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If you’re planning a trip to Mexico or Central or South America, the first piece of advice I would give you is: learn Spanish! Unlike travelling a region like South-East Asia where every country has its own language making almost everything you might’ve picked up useless every time you cross a border, almost the whole of Latin America (nearly 20 countries) has Spanish in common. Speaking the local language is incredibly useful anywhere but the fact that in Latin America you can continue using it and building on your previous progress as you pass from country to country should only fuel your motivation.

‘Sure, speaking Spanish would be great, but it’s hard work and will cost me money. Can’t I just get by with English?’. Learning needn’t be a costly chore on your trip; you can do it in fun ways, totally independently and for FREE.

Admittedly you could survive on English, but here’s why you really shouldn’t…

Day-to-Day Convenience

Fairly obvious but it seems to go over many traveller’s heads. Want to ask the price of something? Directions? Where to get the bus? With Spanish you can, without you’ll have to mime your way there and occasionally be typecast as an ignorant disrespectful gringo (which admittedly will still happen even if you do speak Spanish, but it’ll certainly lessen the odds).

Going Beyond Convenience… When The Fun Begins

❝The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.❞
‒ Ludwig Wittgenstein

Imagine a foreigner going on a trip to the UK or US and not speaking English. Sure they could snap pictures of Big Ben or the Statue of Liberty, but their experience of the country outside of taking selfies at famous landmarks and getting drunk with other travellers who share their language would be extremely limited. This is being a tourist, which, by-the-way, I have nothing against – it’s pretty fun actually – but if you’re planning on being in Latin America for a while and want a more authentic experience of the place, learning the language is the best place to start, and totally worth it.

Going Deeper Into The Culture

❝Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.❞
‒ Rita Mae Brown

Speak to the Man on the Street: Hear the Voice of the People

English is widespread worldwide but in Latin America, like many places elsewhere, learning English is a privelege and mainly limited to those with money; the middle classes and above. Without Spanish, conversations with locals will be restricted to those from a certain economic background (and even then to the percentage within that stratum who can speak English). Finding a fluent English speaker from a working class background would be a very impressive feat, from poverty, closer to a miracle. When talking about anything from the history or politics of the country to the local neighbourhood, the information and opinions you get – which will inform your impression and perception of the place and its people – will be skewed and unbalanced because you’re missing the voice of a huge part of the population. In a poorer country like Bolivia, where 60% of the population live below the national poverty line and almost no one speaks English, it’d be impossible to get a balanced view of what Bolivians as a whole feel about their country.

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Protestors during Obama’s visit to BA this year

In Buenos Aires Spanish allowed me to ask protesters at the Plaza De Mayo about their indignation against President Macri, in Bolivia it enabled me to understand my hairdresser as she told me about her enormous family (1 of 18 siblings!) and their hairdressing lineage, about how her father cut the ex-president’s hair, and their migration from the countryside to the whitewashed capital of Sucre. Anywhere you go it will allow you to speak to the man on the street, literally and figuratively.

People & Conversation

This isn’t only the case with locals; on your travels you’ll encounter countless people and other travellers from other parts of Latin America and Spain who also don’t speak English, and why should they? They already speak the language of the land, and if you do too the number of potential friendships and human connections you can make will multiply massively.

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More than just the information and insight you’ll gain, oftentimes the conversations will be unique experiences in themselves; like the crazy porteño in Cordoba who was constantly trying to usher me to the bar with him to guzzle more fernet, or the wizened Peruvian anthropologist who enlightened me on the multitude of tribes in the Amazon. ‘But I want to DO and SEE things when I’m travelling, not just talk to people’. Well, the conversations that you’ll be able to have will also open you up to…

More Experiences

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Hitchhiking to Patagonia

Beyond conversation, being able to speak to more people will also open you up to more experiences. If I’d lacked Spanish, would I have been invited by a Bolivian woman I met on the bus to go and stay at her home on the edge of the rainforest? Obviously not because the conversation would never have started. Could I have hitchhiked to Patagonia with an Argentinian buddy to stay with her family friends for a couple of weeks? Understood the dedication made to me on local Chilean radio? Been invited to the weed-infused drum night in Punta Del Diablo? The fleeting romance with the local girl from Asuncion? I’d have missed out on all of these experiences because Spanish opened the door.

Tourist Activities

Tourism is under-developed in a lot of areas which is typically a nice thing as it means less crowds. It also means there are plenty of museums without English object labels or placards and tour companies that only employ Spanish-speaking guides. You’ll have more choice not only of things to do, but in ways you can do them too.

