In this post, I want to share my experience (so far) learning Spanish while traveling through Central America. I’ve been at it for about 4 weeks now, including a week of Spanish school, and I’ve talked with a good number of people at various stages in their own Spanish journey. Based on this, I now know what it REALLY takes to develop comfort with a second language.
Before I get into that, I just wanted to provide a quick update on my travels. As I type this, I’m in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. We spent the first 3-4 weeks in Nicaragua, until several days ago, we crossed the border into Costa Rica to meet a friend. Among some fast-paced traveling, about 1 week ago, my computer just stopped working. Pair that with some poor internet connectivity, and I’ve had a hard time sharing pictures and blogging. Hopefully, I’ll have all that fixed in the next week or so, so that I can find the time to share about my experiences to date.
My Progress Learning Spanish
When I left for Central America, I had a good working knowledge of Spanish and some really good practice reading and writing, but with the exception of some Skype calls and other infrequent conversations, I hadn’t had much practice actually speaking and listening in Spanish.
After 4 weeks here, I’ve gotten much better at understanding Spanish that is spoken by a native speaker. In most of my conversations, I can understand the message that is being communicated with me and pick up about 70% of the words. In situations without context or when listening to multiple Spanish speakers, my overall comprehension is much lower and I often have trouble getting the message.
Unfortunately, my speaking hasn’t improved as much as my listening. Right now, I can communicate almost any message if given a few seconds to formulate a response, and I’ve gotten really good at talking about certain topics that come up all the time, such as where I’m from, where I’ve traveled, etc. But, I still struggle tremendously in conversations because my speed of comprehension and speaking. Right now, I do best in conversations with only one other person who understands my level of Spanish.
It disappoints me that I still can’t carry a normal conversation with a native speaker, without having things slowed down for me and without it being apparent that I’m slow with Spanish. I know it’s only been 4 weeks, but I expected to ‘feel’ the progress and it just hasn’t happened yet. I think it’s because I haven’t practiced (or needed to practice) as much as I had anticipated. During the 4 weeks, my biggest disappointment is the amount I’ve practiced. Overall, my Spanish is progressing slower than expected, but I’ve got some really solid ideas for how to change that!
Below I’d like to talk more about some insights I’ve had and share my plan forward.
English Is More Useful Than Spanish For Travelers
I’m not the kind of person who likes to jump from one tourist spot to the next while traveling. I like getting away from overly-touristy spots and interacting with people who live in the country I’m visiting. That said, no matter what you do, if you are traveling at a steady pace (1-6 days per location) and you aren’t comfortable with Spanish, you will end up spending a lot of time interacting with other travelers, and when you do interact with non-travelers, they will often be people who speak some English or the conversations you have will be very repetitive and transactional.
In situations with other travelers, it’s typical that everyone meets in English. I think there’s a lot of reasons for this, but there are 2 that stick out the most. First, most people choose English as there second language and most travelers speak decent English. Second, when you first arrive in a Spanish-speaking country, your Spanish will probably be worse than the English of many people you meet (other travelers who speak Spanish and people familiar with travelers).
I expected this problem, but it’s been worse than I thought. It’s incredibly difficult to cut yourself off from English when so many interesting people around you are speaking English. Especially when you want to have a good time and it’s so difficult and frustrating to communicate messages in Spanish.
Outside of the fact that most travelers are meeting at English, there is the problem of repetitive conversations with native speakers. It’s easy to get good at interactions in restaurants and stores, but these transaction-based conversations don’t get you very far. Beyond that, it’s difficult when interacting with native speakers to go beyond basic travel conversations when you are traveling to a new place every few days. There’s no real incentive for them to struggle with you through Spanish or build a friendship if you are just going to run around the place for a few days and leave.
Should You Go To Spanish School?
I spent 1 week in the Latin American Spanish School while staying with a Nicaraguan family in San Juan Del Sur. The experience was a positive one and I know my Spanish improved, but it wasn’t as beneficial of an experience as I thought it would be. First off, these schools are designed more for people who haven’t put a lot of time into learning Spanish. They are designed for people who need help understanding grammar and usage.
To be completely honest, they just aren’t as suited for someone who needs practice using the language and integrating it into their lives to become more fluid. Yes, spending 4 hours with a teacher is beneficial and gives a PERFECT opportunity for practice using the language, but there will never be a substitute for integrating the language into your life and living in Spanish. If you already understand Spanish enough to formulate a variety of sentences, you don’t NEED a teacher right away. What you need is practice.
I kind of new this, but I thought that going to school AND living with a host family would provide the perfect opportunity to spend a full week living only in Spanish. The problem was that my host family was also hosting several other spanish students from a variety of schools. They were all great people, but none of us were proficient in Spanish and as in all traveler situations, the default language became English. As much as I wanted to live in Spanish, it would have been as contrived in this situation as living in a hostel. I did spend time interacting with the family, but not enough to be living in the language.
