10 ways to learn Spanish while backpacking in South America

backpacking south americaI 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

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.

Getting around

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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.

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]:

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.

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…

[Tweet “Making friends with locals is hands-down the best way to learn a language.”]

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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