The Do’s and Don’ts of Spanish Language Immersion Abroad
By spending time in a Spanish-speaking country, you can accelerate your Spanish language learning full-throttle.
Even so, many travelers come home wondering: “why didn’t my Spanish improve at all while abroad?”
It’s a surprisingly common problem.
Don’t want to waste your golden opportunity to learn Spanish abroad?
By employing a few key strategies and avoiding major pitfalls, you are guaranteed to improve your Spanish while traveling.
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What is Spanish Language Immersion?
You’ve saved money, bought tickets, and have been working hard to learn all the fundamentals of the Spanish language. By now you’ve probably mastered some common phrases and basic vocabulary. Everyone is telling you how lucky you are to go abroad – full immersion is the only way to achieve true fluency.
We’re so used to hearing the word “immersion,” that we sometimes glaze over it without realizing its true meaning. You have already learned to immerse yourself in Spanish from home. This will be similar, but different. The goal is the same: flood your brain with Spanish at every possible opportunity. At home, you listen to Spanish podcasts and the news, watch Spanish movies, but ultimately the immersion process becomes interrupted by your daily activities. When you go to the store, the cashier addresses you in English. At school or work, everything is in English. At the bank, English. You get it.
While abroad, Spanish will permeate every second of your day, if you let it. Too many travelers get caught up with English language materials and English-speaking travel buddies, never allowing themselves to become fully immersed in their new environment and language.
Through the following do’s and don’ts, we’ll explore the ways you can boost your Spanish language learning and really extract the most value from your time abroad. We’ll also examine major mistakes made by those travelers who return home without learning a lick of Spanish.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Spanish Language Immersion Abroad
Below are all the key steps to achieve full Spanish language immersion while abroad. First, let’s start with all the do’s. These do’s highlight the best ways to more forward with Spanish language learning while on your trip:
Do be prepared.
The nerdy book-laden traveler is virtually a thing of the past. You no longer have to load up suitcases with books – just download them to an e-reader or tablet. Don’t carry hard-cover dictionaries and textbooks, download helpful Spanish learning apps and podcasts instead. While you should try to live in the moment and absorb Spanish naturally from your surroundings, you will learn significantly faster by bringing learning materials with you. Start and end your days with self-taught Spanish lessons, and reinforce these lessons as you walk the streets and see the sights.
Spanish speakers in the real world don’t come with English subtitles to help us understand (although that would be super convenient). Fortunately, we Spanish language learners can always turn to FluentU’s real-world Spanish videos to help us practice our listening skills. The FluentU video collection includes commercials, informative educational videos, movie trailers, news clips, street interviews, sing-along children’s songs, goofy YouTube sketches, and much more. This variety of colorful videos is transformed into a learning experience, as FluentU provides thorough, interactive subtitles and allows you to keep track of learned vocabulary – it will even match your current language lessons to relevant videos so you can see how your new words, phrases and grammatical patterns are used in real life situations. Before you hit the streets of a new country, get a preview by checking out all that FluentU has to offer.
Do learn the basics first.
You will have an infinitely easier time learning Spanish abroad if you’ve conquered the initial linguistic hurdles. Fortunately, Spanish a relatively simple language for native English-speakers – there is no new alphabet to learn, no intense differences in grammar or sentence structure. First, learn about the best ways to teach yourself Spanish from home. Spend a few weeks familiarizing yourself with Spanish pronunciation, and introductory vocabulary. Learn greetings and key travel phrases that will help you get by. Drill yourself until you no longer make common mistakes with your basic Spanish. You’ll want to be able to understand, to some degree, what people are saying. You don’t want to spend precious travel time locked away in a hotel room with basic materials. While abroad, it’s time to get out there and learn through experience!
Do read the local newspaper.
You might luck out and find fresh copies of the newspaper at your hotel or hostel. If not, pick one up every morning on the way to breakfast. To improve your Spanish reading skills, circle vocabulary words that you haven’t seen before, even if you understand them through context. Keep a notebook and make lists of new vocabulary. Newspapers aren’t just to improve Spanish comprehension, they will also keep you informed about the politics, culture and current events of the city. The newspaper is a great way to learn about upcoming festivals, concerts, parades, plays and more that will be going on in the area. Here’s a list of great Spanish news publications that you won’t want to miss.
Do pay close attention to regional accents.
Spanish is notoriously diverse. You may be prepared to relearn Spanish in every country you visit – but did you know that there are enormous variations in Spanish between regions, and even between towns and cities? Spanish mixes and blends with indigenous languages in many parts of the world. The more isolated a community, the more unique its way of speaking. In every new location you visit, stay alert and pick out strange words you haven’t heard before. Categorize new words and pronunciations by region in a notebook.
