Learning Spanish In Latin America

Globe with South America in view


I once accidentally told an elderly Peruvian gentlemen that his llama, despite being unusually short, was astonishingly sexy – an error that prompted quite a bit of confusion and resulted in my rather immediate departure. That was before I took Spanish lessons. I’d intended to mention the animal’s impressive girth (not height) and that it’s strength probably yielded it sufficient to be ridden like a horse. Plenty was lost in translation. It’s entirely possible that he wouldn’t like the idea of somebody riding his llama around as if it was some kid’s party at the petting zoo and would have asked me to leave all the same, but at least there wouldn’t have been unnecessary confusion. After all, clarity is really all we’re after with learning another language, right?

Just about everywhere you go traveling these days there will be enough people who speak English to where you could, feasibly, ignorantly, use your Ultimatesafe to maneuver a winding path through said destination without too much trouble. But what’s the fun/challenge/interest/adventure in that? Speaking at least some measure of Spanish while cruising the South American landscape will enable you to meet new and intriguing people, order food you’d actually like to eat instead of just pointing at something that looks edible; it may even get you out of a jam and it certainly helps with navigation and discounted prices on not only tacky items you fancy purchasing, but also services.

Here’s what you might want to consider while in Latin America:

  • Spanish has many varieties. By that I mean accents and phrases vary dramatically from place to place and it can affect the rapidity with which you pick up the language. After spending six months in Ecuador in a tiny village with nothing to do but speak/learn Spanish, I had a decent, conversational handle on it. Then I went to Venezuela and understood nothing. Not a word. Places like Ecuador and Peru, for example, are considered to have very neutral, mild Spanish, whereas the accents of Argentina and Venezuela are often difficult for newbies to wrap their ears around.
  • Classes. You can find Spanish classes in every major city in Latin America and in many smaller towns that are popular on the tourism track. Take classes. They’re often very, very inexpensive (sometimes as cheap as $4/hour and even less when you sign up for a week, month, etc…) and the teachers (at least in my experience) are excellent. Usually the lessons are one-on-one, which is beneficial to conversational language acquisition, and the most effective lessons are often those that are field trip oriented – cruising around the city, taking public transit, going out to lunch, visiting museums, etc… – which inevitably introduce you to a wide variety of subjects and the vocabulary that surrounds them.
  • Alcohol. Yes, indeed. It loosens the lips, strips away timidity, and it’s delicious stuff anyways. Going out at night and dancing and meeting new people from the city you’re visiting is a great opportunity to practice your newly harnessed linguistic powers.
  • Books. Reading books in Spanish does wonders for vocabulary. It’s not really fun, especially in the beginning when you’re reading a sentence of a novel and then scouring your English/Spanish dicitionary for all the words you missed for several minutes, each time, over and over and over, but it definitely helps. Also, if it’s a simple book like The Alchemist, then you’ll probably only need the dictionary for the first third of the book, because by then you’re familiar with the majority of the words being used to describe scenes or fuel dialogue.
  • And finally, other travelers: It can be nice to get a break from Spanish every once in a while. It’s exhausting learning a language, but the more time you spend in a Spanish-only environment, the quicker you’ll learn and the depth of your understanding will be far more profound.

Just know, there will be moments in which you insult a man’s llama or ask to eat the family dog, but those days pass just like all others, and you can’t expect to learn without making a few mistakes along the way.

By Bryan Schatz