Help Others and Learn Spanish: 5 Places to Volunteer in Latin America
Do you want to learn to speak Spanish?
And do you have a heart for positively impacting the world?
Then why not combine two passions? Learn the language while volunteering!
It’s a natural progression, really. Think about it: You’re in a country surrounded by native Spanish speakers who are, presumably, working side by side next to you on a volunteer project. It’s a sure thing that you’ll all be speaking, so you’ll gain language skills all day, every day.
If you throw in a bit of formal language schooling, it’s nearly guaranteed that you’ll be speaking like a local in no time!
Why Cultural Immersion Is the Best Way to Learn a Language
I don’t think I need to sell anyone on the value of volunteering. I’m sure we all want this world to be a better place for everyone.
So what happens if you combine volunteering with cultural immersion? It becomes a total win-win situation! It’s so cool to be able to make a difference and learn a new language all at once.
Hands down, the best way to learn a language is through cultural immersion. It’s the method we all use for acquiring native language—and it works.
For many, though, cultural immersion isn’t possible—mostly due to financial constraints. In most of the cases we’ll look at today, the cost of learning is offset by the volunteerism aspect, so it really is something to consider.
Where to Volunteer and How to Prepare
Several Central and Latin American countries have need of volunteers. Like, a desperate need.
Some Spanish-speaking countries are terribly poor and infrastructure, health care, education and environmental issues all offer huge challenges, as well as huge opportunities for people who want to chip in and help out.
You may already have an organization or a charity in mind, but if not, Charity Navigator ranks charities based on their operational costs and effectiveness. It’s a simple matter to compare information about several projects in Latin America with this resource.
You should also read reviews by former student volunteers to get a clear idea of what’s going on in any place you find interesting.
Once you’ve narrowed down your search to one or two countries or areas, you should check the website for the US embassy in that country. Many—but not all—countries provide information about schools and their governments’ departments of education, and this information can often be accessed through US embassies. Contact the embassy to ask for recommendations—then follow up with the programs themselves.
To avoid any less-than-great surprises when you arrive and to help ensure that you’re getting what you expect, your planning efforts at this stage are very important and can go a long way towards making you prepared for a situation that’s often hard to predict.
What About Learning Spanish?
Once you’re comfortable with the volunteer program you’ve chosen, there’s still an elephant in the room—how should volunteers prepare for a trip in terms of studying Spanish?
Obviously, you want to volunteer to help people, but one of the side perks of this adventure is to learn Spanish through immersion. We get that, and we know it’s a super idea. But I bet you’d like to know at least some Spanish before leaving, right?
Honestly, having basic vocabulary down pat would be great. Of course, you can probably use hand gestures to find things like food and restrooms, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say something more coherent like “Tengo hambre” (I’m hungry) or “¿Dónde está el servicio?” (Where’s the bathroom?) instead?
You bet it would be! Preparing yourself with basic words and phrases shouldn’t be difficult if you start an online course or study with an app. There are also many excellent phrasebooks, including the ones in most travel guides. There might even be a phrasebook that’s specifically dedicated to the variety of Spanish spoken in the country you’ll visit—here’s an example of a general one for Latin America, but there are also phrasebooks for some individual countries like Costa Rica or Mexico.
You can even go with YouTube for a quick introduction. Jot down any phrases or words you think might come in handy and memorize your list. That way, you’ll have some Spanish under your belt when you arrive.
How to Get the Most from Your Volunteer Experience
The first rule works on many levels: Don’t be shy. Take every option open to you. Aside from volunteering and language learning, join in on cultural events, and take advantage of any chance to talk with neighbors and the family you’re living with.
Venture out onto the streets. Shop in tiendas (stores) and chat with vendors. Even bargain over prices since it’s a typical activity in many spots, as well as a great way to hone your Spanish (and math!) skills.
Keep a journal. While it’s all fresh in your mind, take a few minutes every day to jot down phrases and words you’ve learned—especially lingo and slang particular to the country you’re visiting.
Take notes about the cultural aspects of the trip. Did you learn a recipe from your hostess by watching her cook in her cocina (kitchen)? Note the ingredients and method of cooking—memories fade but the taste of horchata (a drink made from ground almonds or rice) or black beans and rice might become a staple when you’re back home!