Here are some things to look out for if you are interested in Spanish School:
- If you haven’t spent much time studying independently, I would recommend doing that first because it’s infinitely cheaper. You can try audio resources like Pimsleur Method and Michel Thomas from libraries, you can learn grammar online from sites like StudySpanish and SpanishDict, and you can find lots of practice materials for listening, watching and reading.
- If you have a solid understanding of the language and want a controlled situation for practice, make sure you talk to the school first and tell them what your interested in. Find a teacher that you like spending time with and that is good at forcing you to share ideas and TALK in Spanish.
- If you are going to a homestay so that you can isolate yourself and live in Spanish, make sure that you are going somewhere that won’t surround you with other English speakers.
- If you are on a budget, consider forcing yourself to live in the language before hiring a teacher (or while having a teacher for faster progress).
Spanish Isn’t Hard, Speaking It Is
I know a lot about the Spanish language. I have a solid vocabulary. I know verb endings and tenses. I can write pretty well. Actually, I probably know more about Spanish grammar than I do about English (at least that I could tell you about). I think I know enough to be a pretty solid teacher for a beginning Spanish learner.
All that being said, I think my ability to speak Spanish is garbage (for reasons I’ve already discussed). The truth is that it’s an entirely different thing to understand a language than it is to be able to use it properly.
For me, the problem is that most Spanish words and sayings are not wired into my thoughts and emotions. When I feel something or have an opinion, it manifests itself in English. At this point I have to go through the trouble each time of translating it in the best way I know possible. So usually my process goes something like this: 1) Hear something said to me in Spanish. 2) Based on 70% comprehension make a guess what was meant 3) Formulate a response in English (almost instant) 4) Simply that response to something that I can translate 5) Translate into Spanish.
I think the only way around this particular problem is to live in the language for long enough that you start to interpret and interact with the world around you in that language. Obviously, this is difficult because at first your options for expressing yourself are limited.
I really believe that this is the secret to success because of the 20-30 people I’ve met learning Spanish, everyone falls into 2 categories:
- People Who Have Lived In Spanish - These people have spent weeks or months living in a situation where Spanish was used as there language of choice. Usually they were in a situation that forced them to do this, such as living with a family and volunteering for an extended period of time. All of these people spoke very fluidly and had no trouble understanding Spanish spoken to them at full speed.
- People Who Haven’t Lived In Spanish - These people have done a range of things from reading phrasebooks all the way to taking up to 6 weeks of Spanish courses, but they have never lived in the language. Not a single one of these people was comfortable using the language and most of them struggled to understand Spanish spoken at full speed. There were varying levels of comprehension and vocabulary, but without exception, none of them could carry a decent conversation at anything close to full speed.
Key Ingredients For Success
Based on my experiences to date, I have some solid tips if you intend to learn a second language while traveling:
- Travel Slow (or even better, stay still) - Traveling slow or living in one place for a while is infinitely more helpful when learning the language. When your always on the move, you are more frequently around other English-speakers. The faster your pace of travel the more time you spend seeing things and planning, which leaves you less time and mental energy for learning Spanish. Staying in one place allows you to get away from English and provides the time you need to actually build relationships with native speakers that will be able to help you learn.
- Travel With Only People Who Speak Spanish – If you can’t stay put and build relationships with native speakers, you’re next best option is to find people to travel with who are speaking Spanish. This provides similar benefits as staying put because it forces you to live in the language.
- Travel With 1 Person Who Speaks Spanish – Just a few days ago, we met up with a friend of ours who is from Puerto Rico and is fluent in Spanish. Already, it’s helped with my pursuit of learning Spanish because whenever I feel like it I am able to speak to her in Spanish and ask any questions I have about the language.
- Force Yourself To Only Speak Spanish – This is the best route, if you’re willing and ready to do it. I haven’t taken this measure yet, but if my progress continues to be slow, this is the next step. I do think it’s necessary to eventually get here, but I’m hoping to ease into it so I can bring Michelle along with me.
Conclusion: My Steps Forward With Spanish
My relationship with Spanish is a roller coaster. Some days, I spend a lot of time in Spanish, my ability to communicate improves, and I end the day feeling really great about it. Other days, it seems like nothing is working and I have trouble understanding the people around me at all.
One thing I can say is that it is a frustrating experience. I love interacting with people, and all I want is to get to the point where I feel comfortable doing that. I want to start conversations without immediately getting lost in the person’s Spanish.
I know what I need: more practice. The question is how to get it. Right now, my plan is to take advantage of the fact that I am traveling with a Spanish speaker by speaking as much Spanish with her as possible. At the same time, I need to help Michelle with her Spanish so we can get to the point where we spend entire days in Spanish.
Additionally, once we get through the expensive country of Costa Rica, I want to find a good volunteering opportunity and stay in one place for a while so that I can really immerse myself in the language.
Hope this was helpful! Can’t wait to share more about my travels in future posts.