Learn Spanish in a Different Country
by Russell Sabo
So you’ve trudged through all of the books, taken a few audio courses, gone through as much of the popular language software as you could, and had a few basic conversations with your Spanish-speaking friend or co-worker. Now you’re wondering, where do I go from here?
If you’re like me, you want to test your new language abilities and assess how well they stand up to real-world application. Your eye has started to wander south after reading about some of the cool places in Central and South America. Or maybe you’ve made some online Spanish-speaking friends during your studies. And if you’re single, let’s not forget about that special person you started talking to online a few months back.
If you’re like me, it’s time to see those places, meet those friends, and find out how well that special person and you get along in real life. That’s right. It’s time to get your passport, buy a plane ticket, and visit the Spanish-speaking world!
So how do you do it? What are the logistics?
Getting to your country of choice is easy. It’s as simple as getting your passport, buying your plane ticket, reserving your hotel (or wherever you plan on staying), packing your bags, and heading to the airport.
When you visit a Spanish-speaking country, what do you do once you get there? Your experience is going to be influenced by at least 7 factors that you should think about before you leave your house to get on that plane.
This will be the biggest factor in your plans for your trip. Obviously you’re not going to do something that doesn’t interest you. So get online and start researching the area of the country that you’re going to visit. What’s there that interests you? What’s there that could possibly interest you?
A quick personal story. In January of 2014 I visited the town of Chiclayo on the northern coast of Peru, not knowing anything about the city or surrounding area. In this case, my interest was in meeting a friend that I had ‘met’ online. Her and her friends took me to all of the touristic places where I found out that the area surrounding Chiclayo was an archaeological hotspot. The nearby site called Túcume had the largest concentration of pyramids in the world. I wound up being fascinated by the Moche, Chimú, and Sicán (Lambayeque) cultures and still have an interest in archaeology today.
So when you’re planning your trip, take into account the things that could possibly interest you. You could end up pleasantly surprised.
There are many others interests you could have, whether it be extreme sports, history, tourism and travel in general, or finding your true love. Rest assured that any country you choose to visit will have something for you. Central and South American countries have a lot of interesting histories and historical sites, a wide variety of geographies, and all kinds of different people for you to meet.
Spanish Learning Tips
Once you’ve decided why you’re going to visit another country, it’s time to dial in your vocabulary. Make a list of the reasons you’re planning on visiting that country for and study everything you can find about those reasons.
From there make a list of all the words that you think you’re going to need to know. You’ll get a pretty good idea of which words you’ll need to know from your studies. Translate those words into Spanish and learn them well.
For example, if you plan on taking a trip to Ecuador to do some whitewater kayaking, you would study everything you need to know about the topic, write down the words in English, and then use every online means or book necesary to translate those words into Spanish, much as I’ve done in this link to my Spanish kayaking vocabulary article here: Kayaking Vocabulary
Once you feel comfortable with the vocabulary you’ve learned, you can take it with you and put it to use on your vacation, be understood by the natives, and feel confident in your ability to communicate about your personal interests. From a motivational standpoint, this is a very powerful reason to learn relevant vocabulary.
Your travel budget will be one of the most important factors in your travel. Some people will say that it’s the most limiting part of their travel experience, while others will tell you that having little money while traveling is the most liberating part of their experience. Of course, the experience that you have is all going to boil down to how you perceive it.
When you travel to Central or South America you’ll notice that the costs of necessary things starts to go way down, especially food and transportation. For example: in Medellín, Colombia, the cost of a huge plate of food, such as the bandeja paisa, will cost about 15,000 COP, or $5.20. In Minneapolis, MN, the same meal will cost you $15.50. Traveling by taxi from the airport in Rionegro, Colombia to El Poblado, Medellín, Colombia (about a 40 minute trip) will cost you about 50,000 pesos, or $17.34. In the United States, I don’t even want to imagine the price of that trip. I may be estimating low, but I would guess between $40 and $60.