Five Spanish Speaking Countries that Need Volunteers, Plus Ideas to Get You Started
This is by no means a full list of places where you can volunteer and learn Spanish, but it does have some of the places that most need help and which are popular among volunteers.
So before you pack your bags and your travel guide, have a look at some of these hot spots for volunteering and learning!
Called the Land of Eternal Spring, Guatemala is an excellent choice for this adventure. It also has a tremendous need for volunteers.
The colonial city of Antigua is a globally-recognized spot for language learning. And not just Spanish—there are schools in Antigua that teach many languages, so the colonial city is accustomed to hosting visitors from just about everywhere.
The sights, sounds and food make this destination truly amazing. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of a Quetzal, the country’s national bird. Its vivid blue feathers are unforgettable!
For those looking to learn Spanish while volunteering, Ixchel Spanish School in Antigua could be a great option. Time at this school is divided between learning Spanish and volunteering on various projects—primarily in education, health care, social work and environmental protection.
If you’d like to look further, there are many more options for language study and volunteering in Guatemala.
The largest country in Central America is also its poorest. Widespread unemployment and poverty has brought infrastructure low, leading to an enormous need for volunteers.
The cost of living in Nicaragua makes it a very attractive option for many. Live on the cheap, experience language immersion and work toward revitalizing or sustaining an impoverished point on the globe. There isn’t anything about that scenario that doesn’t sound great, is there?
One of the top language immersion spots in the country shares its name with mariposas (butterflies)! Mariposa Spanish School offers many options, not just for individuals but also for couples and groups.
You should also peruse the many other volunteer options to get ideas flowing. Honestly, it’s hard to read about all of the opportunities and not want to pack a bag and grab your passport!
3. Costa Rica
Approximately 25% of Costa Rica consists of protected forests and reserves. There are more than 100 different protected areas to visit—biodiversity and ecological preservation is high on the national priority list—which also means there are many volunteer positions available in areas related to the environment.
While you’re there, indulge in their helados (ice cream), which comes in a wide range of flavors including coconut, goat cheese, chipotle berry and peanut.
One spot to consider is Academia Tica. The volunteering program there is almost as varied as the country’s ice cream flavors, so there’s a good chance they’ll have a program that will appeal to your interests. They do require volunteers to have a certain level of Spanish language fluency so be prepared if you plan to spend time with them.
Of course, there are also many more Costa Rican opportunities to consider—the hardest part may be deciding between them all! Some programs require no knowledge of the language, and are ready to teach volunteers Spanish as part of a complete course that caters to beginners.
Cotopaxi, an incredibly picturesque yet active volcano, is located in Ecuador.
If you want to be completely culturally immersed, Ecuador could be the place you’re looking for. This country’s volunteer system runs mainly on grassroots organizations in small communities. That means the cultural environment is immersive and authentic without being exaggerated or touristy.
Some options in Ecuador include working on the Galapagos Islands or in the Amazon, or even teaching yoga! And remember, most of them are situated in rural settings so they offer a more relaxed style of immersion!
The world’s largest rain forest, the Amazon, covers nearly half of Peru.
Machu Picchu, situated in the Andes, is on the list of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
And the country’s beaches offer some of the world’s best surfing conditions.
Taking all of that into consideration, it’s not surprising that Peru has a serious need for volunteers to help sustain and maintain their gorgeous country. Their natural beauty and cultural treasures invite tourism; that’s good for the economy, but also leads to other problems that cause genuine concern for the country.
For volunteers and language learners, Peru could be a dream come true! One program example is Proyecto Peru, situated in Cusco. They offer Spanish immersion classes for learners at every level, and provide home-style accommodations.
If Spanish isn’t enough of a challenge, they also lessons in Quechua, the language of the Inca empire. After Spanish, Quechua is the second-most-common language in Peru, so it’s still a thriving language with significant cultural importance.
Other opportunities to learn and volunteer in Peru include openings in tourism, education and medical and social work, to name just a few possibilities. Again, there seems to be something for everyone in this country, so take a peek and find an opportunity that appeals to your specific needs and goals.
If you’re set on learning Spanish and helping make the world a better place, immersive volunteering is a perfect idea!
Language learning, volunteering, helping others, cultural immersion, new friends, amazing experiences, gorgeous locations—what’s not to love?
¡Buena suerte! (Good luck!)