, Eastern and Western Europe.
How did you end up living in Costa Rica?
I met my husband, who is Costa Rican, during university in Russia. We dated and eventually got married in a place called Jarkov. We married among friends, in the traditions of the local culture. When we finished at University, we decided to move to Costa Rica together.
How did you get the idea to open Personalized Spanish? Was language teaching something you always wanted to do?
Living so many years in Europe, and meeting people from around the world, I became convinced that the ability to speak several languages allows for professional opportunity, but more importantly, it opens a priceless world of culture to us. When I arrived in Costa Rica with my husband and our daughter, I started working in various Spanish schools as a Spanish teacher, and was unfulfilled by the experience.
Class sizes ranged from six to eight, up to ten students, and it felt like it was being done just to meet criteria to get credits to graduate. There was no real way to see what students were learning, no continuing education, and there was no emphasis on the culture. The Spanish schools were really used as tourism promotion, which was demotivating me. I realized that my work, experience and knowledge weren’t being taken advantage of. I decided to create a personalized program where Spanish language served as a key to discover the culture of Costa Rica and Latin America.
What were some of the challenges opening your business in Costa Rica and as a woman?
Being a woman in business anywhere on the Latin American continent comes with many challenges. Gaining credibility of financial and academic institutions, earning the respect and trust of lenders / people willing to finance your business. That is why over 90 per cent of Spanish schools in Costa Rica have male founders. I worked to set myself apart from the pack as reliable and honest in my business.
What is your favorite thing about running Personalized Spanish?
I enjoy seeing our students’ results and their satisfaction with their success. There is such a difference between the first day of class and the last day — from the level of Spanish to the tangible cultural understanding of Costa Rica. This includes understanding the real meaning behind ‘Pura Vida’ and what it means to us to sit down and drink a coffee together.
All the teachers at Personalized Spanish always say that the first day, you start as our student, and the last day, you end the course as our friend.
I am very proud of our staff that makes this a reality. Without them, I would never be able to do this on my own. To work together, guiding this team is really one of my favorite parts.
What is a typical day at the school like for students?
Our school philosophy is that class sizes should be small. We have only three students maximum in each class during high season, and an average of two people otherwise. We start each day with morning coffee and talk about Costa Rican expressions, weather and news. Students go to class for a couple of hours and then we socialize on the main patio, eating tropical fruits and snacks. Students go back to class and then they have lunch at one of the local restaurants or sometimes eat at the school with us. Late afternoons are used to visit nearby historical and cultural places of interest with our staff. Many students participate in home stays with a local family, who greet students with delicious dinners and conversation.
Where are your students from?
The majority of our students come from the United States, and we also have many students visit us from Canada, Germany, Japan, Norway, France, Sweden and Holland. Two years ago we had a student from Uganda!
You work together with Ann on her trips. How did you two meet?
Ann discovered the school’s website and saw that my administrative assistant at that time was someone she knew. She decided to attend the program for a week, and our relationship grew from there. Ann brings her groups twice a year, but she makes a point to come several times annually to Costa Rica to get to scout new locations, activities, programs, and to connect with locals to make her trips as authentic as possible. We see each other often, and have worked together for many years, getting to know one another’s strengths and shortcomings. This makes us a successful team when working with her groups.
Ann’s groups are always satisfied with the combination of a short Spanish immersion in San Jose, getting to know the cultural parts of the capital, and then going off to paradise, with a cultural emphasis of course. Between the two of us, it is so fun to bring to life ideas that start on paper.
You mentioned that other Spanish schools were focused on tourism, why do you work with Ann’s tours? What makes her tours different?
Ann really personalizes her programs, and knows how to create a balance of culture, language and beautiful locations. For her, it is important to visit all the locations beforehand, and meet local people, talk to them, find options that are local, not for tourists. This make such a difference between her and others leading tours in Costa Rica. In reality, I would say that she is American with a Costa Rican soul who truly understands our Pura Vida!
How can people get in touch with you?
You can visit our website, or follow us on Twitter @PSpanishCR or Facebook.