Do hang out around kids.
Sure, some of us fear children for their brutal honestly – always innocently saying things like, “you’re so sweaty” or “how’d you get so chubby?” But children will also be the first to say “hi,” the first to ask you about yourself and the first to befriend you. They may not understand why you don’t speak their language, but they will always give you a chance. If you find yourself wandering a rural community and have nobody to talk to, start by making conversation with a kid. Ask them about school, friends, homework, pets, family or games. One sad but true note of warning: be cautious, some children in urban areas of Latin America are manipulated by adults to scam foreigners.
Do get involved.
Look into volunteer activities that you could get involved with while abroad. You could try hooking up with NGOs and other community organizations through Workaway, where part-time work can be exchanged for room and board almost anywhere in the world. Getting involved helps you to find commonality with locals and fellow travelers, allowing you to make friends and contacts more easily.
While wandering a new city, look at flyers and see what events are happening. Attend concerts, cultural events, parades, museum openings and anything else that may contribute to your understanding of local culture and language. The more you get yourself out there, engaged, the more likely you are to interact with people and improve your Spanish conversational skills.
Now that you know what you should do, let’s take a look at the major don’ts for traveling language learners:
Don’t get overwhelmed.
Understand that, as much as you have prepared yourself, you will need to get adjusted once you arrive at your destination. I’m not talking about unpacking your suitcases – I’m talking about getting used to Spanish in its natural habitat. You can study, cram vocabulary and listen to audio recordings day in and day out, but if this is your first trip to a Spanish-speaking country, chances are you will be quite surprised by just how little you know.
Even advanced students are struck by this phenomenon. “I’m in advanced Spanish but it feels like I don’t know any Spanish!” This first time you are truly surrounded by Spanish, you might feel overwhelmed. Spanish is fast. The words blur together. Some syllables are totally disregarded. Slang words run rampant. If you’re in a coastal area or in the Caribbean – good luck, kid.
The key is to stay relaxed and not beat yourself up over some perceived inability. Stay confident. Never stop talking. Keep practicing at every possible opportunity, and within the first few days you will start to see noticeable improvements. After weeks or months, you could have the local dialect down pat!
Don’t spend all your time in touristy areas.
Urban havens for foreigners, often dubbed “Gringolandia” (Gringoland) or something similar, are not places where you want to be. It can be fun to meet up with fellow travelers, hear about their experiences and find travel buddies. It can also be a huge relief when shopkeepers can help you make purchases and navigate the streets in English. However, far too many travelers never leave Gringolandia and, as a result, their Spanish never improves much. Not to mention, they waste tons of money on unnecessarily expensive food and commodities. Get outside the tourist destinations filled with souvenir-oriented window displays and overpriced sunscreen. Go to the places where people live. Go out at night where local people go out to mingle and dance. Find the restaurants that are packed with locals at lunchtime.
Don’t rely on English for entertainment.
At night, after a long day of learning and exploring, you may just want to kick back in front of the television at your hostel, hop on the internet to chat with friends, listen to some tunes or read a book. All that is well and good but, for the love of god, don’t do any of those things in English. If you are committed to taking advantage of your time abroad and really mastering Spanish, then doing anything in English will set you back enormously. When you read an English book, what language are you thinking in? English, obviously.
Watching TV in English, reading English books and scrolling through English language social media pages reinforces the idea that English is your go-to “normal” language. It keeps you thinking in English. This ultimately strengthens the feeling that English is inside your comfort zone, and Spanish is far outside your comfort zone. The goal should be to coax your brain into feeling totally comfortable with Spanish. Go ahead and do all your favorite leisure activities, but make sure you do them all in Spanish. Leave that iPod full of English entertainment at home – or, at the very least, load it up with Spanish language goodies! Check out this discussion of how to enhance learning with great Spanish music.
Don’t be afraid.
It’s intimidating to have to operate in a new language. While your online conversation partners, classmates and Spanish-speaking friends back home were all really nice and understanding, there’s a far greater chance that you’ll encounter some not-so-nice people out there. A grumpy shopkeeper, mean tour guide or snobby waitress could laugh at you or comment on your Spanish – or maybe they simply won’t have the patience to understand you if you speak rough Spanish. In this context, “it has happened to the best of us” is not just a saying. It’s 100% true. All the best Spanish language learners have had negative reactions to their Spanish at some point, and they have soldiered on. Laugh at yourself, smile at those who wish to bring you down, keep talking and march forward with your language learning.
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