For us, there is no better way or place to learn Spanish than on the road in Latin America.
With nineteen countries in the region listing Spanish as their main language, travellers are offered a unique opportunity to learn and immerse themselves in a single tongue across a huge and diverse geographical area. From the beaches of Mexico to the markets of Guatemala down to the hipster-friendly cities of Chile and the rugged pampas of Uruguay - the cultures, the landscapes and the foods may change but the linguistic requirements remains the same.*
So, for any adventurer who dreams of heading to Mexico, Central America or South America (check out how little we spent in our first year of travel there), we think it should be clear that the secret to making the most of any trip is to spend some times getting a basic grasp of Spanish. Not only will it help you out in a whole manner of practical ways when you're travelling, but it will open up so many opportunities for the sort of unexpected moments, interactions and happenstances which tend to be the most special memories from any trip.
In this post, we want to help you get started on that linguistic journey by sharing a little of our own experience of trying to independently learn Spanish whilst travelling in Latin America. As well as letting you know the cheapest places for language schools, we'll share our favourite (and eclectic) mixture of learning resources - from free online teachers with Geordie accents, audio lessons by a Polish man and Enrique Iglesias songs - which helped us to speak and understand Spanish to a level similar to those who are studying it at university. Vamonos!
*Well, it's not EXACTLY the same - but we'll explain that later on in the post.
starting from scratch
Prior to leaving for our two-year trip from Mexico to Brazil, we spoke very little of the language beyond the British staples of 'dos cervezas por favor' and 'no gracias'.
At school, Andrew had learned some French whilst Emily focussed on German and so Spanish was never really on the radar when we were growing up. Aside from the odd film or Fawlty Towers episode, we didn't really have have much exposure to it culturally, either, . And, like many Brits, neither of us really considered ourselves to be very skilled at language learning (just like the people in the hilarious video below).
Our Latin American adventure provided the perfect chance to try and change all that and learn the language of 329 million native speakers globally. And, aside from the myriad of practical travel reasons for speaking Spanish, we wanted to prove to ourselves that - unlike at school - we could actually enjoy the language-learning process.
From our first days in Mexico trying to learn the numbers whilst lazing in hammocks with a cold beer in hand and our two-week Guatemalan language school, the process was slow but enjoyable. We'll never forget arriving in a dingy bar next to a petrol station in small-town Guatemala and having an incredible night's conversation with our five verbs and google translate. Without a small, but steadily growing embrace of the Spanish language, we never would have been able to chat with Bolivian taxi drivers about the upcoming election, learn a little more from locals about Argentina's economic problems, or the tragic stories of Colombia's and Chile's forgotten people.
Learning Spanish gave us a voice with which we could ask the questions we couldn't find answers to in guidebooks and the ability to understand the human stories which create a country's unique history and identity.
And now, after many moments of doubt and frustration and with twenty-four months under our belt, we're by no means fluent.
Indeed, there are still many many rough edges, mistakes made, and our accents aren't great but, podemos hablar español! In fact, we don't think we're half bad.
Learning the language independently whilst travelling on a budget across so many countries gave us a great deal of real world experience and confidence to use it effectively in all situations - something that is hugely important and difficult to gain whilst learning solely from a textbook or in a classroom. In Brazil, we used it as a common language with travellers and locals more often than English! Back in Europe, we've used it as the common language in the Scottish Highlands, a laundry room in Stockholm and a supermarket in London. And now here in Spain, we've been able to hit the ground running without any issues.
With all this coming as a result of only two weeks of actual face-to-face teacher time, we're pretty proud.
So, for us, there really is no better place to learn Spanish than on the road in Latin America. As English is now so widely spoken as a second language, it can be easy to forget that there is no other region of the world where you can speak a single official language across so many borders. And, although there a growing number of English speakers across these countries, the ability to speak Spanish when travelling is still a valued and necessary skill. It would be easy enough to travel there without it, but you adventure will be so so much better if you make the effort.
So, if you're reading this and are yet to start your Latino travels, or if you're already there and struggling with español, then there is no better time to start learning Spanish than right NOW! And by using some of our favourite on-line methods and resources (most of which are totally free), you can hopefully make the whole process a lot more enjoyable.
