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The Ultimate Backpacker’s Guide to Learning Spanish

So you’re a backpacker heading off to South America – do you need to learn Spanish?

Is it really necessary to learn the language to travel to another country?

Can’t I get by with just English?

Why bother? Sure, everyone speaks English anyway

Here are a few reasons to consider learning Spanish (or any other language) before travelling to a new country…

1. Avoid the English speaker stereotype

If, like us, English is your first (and only) language, you may come across a little ignorant in another country.

English is the most widely spoken language in the world. It’s not the most spoken (we’re looking at you, China, with your 1 billion Mandarin speakers), but it’s the primary language in more countries than any other.

Most of us don’t realise how lucky we are to have English as our first language. People in other countries struggle and strive to learn our language, as it’s a gateway to the rest of the world.

Ashamedly, this can sometimes result in English-speakers having a sort of expectation that everyone else will speak English too. And so we don’t bother learning any other languages. At least past unwillingly sitting an honours paper in Leaving Cert French (ahem, me), and subsequently not speaking any French again.

All of this means that, sometimes, people from other countries roll their eyes when yet another English speaker rocks in shouting at them in broken English. Do we think that if we simplify our English, the other person will understand us better? More often than not, we just look like eejits.

Now, all that being said, we’ve often heard of people being scoffed at for trying to take a shot at a cúpla focail in another language. It happens to us everyday with our middling Spanish. People usually have much better English than your attempts at their language, or they just want to practice their English – either way, it’s deflating.

So, reason number one to learn the language is to take yourself out of the very easy, English-only world and give a new language a shot.

2. Consider the length of your trip

A week-long holiday to Spain or France might not warrant taking intensive language classes.

Inter-railing around Europe? It’s unlikely that you’ll learn Dutch, German, Spanish, French, Portugese, Polish and Czech in preparation.

For us, it’s entirely different. We’re spending eight months in Spanish speaking countries across Mexico, Central America and South America.

The value in learning the language is relative to how long you’ll spend in the country, or how applicable the language is in other countries.

3. Interact more with the locals

We’ve found that our Spanish has helped us to chat with taxi drivers, Latino travellers in hostels and local tour guides, and we’ve learned a lot about the culture.

Locals appreciate it when you can chat with them in their language, and are more willing to open up and tell you their stories if they don’t have to do it in English.

There’s also so many more people that we’ve had great conversations with that don’t speak any English at all. Struggling by with some basic Spanish has given us the chance to chat with far more people than just the other gringos in our hostel.

4. Get stuff cheaper!

Sometimes, shopping around for some souvenirs, a tour or activity can incur the dreaded ‘tourist tax’. We’ve found that it’s worse if you’re reliant on English. A little confident Spanish can go a long way; people are less likely to scam you!

As well as this, we’ve been able to get tours with local agencies for almost half the price. We climbed Volcan Acatenango in Guatemala with a local’s family-run company. Catalino and his guides only spoke Spanish.

We got to stay in Catalino’s house the night before, have dinner with his family and then went on the two day volcano tour – all in Spanish!

But the best part – by choosing this tour, we saved a ton of money. It cost less than half what more popular, English-led tours were charging.

5. Prevalence of English in the country

Another important factor is whether English is commonly spoken in the country you’re visiting.

When we started doing our research for visiting Central and South America, we were starting to discover that  while tourism is a huge industry in the area, most people don’t speak any English. Having some Spanish isn’t just an advantage, it’s basically required.

So, we decided it would be a good idea to try to learn some Spanish so we’d be able to communicate.

This might be a different story if you’re visiting a country where English is widely spoken – take a look at this list of the fifteen countries with the best English speakers. While English might not be the first language, sixty to seventy percent of people in Singapore, Malaysia and Poland speak English. If that’s the case, it’s worth reconsidering whether you absolutely need to learn the language.

6. On the flip side – maybe it’s not a good idea

On the other hand, maybe it’s not needed!

Consider the length of your holiday, the difficulty of the language, the availability of classes and how prevalent English is in the country you’re visiting.

A few self-taught phrases are probably fine for a short holiday. It might not be feasibe to learn Japanese before your three week trip there, and where are you going to find a Japanese teacher in Ireland? And if you’re travelling to South East Asia, English is so common that it’s easy to get by.

