learn-spanish-while-traveling

The Savvy Traveler’s Guide to Learning Spanish While Abroad

Ibn Battuta once said, “Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

Hopefully with the help of this article, you’ll become a fluent Spanish storyteller!

In this post we’ll show you 20 practical little tricks you can use to make the most out of your time in a Spanish-speaking region.

Because it would just be a total waste of opportunity if all you had to show for your trip were a bunch of Instagrams!

We’ll show you how to pick up (and remember!) new words while you’re exploring, how to make conversation with locals and much more for a Spanish experience that not any old tourist would get.

We’ll also help you prepare to soak up as much language as possible before your plane even takes off, and how to retain what you’ve learned once you’re back home.

Follow these tips and you’ll come back not only with a tan and a tale, but also with a tongue that can tell stories in decent Spanish.

How Travel Helps You Learn Spanish

Who wouldn’t want to see the Alhambra Palace, the Church of the Sagrada Familia or glorious Madrid at night?

Travel certainly offers its share of eye candy. But it’s not all there is to it. The experience can also be the most educational for language learners.

There’s just something about stepping on foreign soil that kicks the crutches from under every Spanish learner. Suddenly, every lesson seems so vivid and practical, so “in your face.” The vocabulary, sentence constructions and grammar rules from textbooks seem so real and immediately relevant.

It’s during travel that those vocabulary words you memorized in class are put to good use.

You’re not just speaking into the ether and parroting gracias (thank you) after your teacher, you’re actually thanking that handsome fellow who just brought wonderful food to your table. You’re not just learning the difference between izquierda (left) and derecho (right) because it might come up in the test, but because you really need to get back to your hotel!

When you learn Spanish from people who speak it as a way of life, mixing it up with native speakers as they go about their daily routines, the things you learn become more cemented in your brain. Travel helps your Spanish because it engages all of your senses. Spanish comes to life—the sight of road signs, the smell of paella, the heat of a beach in Barcelona.

20 Practical Tricks to Learn Spanish While Traveling

Pre-trip Planning

1. Research before you go.

It’s not just about knowing if the museums are open when you visit, it’s about actually knowing enough of the language before you go. You don’t want to come back from your trip with nothing more than Buenos días (Good morning) in your Spanish arsenal. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to learn that basic of Spanish. (You can do that on a Sunday morning, while still in your jammies.)

If possible, get yourself to at least an upper-beginner level of Spanish before your trip. That means already knowing the fundamentals like numbers, days of the week, colors, noun genders and the general rules of grammar. Consider your trip as baptism by fire—a way to test your knowledge of the basics.

One way to get yourself up to speed is to get your hands on Spanish phrase books. Phrase books are great because they’re not just a random collection of words. They have a communicative purpose and are really handy for providing essential words you’ll need to converse with native speakers.

  • “Rick Steves’ Spanish Phrase Book and Dictionary:” If there’s anybody who could write a great travel phrase book, it would be Rick Steves. The guy’s been around and knows exactly what he’s talking about. In addition to all the great Spain travel advice that you’ll inevitably get, the book is chock full of situation-specific phrases that’ll make you readily understood by native speakers.

After you’ve got your phrase book, you’ll need to start getting your ears accustomed to authentic Spanish—as fast and vibrant as it’s used day-to-day by native speakers. One effective and entertaining tool that any learner can use for this purpose is FluentU.

FluentU provides real-world Spanish videos, like movie trailers, news reports, inspiring talks and more, which have been transformed into language learning experiences. With each video you’ll get clickable captions for in-context definitions and pronunciations of any word you don’t recognize. FluentU also creates flashcards and exercises for each video to help you retain the new words you’ve picked up.

It’s a great way to actively build your vocabulary and comprehension skills, all while absorbing Spanish the way you’ll really hear it on your trip!

2. Don’t wait ’til the plane to start talking.

Learners often think that reading and rereading in the target language is enough to learn it. Not so. Until you get your mouth moving, actually pronouncing the words, you’re not ready for real life language use.

So get lots of real practice before your plane takes off. For example, lock yourself in your room and start talking. Remember the phrase books mentioned earlier? Read each of the phrases aloud. (About 10 times.) If you have a recorder, then record yourself speaking. Compare your work with that of a native speaker.