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Weathering the winds on an alternate Salt Flats Tour

Fulfilling my tourist agenda and booking a place on a tour to the Salt Flats of Bolivia, I was able to choose an alternate route which meant seeing a wider variety of natural wonders, gentler progression to the higher altitudes – which also meant a warmer first night in the desert chill – and a better price. This was because the only company that offered this version of the tour didn’t have English-speaking guides. Employing bi-lingual staff raises costs for a company and the cost to the consumer – you – goes up with it.

Negotiation & Escaping Tourist Tax

You’ll get a better deal on most things because you can barter and negotiate prices and conditions for anything from taxis to rooms to tours. Also, anywhere that has English-speaking staff is likely to be after tourists which invariably means worse value for money; tourists always pay more than locals – it’s tourist tax.

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Delicious Mexican Food in Oaxaca. Photo by Zoe Kerslake

When going out to eat you’ll have more choice as you won’t be limited to restaurants with English speaking staff, picture menus or ordering one of the two local dishes that you already know. I like to ask locals or waiters for recommendations of dishes specific to the area; the culinary variety is staggering and I’ve tried local specialities that I didn’t even know existed nor can be found in any guidebook. A few times I’ve had people want to go to dinner with me so that I can talk them through the menu; going on their own they’d just pick something they recognised or knew was a safe bet, missing out on what might be the most delicious discovery they’ve made in months.

Finally… it’s a Great Chance to Learn a Foreign Language

Learning a language is a trip. If you haven’t yet learnt a second language then you are going into an amazing journey of discovery which will not only improve your memory and increase your brain size, but it’ll also change how you think and see the world. What’s more, language acts a bridge that allows you to go to previously inaccessible places. More than 410 million people speak Spanish as their native language, more than English, that’s 410 million doors you are opening. Spending time in Latin America will give you the magic ingredient in learning a language: immersion! You will continuously have the chance to learn, why not take it?

How? See How To Learn Spanish Whilst Travelling Latin America (For Free)

Still not convinced? Check out these 10 Inspirational Quotes for Language Learners at Voxy Blog

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If you’re planning a trip to Latin or South America and don’t yet speak any Spanish, now is the time to learn. On a basic level it will make your day to day life much more stress free and you won’t have to play charades every time you go to the shop. If you speak a little but want to improve, this is the perfect opportunity. Going beyond the basics is when the real fun begins and you can start conversing with people and entering their world. Either way, this post is for you.

I’ve met so many people travelling here that wish they’d spoke more or any Spanish, and hope to just ‘pick some up’ as they go. Beyond a few survival phrases and swear words, it doesn’t work. Before I came I’d decided that I wanted to learn, and not feeling naturally gifted with languages (C in high school Spanish), thought about how I could learn before I set off. In 6 months, I’ve gone from competently buying food in a shop to discussing American politics with Mexicans over a beer: using all the techniques that are listed below. Travelling in Latin America might be the best opportunity of your life to learn Spanish, here’s how you can do it without spending a dime…

Hit the Ground Running

Landing in the continent with a few basics and survival phrases will not only help you massively but also enable you to start using the language from day one. Learn some vocab before and fix in habits that you will use on your journey before you leave; this way you can get a headstart and establish some kind of a learning rhythm. What habits? Read on…

Keep a Daily Diario

I advise this to everyone wanting to learn. Even if you have been hanging around English speaking people all day you can get some practice by yourself. Writing a short passage about what you did each day only takes about 15 minutes but you get practice constructing sentences in a zero-pressure situation and they will come out much easier when you come to say them in conversation. If you don’t know a word you can look it up on google translate; a chance that you wouldn’t be afforded when chatting to someone without the inconvenience of halting the conversation.

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Memories of Uruguay

If you find yourself without internet, underline an empty space for the word with the English beside and fill it in later. You can also choose the tense you write in; start writing in the present, then move on to writing everything in the past. Later, you can start planning things and writing in the future tense. Occasionally asking a native speaker to read an entry and correct it will help you from falling into the trap of making the same mistakes over and over. People are easy to find, if you have a diary, others are nearly always curious to read. Doing this you’ll also keep a diary of your travels that you can read back in years to come – two birds, one stone.