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Ways to Learn Spanish

Okay, so you’ve decided that it’s a good idea to pick up a few phrases in Spanish, or another language.

Now, where to start?

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1. Apps, Podcasts, CD’s

Easy, accessible and mostly free, these are a great way to begin, or to supplement any other Spanish you’re doing.

Duolingo is undoubtedly the most popular app on the market for learning another language. It’s free to download, is very interactive and has multiple different levels, taking you right up to a decent level. The more advanced levels even teach you how to hit on a guy or girl in the language you’re learning – the essentials, right?

Diligence is key for learning using Duolingo. I found the early levels a bit boring, and learning using my phone was distracting – it was too easy to switch to social media and mindlessly scroll when my attention waned.

Accountability can be tough with this method too; without the responsibility to show up to a weekly class or the niggling voice in your mind telling you that you paid for this, it’s easy to give it a skip.

Audio can be a great way to top up on some language learning. Podcasts, or CD’s for the more old-fashioned, are excellent for when you’re driving and are sick of the same songs on Today FM. The ‘Learn Spanish In Your Car‘ Playlist or Duolingo Podcast on Spotify help with the basics, and there are a host of other playlists and podcasts freely available.

I found this great in conjunction with our Spanish classes, but I’d probably have had the same accountability issues if I was relying on them alone.

2. Take Spanish Evening Classes

This is our number one recommendation for learning a new language – evening classes.

Even if you’re not visiting a new country anytime soon, it’s a great hobby – you learn a new skill, meet lots of people and have something different to do one evening during the week instead of watching telly or going to the pub.

Hang on, aren’t evening classes just for retirees?

Not necessarily. Our stereotypical outlook was that evening classes were something that you take up when you’re older, but it doesn’t need to be like that. Fair enough, we were pulling the average age down quite a bit in our evening class, with over half the class being in their 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, but the other half were similar to us.

One young guy was learning Spanish for his business trips to Spain, and another was there with his Spanish girlfriend, who obviously didn’t need the classes. Then there were two girls who were just there for fun. The older crew were the funniest and most interesting with their stories, and it was surprising but great being in a situation where we were mixing with people of all different ages.

Don’t be put off by the stereotype and go for it!

How to find an evening class

We thought the internet would be our friend here, but it was old-school leaflets.

Most evening classes are in secondary schools, reasonably priced and locally run and so having a top-notch website isn’t their top priority. Look for leaflets pinned to noticeboards in shopping centres or supermarkets, and take note that classes usually follow the school term, so they start in September and in January.

Our classes and what we learned

We took an evening course once a week in Douglas Community School, Cork from January to May, and it’s paid dividends.

Our teacher, Felix, was fantastic and really geared the class towards conversational Spanish, in a touristy or holiday setting. This was exactly what we needed.

We learned the basics, and recapped on these every week – name, where you’re from, what you do, where you live. It sounds simple and obvious, but repeating it every week ingrained it in, and it’s the first thing that people we meet ask us now that we’re in Mexico.

Some other seemingly basic but surprisingly useful topics that we covered were letters and numbers, time of the day, weekdays, months and years.

We also did some grammar, verbs in the past and present tense and then when we had all that covered, we were able to learn how to interact in restaurants and other touristy settings.

Cost: €110 for 10 weeks of evening classes

3. Take Spanish Language Classes Abroad

Incorporate some learning into your trip, and take some Spanish classes while you travel.

This is a hugely popular option in Central and South America, and you can get 1:1 tuition for incredible prices.

If you have zero Spanish, we still recommend taking evening classes at home before you leave – you’re unlikely to take Spanish classes abroad on your first week, so having some skills before you go will give you the chance to start speaking and improving once your plane hits the ground.

As well as that, it’ll get you super excited for your trip!

Things to consider when learning Spanish while travelling:

  • When to take the classes – at the very beginning of your trip, after a little while. Obviously you’re not going to take classes on the very last week of your trip, just before you go home. Consider whether it’s better to take your classes close to the start of your trip or halfway through. What will the benefits be?
  • Your level of Spanish – When we took our classes in Guatemala, we’d done ten weeks of evening classes at home, and had been slowly improving as we travelled through Mexico. This meant that we didn’t waste time on the very basics, and our 30-ish hours of 1:1 tuition focused on accelerating our level from basic to intermediate.
  • How long to spend – My enthusiasm for learning Spanish in Guatemala meant that I was eager to sign up for two consecutive weeks of classes. Mike was more realistic and thought it was better to just do one week, and see how we felt then. Right idea. Learning is hard! And tiring. Since the classes were one on one, there was nowhere to hide and it meant that the week was fairly intense and exhausting. Take it on a week by week basis.

