Immersion is the complete opposite of rote memorization.
It involves learning the word baño because you’re dying to find a bathroom, and the man behind the restaurant counter doesn’t understand your English or strange gestures.
It means remembering past tense grammar because you’re super curious about where someone you met at a pub grew up and you need that grammar to dig into their past.
It’s sink or swim.
Right now you may have a list of Spanish words to memorize that you’re copying over and over. That’s one way to increase your vocabulary, but it also might be the worst way. There’s no context or real-life value for your brain to grab onto.
We absorb vocabulary, grammar, intonations and slang much better when they become part of our life experiences and when they mean something to us personally.
This means that travel can be the perfect way to become immersed in a language, but it’s got to be that kind of travel where you’re curious about every damn thing—about why that building is there, how the bus system works and the life story of the man who operates the cable car.
Engage with your surroundings. Don’t just take a photo of the old palace and walk off. Chat with the palace guards about their working hours and their uniforms. Then take a cooking class. Eat in the street and ask people how they like their arepas (a type of cornflour tortilla).
Follow these seven tips below so you can have a great adventure and improve your Spanish at the same time.
7 Worldy Ways to Learn Spanish Through Full Immersion Abroad
1. Talk to Strangers
Even if it’s a bit difficult, and even if you consider yourself socially awkward, making the effort to speak someone else’s language can go a long way in establishing a rapport with them, even if they’re a complete stranger. And people do love to talk about themselves, their families, their country and their work.
What can be better than learning about a new friend, the world, life and Spanish all at the same time?
Of course, keep in mind that there are good times to talk to strangers and some less appropriate situations, and knowing the difference will help you avoid bad vibes:
Good times: Talk to the street vendor preparing your food, to fellow travelers during long bus trips, to people casually strolling about plazas, to people making incredible handcrafted goods, to people with stalls in markets or fairs wanting to sell things or educate the public about something and to relaxed folks enjoying the pub or a local cultural event. Children usually love a good chat with the strange person who talks funny, too.
Not-so-good times: Most people in the world are happy and patient to some extent, but sometimes they’re also busy—and it’s not their job to teach you Spanish. Don’t start up a conversation with people who seem stressed or uncomfortable, who are working on something difficult or who are in a situation where they could misunderstand your intentions (such as a woman walking home at night alone).
2. Avoid Your Native Language
Avoid the hostels packed with English speakers, the travel agents who’ve learned English and generously organized everything for you and restaurants with English menus. Avoid those double-decker buses that do city tours (there are plenty in Mexico) completely in English.
Seek out rural areas, small towns, non-touristy cities, community projects and lunch stalls in markets. Cities like Tlaxcala in Mexico, Zaruma in Ecuador and any city other than La Paz in Bolivia all tend to have fewer tourists, and therefore less people who have learned English.
Need is one of the greatest motivators to learn a language, so when you don’t have English to turn to, the Spanish will start to come quickly!
3. Make Language Mistakes
It’s better to talk and make mistakes than not talk. A little bit of humility never hurt anyone. Small children, who are notoriously unafraid of making mistakes, tend to have a lot of fun and learn a lot better than adults do.
And, of course, the funny mistakes turn out to involve the vocabulary you’ll remember best. At the start of your language learning journey—and honestly, at any stage of the journey—you’ll have to make mistakes, and you’ll have to work with the vocabulary and grammar you know.
Instead of trying to say, “I’m looking for a battery charger for my cell phone,” you might find yourself saying “I want a thing for electricity for my phone.” That’s okay. It’s better to sound like this in order to be understood, and to improve your fluency at the same time, than it is to spend two solid minutes looking up the words for “I’m looking for,” “cell phone” and “charger.” Odds are, the vendor will tell you the word for “charger” anyway.
If they don’t tell you the missing word, ask them. Buy the charger and ask what it’s called. Also, encourage people to correct you. Often people feel rude doing so, but with encouragement, they’ll get you on the right path.
4. Travel Slowly
City hopping is great for some, but you’ll only pick up transportation vocabulary and discover the well-worn tourist sites like this.
If you have the time, stay in a few places for a long time—anywhere from a couple of months to a year—and really get to know them. Go to local cultural events, get involved in a project and visit the non-tourist areas where people live, work, eat and get their haircuts.
You’ll learn more about real life and absorb a more diverse vocabulary in these places, and the people will start to get to know you and trust you. Hopefully, you’ll develop some meaningful relationships and start to understand the local situation in a less superficial way.
5. Remember That Everything Is an Opportunity to Learn
Travel has its ups and downs. Sometimes something unexpectedly wonderful happens, and sometimes lousy things happen. Maybe you get sick and have to see a doctor. Maybe your passport gets stolen. Maybe you get completely lost.
It’s understandable to get stressed or feel upset in such situations, but these too are opportunities to learn Spanish. You’ll come out of that doctor’s clinic with five new words for illness symptoms locked away in your memory forever. After you explain to the police three times exactly where you were when you were robbed, your location prepositions should be spot on.
6. A Notebook Is Your Friend
Do be actively involved in your language learning. Note down new words that come up in conversations, that you see on signs or that you know you’ll need as you head to that doctor’s appointment.
Mimicry is a great way to improve your vocabulary and pronunciation. Repeat fragments of sentences aloud when talking (then put them in your notebook as well). You may think that sort of thing would look weird, but we do this regularly in our native-language conversations in order to clarify something. For example:
¿Vamos a comer chapulines? (Wanna eat grasshoppers?)
¡Sí! Sabes… ¡insectos fritos! (Yeah! you know… fried insects!)
Your notebook could take paper form, or there are a range of apps that perform the same function, as well as dictionaries, flashcards or language diaries.
7. Combine Immersion with Some Formal Study
Before you travel, do study the basics of Spanish grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Learn a few key verbs. This doesn’t have to be a huge effort—you can simply do this online. It seems like a small thing, but it will give you a foundation on which to build once you start traveling.
You can easily do this with the help of FluentU.
Then, while traveling, it’s also useful to combine some formal study with your immersion. Courses in different cities are usually flexible, lasting anywhere from one week to a few months. You can opt to take classes that last for half the day, or you could meet up with a local tutor for a brief session once weekly.
Ask Spanish immersion programs what their teaching methods are, and go for something that includes lots of conversation and listening practice. These programs can help provide the theory behind what you’re learning, correct any reoccurring issues and reinforce all those structures you’re starting to pick up on your own while wandering the streets.
If possible, stay with a host family and make sure they’re people who are happy to hang out and talk (as opposed to just provide a bed and food).
So, wonder and learn! Let life do the teaching and help it along with active learning methods.
Follow these tips, and you’ll soon feel like a local.
Tamara Pearson is a journalist, teacher, and language lover who has lived in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and now Mexico. She is also the author of The Butterfly Prison.
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