Start Every Conversation in Spanish

When you meet anyone new, open the conversation in Spanish. The language you start in sets the precedent for the rest of your conversation with that person and potentially all of your interactions with them. You have a chance to practice all your basic phrases and small talk: your name, where you’re from, your travels plans etc., and as you learn more and more, your conversations will become longer, more detailed and more interesting. If they don’t speak Spanish, you have lost nothing. One time in Uruguay I was chatting to a guy for 10 minutes in Spanish before we found out that he was from South Africa and myself from England. We laughed and switched to English, but we both got speaking practice that we wouldn’t have if I’d greeted him with a ‘hey, how’s it going?’. Moreover, in the beginning it can be easier to get speaking practice with other non-native speakers who are also learning as they will speak more slowly, use basic words instead of slang, and be understanding of your mistakes and crappy accent. Take every opportunity to speak and with every encounter, however brief it may be, you will be clocking up practice time.

Make Notas

Get a pocket-sized notebook and pen and take it everywhere with you. EVERYWHERE. When you overhear a word or phrase in conversation that you don’t know, write it down immediately. Later ask a local what it means and then write down the English. You can go over the words in your free time – walking to the shop, with your morning coffee – and then start using them yourself. My vocabulary exploded doing this and I learnt words that I knew local people actually used.

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My trusty tattered notebook

At the start of my travel I was a total outsider in so many group conversations. Argentinians, Colombians and Spanish all bantered and chatted with each other whilst I was sat with them barely understanding a thing. But I sat listening, writing, and learning. With time I understood more and more, could join in more and more, and by the time I got to Argentina (after 3 months in the continent) was holding my own in discussions about the Falklands (touchy subject – be careful with it if you’re British!).

Ask Locals

Many locals will be impressed if you speak any Spanish and if they know that you’re learning will be delighted to help you out. Throughout my journey I’ve had a string of teachers; every day is a chance to learn something new and everywhere you go there are people who can help you. During extended stays in Argentina and Mexico I’ve had porteños and chilangos proudly versing me in the local slang and received help with new words and pronunciation everywhere I’ve been.

Avoid Your Compatriots! (…Or Travel Alone)

When you are hanging out with English-speakers; you’re gonna speak in English. When you hang out with people that speak only Spanish; you will be forced to speak Spanish. Fairly obvious, but I meet a lot of people who spend their whole time hanging out with other travellers and then tell me that they wish they knew more Spanish (‘didn’t realise how useful it would be’ …duh).

At various points of my trip, anytime I spotted foreigners or overheard English being spoken, I headed in the other direction and went to find Latin Americans. Result of this; more practice and a better insight into the culture. I didn’t come all the way out here to meet other English people; I wanted to learn about the people of the place: their language, their food, their lives – you’re going to get a much deeper and more authentic experience of the country you’re visiting if you’re doing this. If you miss speaking in your mother tongue or a slice of home, just skype someone or find another traveller – if I had to actively avoid them then they can’t be too hard to find.

Volunteer or do a Work Exchange

Find a work exchange on workaway or helpx, or just ask around when you arrive in a new area. You can usually get an idea from a host’s profile which languages they speak and use. Tell them you speak a little Spanish (even if you don’t – then you will have to learn) and are eager to practice and improve.

workawayWorking with people in Spanish forces you to use it. I worked in a hostel for a month in Cordoba and needed to use Spanish to check people in, sell beers and answer the phone. I wasn’t too keen on phone calls, the lack of the use of my hands to mime or draw myself out of tight spots worried me but the job required it and eventually I got comfortable taking calls. By working as a volunteer you will be surrounded by the language and making local friends too.

Use CS for Language Exchanges and Meeting Locals

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Couchsurfing isn’t just for staying with people, lots of people use it for meetups too. Find your location and start a thread in the discussions section saying you are searching for a language exchange – your English for someone else’s Spanish. English from a native speaker is sought after in nearly every corner of the world and I have always had numerous responses and a handful of options in every city that I’ve done this. Before you meet you can arrange how you’d like to do it; you can bring a sheet with any questions you have and some phrases you want to learn, or you can just chat casually and have some conversation practice. Post in a city’s discussion forum before you arrive and organise to meet up on your first day in the city. Aswell as your language lesson you will invariably get some handy local knowledge too.

  • Alternatively, in many cities, there are weekly language exchange meetups that are open to anyone. Have a look through and go along if you don’t want a one-on-one appointment.

Tinder

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tindbetHave a bio in Spanish, message them in Spanish, then go on a date! To start with you can meet up with locals who speak a bit of English too, and in a few months you won’t be limited by your language skills. If you like them you’re gonna have serious motivation to learn more, and if you end up with a romance or a boy/girlfriend, well, your learning curve will steepen dramatically.