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Best Locations for Spanish Lessons in Central and South America

  • Mexico

Okay, Mexico’s in North America, but it’s usually the first stop for a lot of backpackers. And, Mexico is a great choice for Spanish classes. Areas on the west side are better than the Yucatan Peninsula, which is more English speaking and tourism focused. We’ve heard of people taking classes in Oaxaca or Mexico City. One to one classes are easy to find. Our friend Victoria recommends Spanish Immersion School, she loved it there.

Guatemala
After lots of research, we’ve realised that Guatemala is the number one place to learn Spanish (check out this post for a list of reasons why). With a huge choice of schools in Antigua, at Lake Atitlan and in Xela, competition for business is high and it’s possible to find fantastic deals. Antigua is the most popular location, but we decided to take our classes in Xela where there’s
 less
 tourists and so you’re forced to throw yourself into everything Spanish-related.  Spanish365 is an excellent resource to help you find a school in Guatemala, with reviews of schools in the main towns. We chose PLQ in Xela and had a fantastic experience – we’ll write more about it in another post,
 when we catch up!

Colombia

If you’re not going to be in Mexico or Central America, and are heading straight to South America, Colombia is a good shout for learning some Spanish. Colombians speak very clearly, so they’re easier to understand. Medellín and Bogotá are both huge, bustling, fun cities so stopping in one of these for a week or two for some classes will be fun as well as educational. Total Spanish Colombia is a great school worth checking out.

  • Bolivia

Bolivia has one great benefit for backpackers on a budget – it’s CHEAP. Some friends of ours took Spanish lessons in Sucre, which they said was the nicest town in Bolivia. 20 hours of Spanish lessons with Me Gusta cost about $5US per hour, which is incredible value. Bolivians, similar to Colombians, are easy to understand so this is a decent, budget-friendly choice for some schooling.

  • Places to skip

In Chile and Argentina, their accent is so different to everywhere else that other native Spanish speakers struggle to understand them. We haven’t heard of anyone choosing other countries in Central America (Honduras, Nicaragua or Panama) since Guatemala is such a good choice. And we always recommend picking classes in an established school, rather than private classes; the in-school classes are also private, but you get the added benefit of extra activities, more structure and making friends.

Immersion – Practice, Practice, Practice

When you arrive to your destination, it’s important to put yourself out there.

Immersing yourself in the language is key to improving. We ended up accidentally immersing ourselves in Spanish for the first half of Mexico; nobody spoke English, so we had no other option. Once we moved on to countries with more foreign tourists, it became the norm for hostel staff and tour agencies to speak English. No surprise, this won’t improve your Spanish.

Tell people you want to practice the language (Quiero practicar mi español) when they reply to you in English, or ask them to slow down so that you can understand them (Puedes hablar más despacio, por favor).

Some Handy Phrases in Spanish

  • Hola    —    Hello!
  • Dos cervezas, por favour   —    Two beers, please (the most important phrase in Spanish)
  • ¿Cuanto cuesta?   —    How much does it cost?
  • ¡Buenos días!   —   Good morning (we thought it meant ‘good-day’ and were saying good morning to people at 4pm for a few months)
  • ¡Buenas tardes!   —    Good afternoon
  • –  ¿Cómo estás?  – Estoy bien ¡Gracias!    —    How are you? I’m good, thanks
  • No entiendo   —    I don’t understand
  • No hablo mucho español   —    I don’t speak much Spanish
  • ¿Donde esta la estación de autobuses?   —    Where is the bus station?

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The Verdict

Learning Spanish has massively changed our travel experience. We’re finding it easier to get by, we can chat with locals and we’re getting cheaper deals. It’s helping us to understand more about the culture, and allowing us to see more and do more. While learning another language might not be necessary for everyone’s holiday, it has been a huge advantage for us.

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