I guarantee you you'll never have so much fun in your life! South America is great, but it's even better if you speak Spanish (or Portuguese if you find yourself in Brazil). It's totally possible to learn Spanish in South America while on a backpacking trip, and it will make your experience so much more enriching.
You don't need me to tell you that a little bit of language goes a long way when you're travelling. But what about a lot of language? Now that is serious.
I spent a year or so travelling around Argentina and Brazil in 2004-5. On the ground, the fact that I could chat with people easily led me to some experiences that were not only amazing but completely changed my life.
OK, so the parties I went to, places I stayed and people (especially the girls!) I met thanks to my language skills were all amazing, but the most important thing for me was that it kick-started my passion for languages, realising just how life-changing it could be.
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How To Learn Spanish In South America
What follows now is how I became fluent in Spanish and Portuguese in South America on a serious budget.
The following strategies will work for complete beginners because they're based on some important fundamentals: some structured learning, high exposure to the language, and abundant opportunities to speak. Spanish lessons aren't the only way you can get fluent on your travels!
Note: this is mostly aimed at those who will be spending a significant period of time in their destination (a month or more). You're not going to become fluent in one hectic fortnight in Buenos Aires – although you could certainly create enough motivation to last a lifetime! These ideas obviously apply to whatever continent you travel to/language you learn, although culturally speaking, South America is particularly well suited to this approach.
Before You Go
Preparation is important, and if you want to study Spanish on your trip to Latin America, do some advanced prep.
With the knowledge below, you'll learn Spanish in no time and understand the mistakes to avoid.
1. Get a good phrasebook
A phrasebook has the obvious benefit of giving you the language that you need in any given situation, thereby making your journey a lot smoother.
However, the more important effect is that it gets you out there speaking to real people, which is where the learning really happens. This is a thread you'll see throughout this post – creating authentic opportunities to speak to locals. The Lonely Planet series of phrasebooks is good (in spite of their rubbish guidebooks!).
2. Stock up on Spanish podcasts
Backpacking usually involves a lot of dead time. South America is particularly time-intensive when it comes to moving from place to place by coach. Turn travel time into studying Spanish time by having language podcasts ready to fire up when you need them.
The DuoLingo Spanish podcast is also a great option if you're just starting out studying Spanish, and many of the stories are from South American people. The narrator chimes in for context, and the storytellers speak slowly, which is great for a beginner to get used to the sound of the language. And, of course, it will help you get used to the variety of accents and slang you will come across on the continent!
Getting Around South America
3. Ask for directions
Travel in South America can be chaotic…even if you know where you're going! The timetables for public transport are often out of date or nonexistent, and you'll frequently need to factor several hours in for one journey from a major city to a small beach town.
But this is all part of the experience of travelling South America and gives you the perfect opportunity to get thrown in the deep end for learning Spanish.
It may be a bit disingenuous, but the thing is, asking for directions is the most socially acceptable reason for talking to people anywhere in the world. Even if it's a short conversation, it's one more interaction under your belt, more personal experience with the language, and your confidence will grow.
The people in South America are friendly (especially outside the major cities), and many times, people will be impressed that you're trying to use their language, and you might get chatting. You get free conversation practice AND find out how to get to your destination; it's a win-win!
4. Don't fly. Travel by coach
The longer the distance, the better. Not only is it many times cheaper than flying in South America, but there are a couple of great opportunities.
Firstly, if you get to sit next to someone cool, you've got a captive audience for the whole trip. As a foreigner, people may take an interest in you and want to chat to learn about your life and where you're from. It's the perfect place to learn Spanish in an informal way.
Secondly, if you don't have a friendly neighbour, you've got hours of uninterrupted study time (hopefully, they won't play endless American 90s movies on the TV).
Thirdly, the luxury coaches (still cheap) can be really comfortable, and you save yourself a night in a hotel if you take the overnight bus.
5. Stay in the right hostels
Don't find your accommodation in Lonely Planet, or you'll end up with a load of other foreigners – especially in the most popular destinations. Instead, look for websites used by locals. Here's how. [Substitute with place/language of your choice]:
- Put: “where to stay in Buenos Aires” into Google Translate
- Select Spanish for the translation
- Copy the translated text, in this case: dónde alojarse en Buenos Aires
- Do a Google search with that text
- You end up with dozens of options
- It's probably a good idea to go to the 2nd or 3rd page of search results in order to skip the huge websites like Tripadvisor, or else choose a local-sounding website.
- Go to the site and use Google Chrome's translate function to read the website in English
- Now you know where to stay where you're more likely to encounter locals rather than other tourists. Remember, if you want to learn Spanish, the best way is immersion. So throw yourself in, get out of your comfort zone, and start practicing what you know.
6. Find a homestay
If you want full Spanish immersion and want to learn Latin American Spanish fast, then staying with a local family is one of the best ways to do it.
Many of the local language schools will offer a Spanish immersion program and will help connect you with a family who wants to host you.
Not only is staying with a local family perfect for learning Spanish, but it will also immerse you in the local culture of the Spanish-speaking country you're in. Many homestays also include food as part of the deal, so you'll also get to try some local delicacies.
This experience is far superior to staying in a hostel or hotel and will give you a true insight into the local way of life. Ask the Spanish school in the town or city you're staying if they have any homestay opportunities.
On The Ground In South America
7. Find a local Spanish teacher
Check out local Spanish language schools and take a free trial class. If the teacher's good, ask them (discreetly) for private lessons. Depending on the country you're in, Spanish lessons are likely to be incredible value compared to back home, and you could take daily lessons. South America is one of the cheapest places in the world to learn Spanish, after all.
Do your research when looking for Spanish schools, though, as some of them don't have the highest teaching standards. You want to find a teacher who can really help you progress and recognise your strengths.
If you find a teacher you really connect with, you can ask them if they can keep helping you study Spanish via online calls once you go home.
Taking Spanish classes with a group is usually a waste of time – why spend time and money listening to other foreigners mangle the language? You'll also make your friendship circles with non-Spanish speakers. All things to be avoided if you're serious about learning the language.
8. Take a class with locals instead
Tango? Guitar? Flower arranging? Yoga? Salsa? Whatever floats your boat. Take a regular class in something that interests you in Spanish-speaking countries.
Although it might be tough, you'll be getting a lot of meaningful exposure to language (i.e., it's not just sentences in a phrasebook – it's instructions that you have to understand and follow).
Classes are also a fantastic way of making friends as you share common experiences with others. And…
9. Find a language partner
In other words, your English for their Spanish.
There are plenty of people in South America desperate to practice with native English speakers, and they're more than happy to teach you Spanish in return. It's free (or the price of a cup of coffee), and you've got the time. What more could you ask for?
Find someone nice (be sure to meet them in a public place) and meet up with them for regular sessions. An hour spent talking in each language is a good way to go. But be strict about this – there's always the danger that the other person uses too much English, especially if you're not so confident in their language yet.
10. Sit at the bar
Don't sit on your own at a table; sit at the bar. Bartenders are there to talk; that's why they do what they do. They're great people to practise with.
As much as I'd hate to encourage you to smoke, the phrase “Got a light?” is up there with the best conversation starters known to man. Wherever you may be, asking for light is the perfect excuse to start chatting with someone, whether in a bar or on the street.
Don't be shy
Latin America is huge, and travelling the continent is the perfect opportunity to start learning Spanish. The locals are used to foreigners trying to practice their Spanish skills and are often patient and kind with you.
So if you want to learn Spanish in South America, don't be shy, practice what you know, and get chatting with strangers; you'll be surprised by where it will take you!
Image credit: The Generator Judge