Use Language Apps

[Set your phone and facebook to Spanish – you’ll pick up some useful vocab]

Duo lingo

duolingoEveryone knows about duolingo now so all I need to say is; use it! I’ve met so many travellers who have it on their phone but don’t use it. Set a daily goal on the app and build up a run of days. It isn’t time consuming, meeting your target can be 5 minutes a day. Install it, use it, it works!

Memrise

memrise-smallerAnother very useful app, Memrise has fun ways to learn vocab which actually work. There is a course with the 250 most common Spanish verbs – massively recommend it. This is the backbone of the language and these verbs will be used in at least 80% of your interactions. When you learn how to change a verb depending on its tense, having these 250 verbs will begin to open you up to exploring deeper topics of conversation.

Listen to a Podcast

Download a free podcast and listen to it when you can (read: regularly). Coffee Break Spanish has a free podcast course that I’ve learnt a lot from. Each episode is like a lesson and only 15-20 minutes. It starts with the basics and goes on to more advanced things. If you already have a bit of Spanish you can quickly find your level and jump in on an appropriate episode, after the basics they have another course for intermediate level.img_2915
Always carry unlistened episodes downloaded on your phone so they are ready to go and you’re not reliant on internet connection or phone signal. I used to listen to them on long bus journeys and as I was going to sleep; all I needed was my phone and my headphones. I relistened to episodes to catch what I’d missed or revise things.

Supplement with Films…

Watch classic films from the place you’re visiting. Listen carefully for words you know, it feels great to catch newly learnt words and phrases. Whilst getting a feeling for the accent, you’ll see films set in places you’ve visited and hear characters talk about the history and politics of the place. Also, watch films in English with Spanish subtitles, this will train your reading and writing skills too. A hostel in Asuncion I stayed in always had the movie channel on in the lounge – American films with Spanish subtitles. I would sit with my notebook and pen and write down little phrases that were funny or useful – many of them I still use today.

…and Music

Get recommendations of music from the country and when you find something you like, get it on your phone. Learn the words to a few of your favourite songs and you will see your level rise (starting with rap might be tricky but if you can rap a song to speed you’ll impressive any native). Staying with proud Argentinians in Buenos Aires, I was taught all about their fathers of rock: Spinetta, Cerati, Garcia. One of them sat down with me and went through the lyrics of a Spinetta song that I liked, line by line, explaining words I didn’t know and the meanings in the expressions; I realised that Spinetta was a poet as well as a musical genius and listened to his masterpiece album Artaud so many times that I started singing the words and understanding the songs.

Keep Trucking

So this one isn’t especially concerned with being on the road or in Latin America but I think it’s so fundamental to learning anything that I decided to include it anyway. Sometimes your progress will be great, you will feel good about learning, be using more and more Spanish and feel like you’re going to be fluent in no time. Other times it will be tough, you might have moved to a new place with a totally new accent or spending all your time with speakers of other languages. Your progress will slow but if you’re still writing your diary, catching new words when you can and taking opportunities as they arise: you’ll still be going in the right direction. As they say out here: paso a paso – step by step.

Best Of Luck!

To my mind, having taught English for the last 4 years, the winning combination for effectively learning a language can be simplified as:

(Immersion + Practice) x learning smart

Being in Latin America and surrounded by the language is immersion and presents ample opportunity for practice, and how you learn is up to you. This post has all the techniques that I’ve used and have worked for me. Find which of these work for you and adapt your own. Work diligently, patiently and persistently, day-by-day, hop back on the horse after you’ve been slacking for a bit, and you will be bantering with the guy at the corner store and haggling like a pro before you know it. If you have any extra tips that have worked for you, please leave a comment below.
Buena suerte!

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A Final Note: Going Further…

For the sake of brevity this post was primarily concerned with ways that are focused on learning Spanish while you are travelling in Latin America, based on techniques that have worked for me. Of course it’s possible to learn in your home country and there are loads of other techniques out there (like mentally saying to yourself what you are doing as you do it throughout the day; ‘Estoy caminando a la tienda’ – I’m walking to the shop), but if you are wanting to really hit the next level I’d advise doing a little investigation into more techniques and the process of learning itself; there are tips and tricks to hack your learning experience and make your learning more efficient, helping you to learn more in less time. Here are a couple links to get you started:

12 Rules for Learning Foreign Languages in Record Time – Benny Lewis

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months – Tim Ferriss