Pimsleur’s Spanish Program can be a good audio guide to ground you in your Spanish intonation, melody and rhythm. So that when you land in a Spanish-speaking country, you’re not tickled pink when you say “¡Hola!” to the cabbie who’s going to take you to your hotel—because it’s not like it’s the first time you’ve ever uttered the word.

3. Get a local contact.

One of the best ways to travel is to have a native speaker help you get around. That way, you get insider information on everything from where to get the best tapas in town to cultural booboos you should avoid.

This person can save you precious time as well as money. But the most important reason to have a local contact, language-wise, is that you have a personal coach to help you with the language while traveling. Your local contact can bring you quiet confidence knowing that he or she will jump in when an interaction goes south, like when you and the sombrero (hat) vendor get into an infinite verbal loop of “Huh?” and “What?”

If you don’t know anyone in the country you’re traveling to, you can find local experts on language exchange sites like old favorites Conversation Exchange and MyLanguageExchange. You can also use apps like Tandem and HelloTalk. You’ll meet plenty of Spanish-speaking fellows from these.

Have them over on Skype and get a feel for their personality. Develop friendships long before you travel, so that when the time comes, you don’t feel like you’re parachuting into a totally foreign land but have some familiar faces for comfort.

(As always, take the necessary precautions when meeting your contact. Keep all your interactions in public.)

Learning on the Go

4. Read the signs. They’re all mini language lessons.

This is one of the most effective ways to learn abroad: reading road signs, store signs and posters. They’re all telling you something. Try translating them or figuring them out in your head. They can be pretty fun to figure out on your own. You’ll get so much authentic Spanish learning material this way.

The signs that you see on your trip, whether on the road or in front of stores, are full of essential context clues. They can make words and phrases so much more memorable because of the rich context they provide.

You’ll quickly figure out that the huge sign reading mercado means market because you’ll see, smell and hear the myriad items sold from different stores, the aroma of fresh food and the cacophony of locals negotiating the best price. And the next time you see the word, you’ll remember it with all your senses.

5. Study the menus. Seriously.

This tip is really an extension of the previous one. You’ll be eating at least three times a day, so you might as well learn something new each time.

You can’t imagine the wealth of language information available in a humble menu. Even the chalkboard of a food cart can tell you all kinds of secrets: fruta (fruit), vegetales (vegetables), frito (fried), arroz (rice), etc. And if you keep an eye out for menus that pair words and pictures, then you’ll learn a lot.

And don’t think that food vocabulary is only good for breakfast, lunch or dinner. A fair number of Spanish idioms are related to food. Knowing them will certainly add pizzazz to your Spanish.

For example, estar como un queso (literally, to be like a cheese) means “to be attractive.” Native speakers use that to describe somebody fine or hot.

6. Talk to your cab driver.

Especially if you don’t know many people in the country you’re visiting, it can be hard to find new people to practice your language skills with. The average passerby on the street is usually on their way to work or some other appointment and won’t be willing to stop and chat with you.

Making some friendly small talk with customer service front liners, such as salespeople, waiters and cab drivers, can be more effective (just be polite about it and don’t take their time from other paying customers!). They’re already at work, and it’s a necessary part of their job to talk to you. So they’re in a much better position to indulge you.

If they seem ready for a conversation, why don’t you open them up and ask some questions? Go ahead, ask ¿Cómo te llamas? (What is your name?) or ¿Cómo te va? (How’s it going?). You’ll be making their day and getting some essential, authentic Spanish practice in the meantime.

7. Find an “expat” and pick his or her brain the right way.

You’ll often be told to stay away from English-speaking enclaves. What’s the use of traveling when the first thing you do is run to the comfort of people who speak perfect English while munching on a Big Mac?

There’s wisdom to that advice. But you shouldn’t necessarily shy away from expats all the time. They’ve been in your shoes and knows what it’s like. They’re straddling the fence and can give you the dirty details of the country you’re in.

So when you’re in the presence of one, be sure to pick his or her brain the right way. Don’t talk about how the last episode of “Game of Thrones” went or who won the Warriors-Cavaliers game. You can Google that. Ask about the culture of the country you’re in. What was his or her experience like? Any funny thing that happened when he or she was new? What advice, tips and tricks can he or she give somebody like you?

