Learning Spanish can involve some trial by fire.
Moments of confusion, embarrassment, learning and realization are inevitable when you immerse yourself in a second language.
The first time I ever immersed myself in Spanish, I spent a month in Costa Rica living with a host family. On my first day in San José, my host mother informed me and my housemates that she had some reglas (rules) to share with us.
Unfortunately, I mixed up the word reglas with the word regalos—presents. Eager to share the saltwater taffy and New Jersey coffee mug I’d brought from home, I jumped in—”I have some ‘rules’ for you, too!” My host mom stared at me, eyebrows raised, for an uncomfortable ten seconds and then went on talking. I realized my mistake a few days later, but at that point it was way too late to correct my error. Seven years later, I still cringe when I remember that conversation.
On the bright side, I’ll never forget the difference between the words regla and regalo.
These kinds of learning experiences are what make immersion such a powerful and effective method of language learning: words jump out of the vocabulary book and become part of your day-to-day life. When you’re immersed, you’re learning at all hours and reinforcing your new knowledge every day. Good speaking, reading and listening skills become crucial for living and expressing yourself (and for avoiding awkward social gaffes, of course).
Yes, immersion is effective and fast—but it isn’t foolproof. Not everyone who lives abroad returns home fluent, or even conversational, in their target language. During my time living abroad, it always shocked me how many fellow expats seemed unwilling or unable to hold a conversation in Spanish despite having spent months or years abroad. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s always inspiring to meet diligent language learners who speak nearly flawless Spanish despite moving abroad with little to no knowledge of the language.
Even when surrounded by Spanish, learning the language means putting forth a real effort. If you’re lucky enough to have the privilege of studying or living in a foreign country, you owe it to yourself to make the most of your experiences! Read on for some tips to kick-start your language learning while living in a foreign country.
How to Learn Spanish While Abroad: 6 Insider Tips for Getting Immersed
1. Take a Spanish Class While Abroad
Some travelers and expats take it for granted that, if they live abroad long enough, they’ll eventually speak fluent Spanish. “Why would I bother taking a class?” they think. “The whole reason I came here was so I wouldn’t have to do homework and boring grammar exercises!”
Unfortunately, trying to learn a language purely through absorption often isn’t enough, especially for beginning learners. English is now a global language. Anywhere you go, you’ll find English learners eager to practice with you! In order to immerse yourself in Spanish, you’ll have to first jump over the hurdle of being able to communicate with others in Spanish better than they can communicate with you in English. Otherwise, you’ll likely end up speaking a lot more English than you’d like. Taking a class is a great way to get to that point more quickly.
Additionally, taking a Spanish class will help you nail down grammar and pronunciation specifics that you might never pick up from conversation alone. And if you find grammar drills incredibly boring, just think how exciting it will be to directly apply the concepts you learn in class to the world around you!
There will be a wealth of language schools in any vaguely touristy Spanish-speaking city you visit. If your host country is Spain, be sure to check out if your city has an Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (official language school). A year’s worth of Spanish classes at one of these government-run language centers will only cost about 250 euros in Madrid.
Or, check out this list of some of the best immersion programs in the Spanish-speaking world. But perhaps the best option is to simply ask around at your hostel or local language exchange to see which academies your fellow travelers have liked and disliked.
2. Make Excuses to Strike Up Conversations
While I’m traveling, I tend to spend a lot of time by myself. I find that being alone in a foreign country is a great way to force yourself out of your comfort zone, but it isn’t really conducive to practicing Spanish. So, I’ve taken up the habit of looking for ways to start short conversations with people I encounter in my host country. For example:
- Asking for directions to a landmark instead of turning to my iPhone or map
- Asking a waiter to explain an unfamiliar menu item (way more fun than ordering the pollo asado con patatas every time you eat out!)
- Asking a shopkeeper to recommend a good café or bar in the area
- Asking somebody on the street to take your picture (more social than a selfie stick)
- Asking a flea market or crafts fair vendor about their product
These are all simple, quick interactions. But over time, these thirty-second conversations can build confidence and alleviate embarrassment of speaking a foreign language.
The worst case scenario is that you encounter someone unhelpful, rude or incomprehensible. In that case, you can simply mutter gracias, go about your day and never see the person again.
The best case scenario is that you walk away with some local insight, a feeling of pride and maybe even a new friend.
For example, I once asked a woman at a bedding store in Spain which of two pillows she preferred. We ended up talking for a half-hour about Spain, my family and her daughter’s study abroad semester in Mexico City. I left the store with a promise that I could come back any time I needed help. Incidentally, I also left with a very comfortable pillow!
You may feel silly or embarrassed at first talking to strangers in flawed Spanish. But constant practice is the only way to get better, so take a deep breath and ask away!