Hotels will be a bit lower-priced also. Don’t expect outrageously low deals though. My experience has been this: I’ll get to my hotel room, get a chance to look it over and compare what I see to the price that I paid. In all cases (in my experience) the price I paid was equal to my expectations for that hotel room.
Depending on which area of the country you visit, there may be some more expensive areas. If you visit a touristic place, you can expect either the price to go up on some things (typical foods, souvenirs, etc.) or there will be a lot of unexpected costs. Research each touristic place you plan on visiting and write down their hours and how much the entry fee is. Remember that in some of the more out-of-the-way touristic places, they’ll close their souvenir stores in the afternoon so the employees can go eat lunch, so make sure you buy your souvenirs while you can.
Traveler’s tip: Don’t sit alone or stand in one place for too long in a touristic area. Not so much because of pickpockets, but moreso because of the street venders. In Cusco I sat at the statue in the Plaza de las Armas while my friend was using the restroom, and within 15 minutes I had been approached by 5 different street vendors: the starving artist selling paintings, the Quechua woman selling decorated gourds, the woman accepting donations for the art school, the Quechua woman selling jewelry, and a starving kid selling paintings (I bought a gourd and gave a donation to the “art school.”) They’re much more likely to approach somebody seated and “trap” them, than to approach a moving target.
Spanish Learning Tips
Learn to talk about money in Spanish. Think of the things that you would like to do or buy and learn their Spanish names. If you go to the supermarket, learn the names of the foods you’re going to buy and how to identify what’s on sale. If you’re going to buy clothes, do some research into the sizes of the clothes and if they’re really going to fit you (Extra large t-shirts in Peru are not the same as extra-large t-shirts in the United States). Learn how to ask to use the fitting rooms.
Learn the vocabulary of public travel to keep your costs down. With buses and combis (large vans used for transportation) the prices won’t normally be negotiable, but the prices are very cheap. With taxis, you can haggle a bit, or send them away only to wait ten seconds for the next one to come by.
Some people like to go all the way with their Spanish learning, and when they think they’ve done all they can in the place that they’re at, then it’s time to enroll in a Spanish class in their country of choice. After all, there’s nothing quite like taking formal classes to improve your Spanish skills and then taking it outside the classroom to communicate with the native Spanish speakers in their home country.
So which country and which classroom do you choose? That all depends on your preferences. Do some research on each country that interests you. Find the schools in each city and find out what they offer.
Some schools will go all out and take you on “field trips” to experience certain city celebrations. For example, Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Colombia will take their language students to La Feria de Las Flores during the August celebration and teach them the history of the celebration. Other schools will do similar things that involve learning more about the culture and/or history of their little section of the world.
Many schools will organize a “home-stay” with a local family who will share their home with you. You’ll learn about home life in that particular part of the country, taking in their traditions and seeing how they interact with each other. And living the day-to-day with a Spanish-speaking family will help to make the Spanish that you’re learning in your classes into a permanent part of your communications.
There are schools located in every country in Latin America and almost every major city will have a good Spanish immersion school. There are other schools that are located a bit off the beaten path where one wouldn’t expect to be learning Spanish. The Galapagos Islands are one such place where you’ll learn Spanish while learning about all the different species of animals. There is a school in Venezuela that offers Spanish classes and then takes you out to practice adventure sports (hiking, snorkeling, and climbing. Also not quite an adventure sport, but just as difficult, salsa and meregue dancing).
There really is no limit as to the types of Spanish schools you can attend. No matter what your interest, you will be able to find the perfect school for you to advance your Spanish-speaking skills.
Spanish Learning Tips
Simple. Determine your country of choice. Find the right school for you in that country. Apply to that school and get ready to improve your Spanish-speaking skills.
Location, Location, Location!!!
How far from home do you want to travel? A few factors come into play here.
First, how much money are you willing to spend on travel? Normally, the further you travel, the more money you’ll spend on tickets and other transportation necessities.