You might find these mavens having coffee at the hotel lobby. You can probably see that they have quite a different look than your usual tourists. First of all, they don’t have the necessary appurtenances of a traveler—camera, bottled water and huge bags. Their skin has had a lot more time to tan under the sun. And there’s an air of certainty around them, that “been-there-done-that” bravado that’s exactly what you should be going after.

8. Seek out the local favorites and hotspots.

Now, here’s a common piece of travel advice that doesn’t need any caveats: avoid those tourist hotspots if you want an authentic experience!

That goes for learning about the culture and history of your host country as well as developing your language skills.

If you want to fully immerse yourself in Spanish during your trip, you’ll need to put a concerted effort into finding and exploring the cafes, bars, nightlife spots and small museums where the tourists aren’t flocking. These are the places where you’ll meet natives to practice conversing with and where you’ll be forced to read and communicate only in Spanish.

But how can you find these places, especially if you only have a short time in the country?

Your first step is to grab a quality guidebook that’s focused on showing you the real deal, like the Lonely Planet guides. Lonely Planet has guides on nearly 200 countries, so no matter what Spanish-speaking region you’re visiting you’ll be able to take advantage. The independent writing and essential first-hand insights will help you get a local’s view on everything from food to budget tips to public transportation. Plus you can get both digital and print access so you can have the expert guides on hand no matter where you’re adventuring.

9. Watch TV (moderately).

Again, you’ll often be told to minimize watching TV when there’s a whole city out there waiting to be discovered. That’s why I’m only advising you to do this moderately—15 to 20 minutes a day.

In your hotel room at night, or while waiting for your travel companion to finish getting ready for dinner, immerse yourself in Spanish television. Newscasts, children’s shows, Spanish-dubbed TV programs—have at it.

Remember, you don’t need to understand everything. The speech will be fast and there won’t be subtitles to help. But you just need to notice what’s going on and listen for the words you’ve been hearing while out and about.

This will help you keep your brain in Spanish mode even when you’re in your hotel room. It’ll also give you some insights into the shared pop culture and perspective of the country you’re visiting.

10. Listen to Spanish music as you explore.

Here’s a neat little trick that’ll not only teach you some Spanish on the go, but will also make your travel a fuller, more immersive experience.

Have you noticed how travel documentaries typically match the background music to the location? So if it’s Paris, they have French singer Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” playing in the background. If it’s China, then you’ll probably hear an Erhu (two-stringed fiddle) getting you into the appropriate mood. But when you come out of TV-produced material and jump into the real world, you’ll realize that there’s no background music, only the sounds of a buzzing city that’s pretty much the same anywhere else.

To get you into the Spanish mood, download a bunch of Spanish tunes into your phone or portable music player. And during your trip, whenever you’re on the move, listen to it. Match the audio with the optics. It’ll feel like you’re in some sort of travel show.

But beyond that, music, songs (and even radio) can be a great way to learn language. Songs have repetitive choruses, for example—perfect for long term memory storage. Songs have the benefit of melody, rhythm, rhyme and structure that makes Spanish words and phrases easier to remember. Take Alejandro Sanz’s “Viviendo Deprisa” (“Living Fast”) for example.

When the head is nodding and the fingers are tapping to the beat, the brain’s memory center is open for business. It’d be very hard to forget the lyrics (and story) of a good song, regardless of the language.

So take advantage of music as you take in Spanish vistas. You don’t even have to stop so you can listen. You can do a little listening while waiting for your turn at the ATM, while zipping through the lanes of a Barcelona grocery store or while people watching in Buenos Aires.

11. Get your hands on newspapers and magazines.

Newspapers and magazines that the local people read are some of the best sources of authentic, up-to-date Spanish content you can get your hands on.

They’re particularly great for learning vocabulary and sentence construction. The Spanish you learn from the titles and headlines alone will be worth their price. Spanish newspaper headlines and articles, and ads in magazines, are known for their concise and controlled use of the language. So you get lean content and straight-to-the-point sentences and headlines—like “Donald Trump amenaza a Alemania con una guerra comercial” (“Trump threatens Germany with a trade war”).

Magazines and newspapers are also full of well-placed text paired with a catchy graphic. The same advertising feature is a useful tool for all Spanish language learners. On this ad, for example, see how the tagline “Tu comida se va a poner más buena” (“Your food is going to get better”) can be particularly memorable.