3. Seek Out the Local Library
Spanish books can be a great resource for learners who want to immerse themselves in Spanish but don’t yet have the language ability to carry out a spoken conversation. When reading, you can pause, read carefully and utilize a dictionary, all while rapidly learning new vocabulary and reinforcing grammar.
If you’re concerned you won’t be able to follow a Spanish book, I’d recommend a children’s book to start. Books for young readers generally use simpler vocabulary and grammatical structures, and they have straightforward and engaging plots. Another good option is to read a Spanish translation of a book you’ve already read in English. That way, you’ll be familiar with the plot and can focus on understanding new vocabulary.
Although you could just as easily download these books to your Kindle app, I highly recommend stopping by a physical library. Most libraries have a host of great non-book resources to explore, such as movies, audio, newspapers and magazines. These are all great ways to practice Spanish while getting a taste of local culture.
Plus, many libraries run book clubs, seminars, movie nights and other cultural activities. These are all great ways to meet people, immerse yourself in the local culture and push yourself out of your second-language comfort zone.
4. Join a Club or Take a Class on Something That Interests You
When I lived in Buenos Aires, I signed up for a biweekly pilates class at my gym. The class kicked my butt, physically and mentally. Trying to understand rioplatense Spanish is hard enough without being distracted by burning abdominal muscles and shortness of breath.
The class was a great exercise (pardon the pun) in understanding Spanish in a non-classroom setting. I was forced to keep up with my native speaker classmates, and when I didn’t understand something, I had to just fake it and move on to the next step. In other words, I learned skills that are crucial to interacting with people in a second language.
Meetup.com, searchable by keyword and location, is a great resource for finding classes or clubs. Or simply search Google for “clases + the name of your city + the name of the activity.” For example, “clases buenos aires yoga.” It’ll get the job done!
Even better, take a walk around your host city with an eye out for flyers or posters advertising local cultural centers. These institutions will generally have a host of classes to choose from—everything from singing to yoga to folklore dance.
Local gyms are also a good place to find classes, running clubs and workout partners.
Finally, if you’re lucky enough to live in a city with a university, it’s worth looking into the possibility of auditing courses or joining university-run clubs and sports as a non-student.
5. Avoid Getting Sucked into an Expat Bubble
For many people, the purpose of language immersion is to make the leap from speaking “classroom Spanish” to speaking “real Spanish.” Being able to speak Spanish with patient teachers and fellow learners is one thing. Holding your own while talking to surly cashiers, local friends and random strangers is something else entirely.
Too many people devote time and money to moving abroad but then spend their abroad experience exclusively with other foreigners. Yes, expat circles can be valuable. Some of my fellow foreigners in Spain will surely be lifelong friends. And at the end of a long day of speaking Spanish, sometimes all I want is to relax with a group where I can be myself in my native tongue.
But it’s crucial to maintain balance and push yourself out of the expat comfort zone. Social situations with native speakers are the situations where you learn “real Spanish”—slang, irony, humor, local culture. So for every outing with your expat friends, plan an outing with Spanish-speaking buddies, coworkers, host family members or intercambio partners.
6. If You Can, Live with Spanish Speakers
I credit living with Spanish speakers as the single most important factor in my success in learning Spanish. In Argentina, I lived with a local host family. In Spain, I live with two Spaniards in a shared apartment. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
After a long day of work, sightseeing, volunteering, classes or whatever it is you do in your host country, it can be tempting to come home and just shut off. But living with Spanish speakers means getting true immersion even while at home. This constant reinforcement is far better for language learning than coming home and watching two hours of American sitcoms on Netflix with your American flatmates before bed.
I was lucky to form close bonds with my housemates in both Argentina and Spain. In Argentina, my loving host parents asked me about my day over dinner, told me about interesting art exhibitions they’d visited and took walks with me around our neighborhood.
In Spain, my roommates and I frequently go out for drinks or sit on our couch debriefing the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” (ahem, Juego de tronos).
My host family and roommates have been more than just conversation partners. They have also helped me survive and thrive in foreign environments. They offer advice, help me navigate bureaucratic hurdles and introduce me to their friends. Living with Spanish speakers means practicing your language skills and making friends at the same time.
What could be better than that?
For long-term situations, I would highly recommend booking a hostel or Airbnb for your first few days in town and scoping out apartments once you arrive. It’s always a good idea to see a place and meet your roommates before signing or paying anything!
Living abroad and long-term travel are incredible opportunities for language learning and personal growth. But, as with any language learning plan, you won’t see any results without a strong personal effort.
Get out there and get speaking, reading and listening. You’ll be surprised at how fast your Spanish abilities will improve!
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