How much time do you have? If you’re only looking to do a quick weekend trip, then travelling a long ways from your country hardly makes any sense. If you’re from the U.S., a quick jaunt down to Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, or the Caribbean Islands can easily be done in very little time (less than 3 hours from Miami to Barranquilla, Colombia).
If you’re planning a longer trip, then the Spanish-speaking world is open to you. Hop on that plane and have fun!
Health, Safety & Comfort
Health and safety are huge concerns amongst people who decide to visit Spanish-speaking countries. Here’s a small list of things to be concerned about:
- Vaccines – have you had your vaccinations against common illnesses in your country of choice? How bad are the mosquitoes?
- Street crime – to avoid it, choose your hotels carefully. A quick search on Google will help you to decide which areas to avoid.
- Accidents – Physically stay off the busy streets. The drivers don’t want to run you over, but if you’ve ridden in a taxi in Latin America, you know how bad the traffic can be. You also know that the drivers are more busy looking out for the other drivers more so than people in the street.
Those are the three main things you need to be concerned about. There are many more, but most of them will fall into sub-category of these three.
Your comfort levels, for the most part, are determined by how much money you pay. This is, however, totally subjective. Some backpackers love the hostels and have learned to find comfort in most situations. But if you like the soft, comfy beds (like me), then you’re going to spend a bit more money unless you know how to find the best deals.
Spanish Learning Tips
It’s a good thing to learn how to ask for help. It’s a better thing to know how to heed a warning. There are people who will warn you not to go into that neighborhood because it’s dangerous. But if you don’t understand them, there’s a good chance they’ll just shrug and let you do your own thing.
Learn how to ask for help. Also learn the words of warning, such as, “Don’t go there. It’s dangerous.” Learn the names of the bad neighborhoods (you can find these on expat forums or tourism forums).
If comfort is your thing, learn how to ask for an upgrade, or how to switch rooms if your current room isn’t comfortable enough. Learn how to ask to travel someplace in First Class.
Tourism & Nature
Tourism is huge in Latin America. There are so many sights to see that you could spend a lifetime trying to see it all, whether it be man-made or created by nature. Ancient ruins are everywhere as well as colonial cities and examples of great architecture. Government buildings, cathedrals, churches, and statues, Latin America has it all.
If you like nature, you’ll come away from Latin America loving it. From mountains to rainforests, from deserts to beautiful coastlines (and not-so-beautiful coastlines), it all exists there. There are many things to do in each of these environments, from hiking, spelunking, climbing, and whitewater kayaking to more intellectual pursuits such as studying the different ecosystems, biology, geology, and any of the other sciences. And everything can be done in Spanish.
Before you travel, make sure to read up on all the destinations you want to visit. There is most likely an interesting history behind each place you want to visit, and knowing that history will help you to appreciate your visit all the more. It wasn’t until after I returned from my first visit to Peru that I read about the Moche, Chimú, and Sicán cultures and came to appreciate all the things they had done, as well as the tales of Black Market trading of Moche pottery and artifacts that had ocurred just before more serious research of those cultures had begun. Had I done the research earlier I would have had a much better time traveling from landmark to landmark.
Spanish Learning Tips
Read about each of the destinations you want to visit. Take notes of the Spanish names of those places. What is the Spanish word for rainforest? Temple? Ruins? Create a vocabulary list with the words and their translations. You could easily add fifty words to your Spanish vocabulary.
Traveling to a Spanish-speaking country is a very rewarding experience and even if you travel there with a tourism group, you’re bound to improve your Spanish in one way or the other. Personally, I like to make friends with a local and then travel there to meet them; it makes for a much more immersive experience.
But before you pack up and leave, make sure you know your reasons for going, things to do to protect yourself, and which places you want to see. Study everything you can about your destination (know the safe places and when you might be venturing into dangerous grounds) and create at least 10 different vocabulary lists of the things you think you’re going to experience or learn. If you do all this, your experience will be a much better one.