12. Ask people where the bathroom is.

Even when you don’t really have to go. Walk up to a native speaker and ask for all sorts of help. Disculpe. ¿Podría ayudarme, por favor? (Excuse me. Can you help me, please?)

No, you don’t actually have to find the nearest train station, or you don’t really have to go to that restaurant. They’re simply Spanish exercises that give your tongue a much needed flexing. You want as many opportunities for verbal exchange with a native speaker. Some questions you could ask include:

¿Qué hora es? (What time is it?)

¿Dónde está el restaurant más cercano? (Where is the nearest restaurant?)

¿Dónde hay un buen café? (Where is there a good cafe?)

Ask away. Listen closely for the answer and nod along. Then leave with a Muchas gracias (Thank you very much) and on to your next encounter.

13. Keep a small pad handy.

A pad is your vital ally and comes in handy for those times when you hear something new or striking. It could be a word or a phrase you’re not familiar with.

Maybe your chatty cabbie says, ser del año de la pera, (to be from the year of the pear) referring to his cab. What in the world does that mean? Jot it down so you can find out more about it later. The simple act just takes a few seconds but will prove to be valuable as you build your Spanish muscles.

(This idiomatic expression is used to refer to something old. The pear, a tree that bears fruit for decades, is associated with longevity. You can use the expression to describe old objects, outdated notions, even old people.)

Your notes don’t have to be all about language. Cultural insights, the cost of tapas, the name of the train station near your hotel, the name of your new favorite Spanish dish—all are fair game, as long as you’re writing it down in Spanish.

When you’re traveling, there are so many new things happening and you’re essentially wading into the novel and unfamiliar. Your notepad helps you commit all this new information to memory, while also squeezing in some writing practice on your trip.

I know someone (me!) who travels with a pad and writes down interesting things that happened on a particular trip. It really makes you see how full of adventure, little detours and interesting people your trip was.

A natural consequence of having a pad ready is that your ears become more attuned to the sounds of your environment and your eyes are more open to the vista before you. Before long, jotting down notes becomes muscle memory and you find yourself writing on a pad during a bullfight.

14. Carve out time for language reviews.

This is where smart travelers outsmart all the others. Writing is one thing, but reviewing what you’ve actually written and milking every lesson, every story, every insight is quite another.

Every night before going to bed, or when you have a chance during the day, for five to ten minutes, review what you’ve written down. Review when your memory is fresh and the context is still clear. There’s no sense in opening your pad two months after the trip and having no clear idea of what you’ve actually written or why you wrote it!

15. Plan for the unplanned.

Every trip, no matter how perfectly planned, will have its own curve balls. A long-awaited museum visit may yield a “Sorry we’re closed” sign, or a delayed flight could wreak havoc on your packed itinerary. Those are the facts of travel. So many things are out of your control.

And the realities of learning Spanish during the trip itself presents plenty of challenges. You’re not only in a foreign land, you’re also daring yourself to get through it using a language not your own. So not everything will be hunky-dory, that’s for certain.

Half the game is regaining your composure when something unwelcome or unexpected happens. You can’t sulk and clamp up when setbacks hit you in the face.

What should you do, for example, if you belt out your best-effort Spanish, expecting to get compliments from a native speaker and he just gives you a blank, “Huh?” or answers your ¿Dónde está el baño? (Where is the bathroom?) with a firestorm of Spanish that makes you pee a little?

Prepare these sentences, just in case:

¿Tú hablas inglés? (Do you speak English?)

¿Podría hablar más despacio, por favor? (Could you speak slower, please?)

¿Me lo puede repetir, por favor? (Can you say that again please?)

No hablo muy bien el español. (I don’t speak Spanish very well.)

¿Puede apuntarlo? (Can you write it down?)

No entiendo. (I don’t understand.)

Don’t expect all interactions to be as smooth as silk. Accept that awkward silences, miscommunication and generally making a fool out of yourself can sometimes be part of the territory.

And, if nothing else works, retreat with a genuine gracias and live to fight another day.

16. Shop!

Shopping forces you to learn the language because you just really need that dress in red, not in green. And you might as well haggle because the merchant helping you out expects you to bargain. He knows the script and is willing to play along.