ISN'T SPANISH IN LATIN AMERICA DIFFERENT TO SPANISH SPANISH?
The fundamentals of the grammar and (most) the pronunciation are the same and learning Spanish in, for example, Ecuador will allow you to speak with and understand someone from Madrid.
There are however some key differences to note.
The distinctive lisp on certain consonants which Spanish Spanish (or Castellano) is not at all present in Latin America.
Certain words and phrases which mean one thing in Latin America may also have an entirely different meaning Spain - with sometimes very embarrassing results. For example, to 'take the bus' the in Spain one would usually say 'voy a coger el bus'. However, in Latin America, the use of 'coger' in that phrase means that you are going to have sexual relations with the bus. Less explicitly, juice in Spain is 'zumo' whereas everywhere else it's 'jugo'.
But even within Latin America there are a number of words which don't translate between countries or which change from place to place for specific items (like aguacate and palta for avocado) and a great deal of slang and phraseology which is country-specific. Check out this video to get a broad idea.
From a personal perspective we find the 'Spanish Spanish' accent and, the speed at which they speak, a lot more difficult to understand than anything in Latin America where generally people speak a lot slower and with a much milder accent (except in Chile and Argentina). For travellers trying to gain confidence in speaking with locals and using the language in the real world setting, this was a real positive.
As learners however, you really don't have to worry too much about these differences in the early stages - the fundamentals of the language remain the same whether you learn Spanish in Europe or South America.
SPANISH CLASSES IN LATIN AMERICA
The affordability of certain countries in Latin America also makes it an excellent choice for starting or enhancing your learning, with one-on-one or group Spanish classes costing a fraction of those in Europe or the US. In Guatemala, one of the cheapest places to study, we had 40 hours of 1-on-1 lessons over two weeks at a cost of $190 USD each.
In every country you'll travel through you'll find Spanish classes advertised and, although teaching quality varies from school to school and teacher to teacher, these are an excellent and popular option for travellers. Bolivia and Ecuador are two of the more affordable options in South America, but we would advise against trying to learn from scratch in Chile or Argentina as the accents there are quite different from the rest of the region and the costs for language schools considerably higher.
Further, we would strongly suggest that you equip yourself with some of the basics in Spanish before taking a class - you really will get so much more out of the one-on-one interaction if you already have a basic understanding of the language and grammar.
For our favourite ways to do that - keep on reading!
OUR NUMBER ONE SPANISH LEARNING RESOURCE
We recommend Michel Thomas and his language learning method to so many travellers and friends that they think we're working on commission (we wish we were!). It is however a completely unique approach to learning a language and something which has given us both excellent results - we genuinely wish it was used more widely in the UK.
Essentially, Michel Thomas was an old Polish gentleman who created a completely new system for breaking down and teaching languages. There are no notes, no textbooks and no homework - simply regularly listening to the tapes is all that's required.
And, unlike most things which sound too good to be true, it actually works! If you hated language at school or think you'll never be able to learn one - then this is definitely the Spanish resource you should be starting with. Not convinced? Then watch this BBC documentary where he taught some troubled British kids French in a week.
One of the students on the Spanish lessons is insufferably stupid, and Thomas' pronunciation and speaking manner can grate a little, but these audio lessons gave us both an excellent and practical grounding in Spanish with very little effort on our parts. The method doesn't get you up and running with key phrases or vocabulary as you may expect, but rather focuses more on helping you to naturally and effortlessly understand how the language is constructed and composed so that you can actually speak it, rather than just know a few sayings.
Unfortunately, unlike all the other resources listed in this article, it isn't free. Your local library may have copies, but otherwise you will have to purchase the CDs online. If you are able to, we'd recommend trying to make a digital copy of them to your phone, laptop or tablet so that you can leave the CDs at home and listen to the lessons on buses, planes or in the dorm whilst you're on the road.
You can buy the CDs via this link - and you can thank us later....
OUR FAVOURITE YOUTUBE SPANISH TEACHERS
The Michel Thomas method gave us an approach to Spanish where our priority was being comfortable speaking the language, rather than understanding the granular details and nuances of its grammar. Knowing that stuff is incredibly important but, if your priority is being able to communicate, then it's important not to let confusion about grammatical terms and all its exceptions become an impediment to you actually trying to speak Spanish.
