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How to Learn Spanish While Traveling in Central America

You’ve booked your ticket; your bags are packed and you simply cannot wait to board that plane and begin your journey to a Spanish-speaking country. You are excited to think about those beautiful words and romantic sounding phrases… and let’s not get started on all the mouthwatering sounds of the delicacies that you will come across on restaurant menus: Arroz con Pollo, Pico de Gallo, Pastéles, Ceviche, Pupusas…The only problem? You have no clue what it all means. Turns out your high-school Spanish is a bit…. rusty.

Time to stick your nose into a book (or your smartphone) and learn some Spanish. The good news: It can be fairly easy to learn a language – if you do it right, that is.

For that reason, I will share my very best strategies with you and tell you exactly how I managed to pick up Spanish in 2.5 months. But before we dive deeper into the subject, it’s time for the pep talk.

Why would you at all bother with learning another language?

1. It has a big impact on your trip

Your trip will be so much more fun and meaningful if you make an effort to communicate with locals. You don’t have to speak the language perfectly at all – just try your best! People will always honor your efforts and be friendlier to you. Even if you only speak a few basic phrases your travel experience goes beyond a superficial level – you will be able to establish connections and cross-cultural friendships.

2. It gives your brain a boost

Several studies confirm that there are cognitive benefits to learning another language: Memory improvement, a better attention span and reduce of age-related cognitive decline. That’s great news!

3. You are more likely to avoid tourist traps

Well… sorry to break it to you, but you won’t be able to fool anyone – if you are new to a country, you’ll stand out as the “obvious tourist”. But the good news is: If you speak the local language, people are more likely to respect you. Try to blend as best as you can, as well as responding confidently in the local language. Potential scammers will believe you’ve been there while and think twice before trying to pull a fast one on you.

How to pick up Spanish fast

Let’s get started! The first time I traveled to a Latin American Country (Costa Rica) was in 2015 and I am telling you – I did not speak a word of Spanish. I was capable of understanding a fair amount of what was being said to me (because I already spoke Italian and French), but there was no way I could communicate: I was not able to buy clothes in the store or tell a taxi driver if his price was too high. It drove me nuts!

I needed to learn Spanish, and I wanted to do it quickly.

So, I came up with a 5-step plan:

  1. I set myself a timeframe and a goal. I had a month to cover some of the basics. I didn’t want to spend money on a language class, but pick up “el español de la calle” the spoken Spanish of the streets.
  2. I signed up for a volunteer position at a local farm. The workers there spoke only Spanish, but the management communicated in English. I basically threw myself into cold water, even though I did not understand a thing. But I was forced to start and think in Spanish, and that set the wheels in motion.
  3. Whenever I was at a loss for words I would make a note of the word or the phrase and translate it at the end of the day. I wrote them down and started to memorize them. Everyday.
  4. I discovered a pattern – 80 % of the time I would use the same words every day, so after a week I was already able to communicate with the workers – on a very basic level of course.
  5. I bought a bilingual children’s book. Got all the basics covered. Memorized it daily.

The challenges in the early stages

At first my mouth was not used to pronouncing the Spanish vocabulary and I spoke the words in an Italian or even English manner. Very much to the amusement of my co-workers.

I didn’t progress as fast as I wanted, but after the month was over I was not only able to look after cattle and a field of radishes, I also started to understand people better and have funny conversations with them (with the help of a lot of grimaces and gesticulations). I was hooked and found the intrinsic motivation – the moment when I fell in love with that language – to learn more Spanish.

How to learn Spanish – with some preparation time

However, going unprepared into an adventure is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s why I also want to share some longer-term strategies to pick up languages faster.

If you have plenty of preparation time, book an intensive Spanish course and stick to it. It will be easy for you to learn the language because you have a goal: You want to be able to communicate with locals during your travels. This will motivate you; also, the short commitment time is an additional benefit.

This – in combination with the right mindset – will get you to speak decent Spanish in a very short period of time.

But back to the adventurous ways of a solo traveler:

Even while I was back home and working, I wanted to continue with my new language passion, but without a huge time commitment: Every day at the same time (10am) my phone beeps. This reminds me to learn my Spanish word or phrase for the day. Takes me 3 minutes, and the learning effect is incredible.

I personally use Clozemaster for learning vocabulary. It’s a playful app to score points and learn how a language is used in context. I also really like how user-friendly the app is. It has more than 50 languages available and great free features. The Clozemaster Pro version lets you download the Fast Track for playing offline – especially handy on boring bus or plane rides.

When I landed in San José for the second time a couple months later, I was amazed at how much easier the words came out of my mouth and how many more words I was able to understand. Looking back, I think what really helped me was the Clozemaster approach to using the vocabulary in context by filling in the missing words in all sorts of sentences.

I was really motivated to learn Spanish fluently during this stay, so I signed up for a 6-week language course – once a week for two hours with a private teacher. This helped me because my teacher would quickly pick up the areas I was making the most mistakes in – and correct them promptly.

I paid USD 14 per hour in that school compared to more than 60 per hour back home. Bargain! And I was amazed how every time after only two hours of speaking Spanish to my teacher I would walk out of that classroom chatting like a Tica (a Costa Rican woman)!

What I love about this approach is that your knowledge can grow exponentially: It’s hard to go cold turkey and find into the language at the beginning, but after a while your efforts pay off.

Learning Spanish on the road

Additionally, I also found the following advice extremely helpful whilst learning Spanish on the road:

1. Don’t be shy.

Get out there and speak to people! Even if you don’t speak Spanish yet; I guarantee, when you have a daily chat to 2-3 local people over a Piña Colada (or vino tinto) over a period of two weeks you won’t believe the progress you are making. But not only that, if you speak to the locals you will make great friends, get to know the area and get a feeling for the country and its people – not to mention that you won’t be bored for a sec.

2. Read a book and/or watch Spanish movies

Once you are comfortable with your Spanish, enjoy some cultural entertainment. If you watch a movie, you will be able to understand subtitles and get the jokes in real time whenever you watch a film or telenovela from Latin America or Spain.

Reading a book will help you to improve on your vocabulary – whenever you encounter a new word underline and translate it. All you have to do now is memorize.

What do you think – are you ready to start your Spanish adventure?

My advice: Jump straight in! And if you like learning authentic Spanish phrases that will help you survive in the Spanish speaking word, give Clozemaster a try. Most importantly please remember: Un idioma nunca es suficiente – one language is never enough!

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