10 ways to learn Spanish while backpacking in South America

I guarantee you you’ll never have so much fun in your life! South America is great, but it’s even better if you speak Spanish (or Portuguese, if you find yourself in Brazil). You don’t need me to tell you that a little bit of language goes a long way when you’re travelling. But what about a lot of language? Now that is serious.

I spent a year or so travelling around Argentina and Brazil in 2004-5. On the ground, the fact that I could chat with people easily led me to some experiences that were not only amazing but completely changed my life.

OK, so the parties I went to, places I stayed and people (especially the girls!) I met thanks to my language skills were all amazing, but the most important thing for me was that it kick-started my passion for languages, realising just how life-changing it could be.

How to learn Spanish in South America

Sitting in at Milton Nascimento's house, Rio de Janeiro

Playing samba at Milton Nascimento’s house, Rio de Janeiro

What follows now is how I became fluent in Spanish and Portuguese in South America on a serious budget. The following strategies will work for complete beginners because they’re based on some important fundamentals: some structured learning, high exposure to the language and abundant opportunities to speak.

Note: this is mostly aimed at those who will be spending a significant period of time in their destination (a month or more). You’re not going to become fluent in one hectic fortnight in Buenos Aires – although you could certainly create enough motivation to last a lifetime! These ideas obviously apply to whatever continent you travel to/language you learn, although culturally speaking South America is particularly well suited to this approach.

Before you go

1) Get a good phrasebook. A phrasebook has the obvious benefit of giving you the language that you need in any given situation, thereby making your journey a lot smoother. However, the more important effect is that it gets you out there speaking to real people, which is where the learning really happens. This is a thread you’ll see throughout this post – creating authentic opportunities to speak to locals. The Lonely Planet series is good (in spite of their rubbish guidebooks!).

2) Stock up on podcasts. Backpacking usually involves a lot of dead time. South America is particularly time-intensive when it comes to moving from place to place by coach. Turn travel time into study time by having language podcasts ready to fire up when you need them. Any good series will do – search iTunes for “learn Spanish/Portuguese” and you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Asking for directions is a tried and tested strategy!

Asking for directions is a tried and tested strategy!

Getting around

[wpsr_facebook]
3) Ask for directions. …even if you know where you’re going! It may be a bit disingenuous, but the thing is, asking for directions is the most socially acceptable reason for talking to people anywhere in the world. Even if it’s a short conversation it’s one more interaction under your belt, and confidence grows. Many times, though, people will be impressed that you’re trying to use their language and you might get chatting.

4)  Don’t fly. Travel by coach. The longer the distance the better. Not only is it many times cheaper than flying in South America, but there are a couple of great opportunities. Firstly, if you get to sit next to someone cool you’ve got a captive audience for the whole trip. Secondly, if you don’t, you’ve got hours of uninterrupted study time (hopefully they won’t play endless American 90s movies on the TV). Thirdly, the luxury coaches (still cheap) can be really comfortable and you save yourself a night in a hotel if you take the overnight bus.

Learn a language while backpacking

A phrasebook is like a language ‘ready-meal’ – it solves your immediate needs.

5) Stay in the right hostels. Don’t find your accommodation in Lonely Planet, or you’ll end up with a load of other foreigners. Instead, look for websites used by locals. Here’s how. [Substitute with place/language of your choice]:

  • Put: “where to stay in Buenos Aires” into Google Translate
  • Select Spanish for the translation
  • Copy the translated text, in this case: dónde alojarse en Buenos Aires
  • Do a Google search with that text
  • You end up with dozens of options
  • It’s probably a good idea to go the 2nd or 3rd page of search results in order to skip the huge websites like Tripadvisor, or else choose a local-sounding website.
  • Go to the site and use Google Chrome’s translate function to read the website in English

On the ground in South America

6) Poach a teacher. Take a free trial lesson in a local language school. If the teacher’s good, ask them (discreetly) for private lessons. Depending on the country you’re in, it’s likely to be incredible value compared to back home and you could take daily lessons. Taking group classes is usually a waste of time – why spend time and money listening to other foreigners mangle the language?  You’ll also make your friendship circles with non-Spanish speakers. All things to be avoided if you’re serious about learning the language.

Learn Tango in Buenos Aires?

Learn Spanish via Tango in Buenos Aires?

7) Take a class with locals instead. Tango? Guitar? Flower arranging? Whatever floats your boat. Take a regular class in something that interests you and, although it might be tough, you’ll be getting a lot of meaningful exposure to language (i.e. it’s not just sentences in a phrasebook – it’s instructions that you have to understand and follow). Classes are also a fantastic way of making friends as you share common experiences with others. And…

8) Find a language partner. In other words, your English for their Spanish. There are plenty of people in South America desperate to practice with native English speakers, and they’re more than happy to teach you Spanish in return.It’s free (or the price of a cup of coffee) and you’ve got the time. What more could you ask for? Google “language exchange in Buenos Aires” and you’re swamped with options. You could also try dedicated websites like this one. Find someone nice (be sure to meet them in a public place) and meet up with them for regular sessions. An hour spent talking in each language is a good way to go. But be strict about this – there’s always the danger that the other person uses too much English, especially if you’re not so confident in their language yet.

9) Sit at the bar. Don’t sit on your own at a table, sit at the bar. Bartenders are there to talk, that’s why they do what they do. They’re great people to practise with.