That's why we love the videos listed below - not only do they teach the language in a fun and accessible way for English speakers they don't get too bogged down in the details and terms like many of the other Spanish teachers on the Youtube (like Professor Jason).
Youtube is home to a number fantastic, free Spanish learning resources for independent learning and, on the road, it was actually our main resource for learning Spanish; many a rainy afternoon in a hostel or AirBnB rental would be spent watching these guys.
We absolutely adore Gordon and Cynthia. They're a lovely couple from England and Spain and their short lessons cover a range of topics in a fun and engaging manner from beginners to advanced Spanish.
For the beginner, they give clear explanations in English whilst gradually exposing you to more and more Spanish, and for those who already have a good understanding of the language they offer up really great videos where they converse about Spanish and British culture and their daily lives as well as offering more advanced lessons. Cynthia's Spanish/Geordie English accent is a wonderful wonderful thing and they're a great, funny couple, as well as being excellent teachers!
Check out all their videos on youtube here or check out a sample lesson below:
One word of warning - their early videos are quite poor in terms of sound quality. Thankfully this improved down the line, but we'd recommend using headphones so that you can hear the audio sufficiently. Lightspeed Spanish also has a good Facebook community for Spanish learners.
THE SPANISH DUDE
If learning with Gordon and Cynthia is like having a nice cup of tea with friends, then The Spanish Dude is like having several red bulls and vodka on a night out.
Jordan, the energetic frontman of the videos, got an F in Spanish at school and never thought he'd be able to speak another language - but he's now teaching Spanish to the masses at 100 miles per hour! His speaking manner and the editing of the videos might not be to everyone's liking, and it can grate a little bit when watching too many lessons in a row, but he does however try and engage people with Spanish in a manner unlike anything else available on Youtube.
p.s. Jordan used to be called Gringo Español but recently underwent a name change to Spanish Dude, hence why a number of his videos will reference the old name.
more GREAT SPANISH LEARNING RESOURCES ON YOUTUBE
In addition to the excellent Spanish teachers above, Youtube was also our primary resource for improving our listening and comprehension skills 'behind the scenes'.
For any language learner on the road, it can unfortunately feel like it takes a long time before you can properly understand any native speaker for more than a few sentences - and that experience can be demoralising. Therefore, we used these videos so that we would try and improve our real world Spanish and gain a little confidence in private so that we could actually understand it when out in public.
SOL SCHOOL - ESPAÑOL EN EPISODIOS
If you can bear the awkward sexual tension and stolen glances between the teacher and her Dutch student in this part TV show / part Spanish learning resource, then you'll actually find a great deal of value in the lessons. Español en Episodios follows the story of a Dutch guy who has moved to Spain to improve his language skills whilst living with a group of artists. Each episode is 30 minutes and is split between his Spanish lesson and his time in the flat.
Although the lessons part is aimed at beginners, the actual level of Spanish used throughout the episodes is quite high. Therefore, we'd particularly recommend these videos to travellers who already have a basic to good understanding of the language and want to improve their listening, comprehension and vocabulary skills. Find all the episodes here.
EXTRA EN ESPAÑOL
This is another TV show created specifically for Spanish learners. It's full of bad jokes, bad acting and far too many primary colours, but it's actually a great start point for beginners.
Sam is an American who has arrived in Spain and the episodes follow his adventures and mishaps with his three Spanish flatmates. Find links to all the episodes here.
BBC LANGUAGE CLASSES
If your goal is getting up to speed quickly with some key travel phrases - like ordering at a restaurant or asking for directions - then these bitesize BBC videos are a good starting place.
Check out the episode on ordering food below to understand the style and find all the other episodes here.
There are only around 40 videos in this series, which are all filmed on the streets of Latin America, but we find them perfect for improving listening and comprehension as well as exposure to stock phrases in everyday Spanish.
The interviewer vox-pops people on the street to ask them a few questions around that episode's theme - work, dreams or food preferences - and you simply have to try and understand their responses. Each episode has hardcoded dual English and Spanish subtitles, so they're accessible for beginners as well as more advanced learners.