You should also take your time, since you’re hitting two birds with one stone when shopping. You’re getting a great find and you’re practicing Spanish. Most travelers focus on the first one, coming away happy for bringing down the price 50 percent, without knowing that the seller actually quadrupled the initial asking price…

Spanish language learners could get more than they bargained for. That is, if they’re ready for the whole drama. So after uno, dostres, (one, two, three), here are some Spanish words and phrases worth taking with you:

Sizes:

pequeño (small)

grande (big)

más grande (bigger)

Bargaining:

¿Cuánto cuesta? (How much does it cost?)

¿A cuánto sale? (How much does it go for?)

¡Demasiado! (Too much!)

Caro (Expensive)

Barato (Cheap)

¿Podrías reducir un poco el precio? (Can you go a little lower?)

¿Aceptarías cinco? (Would you accept five [euros]?)

¿Me darías los tres por diez? (Would you give me three for ten [euros]?)

Último precio (Last price)

Bueno, me lo llevo. (Okay, I’ll take it.)

Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce the words perfectly. The seller has been talking to British-accented “Spanish” since this morning. He’s used to it and knows where the conversation is going. You really don’t need to be perfect to strike a great bargain.

17. Repeat what you hear on the street.

The streets of a Spanish city can be the venue for some of your most productive learning experiences. The streets are full of native speakers, and some of them can really be loud. They have to—barkers, sellers all scream their wares to the passing public. They often get snubbed by their fellow countrymen, but not by you. You should give them the time of day because they have something to teach you.

Go to a public market and you’ll hear a cacophony of offers, transactions and the back and forth between a seller and a customer mapping out meals for the week. You might hear Pescado! (Fish!) and not know what it means. Well, you know the pad we talked about earlier? Write stuff down and find out later. You can work behind the scenes and absorb as much as you can, or you can also step up to the plate and ask a seller how much his manzanas (apples) are.

Repeat what you hear on the street. And I mean enunciate. Speak. Don’t just listen, write, read and think about it. Open your mouth.

What you hear on the street may not be the most formal or polite of Spanish. There might even be plenty of slang, but you need to be aware of it! You need to know how the average native speaker expresses him or herself if you ever want to get truly fluent.

Study the street and how it wields the language. You’ll meet colorful idioms, for example, that’ll further enrich your grasp of Spanish. It’ll be worth hours in the classroom.

Post-trip Learning

18. Caption your pictures in Spanish.

You’re back on home soil. The trip was one for the books. The pictures you’ve taken are raring to go into your Instagram account. Why don’t you caption them in Spanish and learn basic sentence construction in the process?

When it comes to Spanish sentences, here are three things you need to remember:

  • The common word order for Spanish sentences is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). Example: Pedro comió una naranja (Pedro ate an orange.)
  • Adjectives usually come after nouns. Example: zapatos negros (black shoes).
  • Adjectives must agree with nouns in number and gender. A singular (or plural) noun will have a singular (or plural) adjective. A masculine (or feminine) noun will have a masculine (or feminine) adjective.

Example: El chico es gordo. (The boy is fat.) La chica es gorda. (The girl is fat.)

19. Write a diary or scrapbook of your experience.

The trip may be over, but the adventure doesn’t stop. Go artsy and make a scrapbook of your whole trip. Print some pictures and paste them on actual pages. Write something about the pictures in Spanish.

And write as much as you can remember. Write a diary if you want to. Whatever it may be, you may find all these activities to be corny initially, but trust me on this one, when you look back on it months or years later, not only will it revive some of the lessons you picked up abroad, you’ll also be so thankful that you took the time to record the most meaningful moments of your trip.

20. Get online. Help others. Pay it forward.

One way to make the learning fresh is to help others with their own trips. You’ve asked others who went before and you benefitted from the gems they’ve thrown your way. Why not take on that role and help others who are about to embark on the adventure? Share your experiences and be a guide.

The act of writing on forums and answering questions forces you to review what you learned abroad—all the Spanish vocabulary, cultural discoveries and personal experiences. You can get started by checking out the language forums at TomisimoWordReference and TripAdvisor. You can also head to reddit to find discussions about the country you visited.

So you’re not just paying it forward, you’re also rekindling language lessons so they remain clear and relevant for you. It’s a win-win!

 

So there goes your 20 things to do before, during and after your travel. You think you’re up for them? I sure hope so, because every last one of them will help you get into that place where Spanish fluency is within reach.

Good luck!

Safe travels. Take lots of pictures!

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