10) Smoke. As much as I’d hate to encourage you to smoke, the phrase “Got a light?” is up there with the best conversation starters known to man. Wherever you may be, asking for a light is the perfect excuse to start chatting to someone, whether in a bar or on the street.

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  • Great tips Olly, I definitely would love to get down to South America. I have found that speaking Spanish has enabled me to have experiences that I otherwise would not have speaking only one. I think that your tip about asking for directions is very true. I have often mentioned this and other conversation starters on my blog. It is essential to practice as much as you can when traveling.

    • Thanks Andy. I really miss South America, especially for the warmth and generosity of the people. Certainly a good place to chat to people easily and learn a language!

  • Agree with all the points except the last one because I’m a non-smoker! Talking about general things such as the weather, clothes and food are good ways to strike up a conversation in any language – usually everyone has some sort of opinion on these general topics. Sometimes when you ask for directions in another language, the native local speaking to you might reply to you in your language. Then it becomes a bit hard for you to practise the language 🙂

    • Yes, the weather – another classic! You’re right, the thought of the other person responding to you in English can be really off-putting, and can be enough to stop you talking at all! But I think the more confidence you can project when you ask the question the more likely the other person will answer back in their language. In fact, I think that’s a good general strategy – pretend to be as confident as possible!

  • Good tips. Best way – get a Latina girlfriend! Lessons were good, but girlfriends made me me fluent in both French and Spanish. Plus you get a free tourguide, someone to cook for you, someone to keep you warm..;)
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Frank, you’re not wrong! It’s the free-lunch approach to language learning! Maybe I should write a “pick-up” article to accompany this one 🙂

  • Interesting tips, Olly! Even though I’m a native Spanish speaker, this are useful tips for my backpacking trip to Europe or Asia one day!! 🙂 It’ll be lovely!! Muchas gracias por estos tips. Espero algún día tengas la oportunidad de conocer México. Es un país fascinante! Serás más que bienvenido, compadre!
    Saludos desde México

    • Siempre quise ir a Mexico! De hecho, un gran amigo se acaba de casar con una mexicana, entonces quien sabe, a lo mejor estaremos llendo para ahi algun dia!

  • Gracias por los tips, Olly! Aunque como verás, soy nativo de la lengua española pero esto me servirá cuando me vaya de mochilero por Europa o Asia. Aplicaría los tips parecidos. Buen artículo como siempre! Sigue así! Saludos desde México!! 😉

    • Gracias Julio. Claro, la mayoria de estas ideas te serviran igual en Europe o en Asia! Lo unico que seria problematico es lo de las clases privadas – creo que los precios en europa estarian un poco mas altos que en argentina!

  • Thank you, Olly. I’m planning to stay in South America for 2 months for this coming school vacation. I’m thinking which country I should go to learn Spanish! Your article was definitely helpful! Muchos Gracias!

    • Wow, I’m so jealous! It’s a difficult choice, which country to go to. If it were me is go back to Buenos Aires in a flash 🙂 It’s a good place to spend a couple of months. Glad you liked the article!

  • Great tips, especially the tip5 that goes against our habits as users of the Internet…

    I think it takes a bit of courage and luck

    Pat.

    • Hi Patrick, thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree with you that going against our habits and stepping outside our comfort zones are difficult things to do. I’ve found it a worthwhile thing to do – pushing the boat out and doing new things can lead to amazing new experiences!

  • Lott

    Thanks, great article. I don’t speak spanish at the moments (only occasional phrase book phrases) but I really want to learn, ideally with immersion. I’d like to head to central / South America to do it, happy to stay somewhere for a couple of months but baffled with where.. Any suggestions? I’d like somewhere I can survive without speaking it for arrival, safe, pretty if possible…thank you!

  • emily

    Thanks you to these advices! I think that one of the ways to learn a foreign language is travelling alone and…go shopping in small shops… 🙂 I tell you, it works! You can talk with a shop assistant not only about a weather… 🙂

    • Yes, if you can summon the confidence it can be a great thing to do!

  • Avalon Bauman

    I really liked this article… good tips. I learned Spanish by bumming around Mexico and avoiding English at all costs, and it worked quite well.

    I’d say that a Spanish school may be worth considering if you’re looking to kick-start your learning and find a quality program.

    I’m currently working at Colombia Immersion in Medellin, Colombia (www.colombiaimmersion.com) and we do a good job connecting students to locals with events and tours, as well as place students in volunteering and homestays in the community. So, a good launchpad for folks new to the whole immersive-travel-style thing.

  • I had a similar experiance while backpacking in the South America. There were a lot of Mexicans and they tought me Spanish with a pleasure. It was given me easily and I could understand slow Spanish well. Anyway, learning languages is very interesting so enjoy! Buena suerte!

  • John Robertson

    Nice post! Some good tips, learning Spanish in Latin America has been one of the best things I’ve done in my life! I also wrote a post to share some other tips that worked really well for me when learning Spanish…
    https://mindmaker.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/learn-spanish-travelling-latin-america-free/

  • Luke Truman

    Cool Post, do you think learning Spanish is a better alternative to learning Portugese for backpacking across south America?? Also, does anyone have any experience using coach surfing in south america? Seems you could get some language practice and save on travel costs at the same time!

    • Well, Portuguese is only good in Brazil. For most of the rest of the continent you’re going to need Spanish.