Find all the videos here.
websites for tests and grammar
Alongside the video resources above, we also used the following websites for more formal instruction and learning.
WordReference: Excellent dictionary resource, with examples of 'real world' usage of words which helps you to extend your understanding of vocabulary and grammar
StudySpanish: Excellent grammar and comprehension resources with clear explanations and examples of the rules. They also have free tests for each module to test or expand your understanding of the language. Beginner to advanced resources available.
SpanishDict : As well as a great translation/dictionary function which gives common phrases and usage of the word you're translating, SpanishDict also has a good 'word of the day' e-mail and excellent verb conjugation resources. Their app is excellent for travellers and was the main offline dictionary we'd use on the road. Their Fluencia video lessons are quite good, but a little too dry and technical for us.
AJ+ Español: Trying to integrate a little Spanish into your day-to-day internet browsing is good learning approach and we really love the short, well-made news videos that AJ+ does on their Facebook page. Covering both Latin American and global news topics, each video contains text descriptions and subtitles in Spanish - you'll probably find yourself understanding much more than you thought possible. Here's their Facebook. page.
Flashcards: Ok, so it doesn't all have to be about hi-tech approaches - paper and pen are still essential to learning any language. For learning vocabulary in the early stages, we recommend the flashcard method whereby you note the Spanish word on one side, with the English on the flipside. Leave these in your daybag (keep together with an elastic band) and practice when waiting for the plane or bus, hanging out in a hostel or when you're on the toilet!
FLAMA: Flama is a hilarious Youtube channel with funny videos, skits and rants about issues facing Spanish-speakers and Latinos. Although it's not a great resource for actually learning the language (most of the videos are actually in English with little bits of Spanish throughout), we think they're brilliant and give a lot of cultural and linguistic insights which you won't find anywhere else. Check out this excellent one from Joanna on MANY types of Spanish accent for a taster...
After spending two years in Latin America, where he is played ENDLESSLY, any traveller is going to have either developed a deep love or deep hatred for him and his music. And if you hadn't already realised, we sort of LOVE Enrique.
We do genuinely think however that listening to his songs (or other popular Latino artists), and trying to understand and translate the lyrics is a great way to try and understand your comprehension of the language and helps loosen up your lips for the difficulty of actually speaking passable Spanish well in the real world.
Start off with the EXCELLENT 'Bailando' below - try and transcribe the lyrics in Spanish and then translate them into English. There are numerous websites available offering up Spanish / English song translations for you to check the accuracy of your efforts. That moment when the blurry mass of words sung far too quickly starts to be broken down into something you actually hear and understand is big moment for anyone learning a new language!
practise practise practise!
And there you have our favourite resources for learning Spanish independently in Latin America.
These are the methods and approaches which worked best for us over two years on the road and which we found were actually enjoyable to learn with. We hope they do the same for you, but it may be the case that some of these resources don't appeal to, or assist, your own learning style.
Whatever approach you use for your Spanish learning journey in Latin America, the main benefit of travelling this part of the world is that it gives you so many opportunities to use the language. The resources above are, of course, all quite insular and catered towards independent study and learning. But, once you've given yourself the linguistic building blocks, you simply have to try your best to practice every single day you're on the road and enhance your Spanish skills by speaking to locals in everyday situations. Break away from just being around gringos or English-speakers and expose yourself to new situations, new people and new environments where Spanish is the only option.
You will make mistakes and have to suffer more than a few awkward moments, but that's the only way you will learn and improve over the course of your journey. It will take time, and for a lot of the time you'll feel like you are making very little progress.
But, every little word learned or conjugation mastered helps you on the journey and if you put in the time and effort to using the above resources properly, we promise you that you will feel like an able and confident speaker at some stage on your Latin American trip!
We hope you've found this post useful. If you'd like to show your appreciation or support fro Along Dusty Roads, why not give us a like on our Facebook page? Or, if this post has got your curious about travel in Latin America, you'll find out guides, advice and travel tips all over the website - why not start with reading about one of our favourite ever travel experiences in Colombia.