Tips for Learning a Language when Travelling

So I think it’s fair to say our Spanish was pretty rusty when we arrived in Lima 2 months ago. We’re definitely not fluent now, but we have picked up some key phrases, vocab and grammar along our travels.

Here are our key tips for improving your language skills while on your travels.

Take lessons before you leave

Okay, so this isn’t strictly improving while travelling but I think it is quite an important one.

One of my pet hates is not being able to speak any of the local language (I was really frustrated when we visited Brazil and I didn’t know any Portuguese!), so Fran and I took some Spanish lessons back at home before coming. We both did Spanish at school so it wasn’t a complete blank page for us.

We took about 4 months of lessons with a private tutor coming to our house, probably once every week or two, so it wasn’t intense by any means. But we had the basics down and it helped us refresh our memories back to our GCSE Spanish.

We arrived in Lima knowing how to order a taxi, how to order at restaurant and how to check in to hotels and hostels. It was a start.

Book in to local homestays or AirBnBs

Hostels are great for meeting people and finding out where to go on your travels, but we have found they are also full of Gringos (the South American nickname for western travellers) and hence everyone speaks English, no good for practicing your Spanish, or any language really.

By staying in homestays or Airbnbs, not only is it a great way to improve your language skills but it is also a great way to experience the culture of a place a bit more than you would in a hostel.

We stayed at a homestay in Sucre, Bolivia, where we were invited to a local party. We were the only Gringos there. It was a great experience, and we met the local people and practiced our Spanish. We tried the local food and were continuously fed the local booze. It gets a lot easier to speak Spanish after a few drinks!

Take extra lessons on the road

When staying at the homestay in Sucre we also took some extra (intensive) Spanish lessons. By this point we had picked up the key phrases we needed in restaurants, shops and hostels. What we wanted to improve on was out conversational Spanish, being able to chat with the locals.

Spanish lessons in South America are also much cheaper than in the UK, and we were able to practice what we had learnt with the homestay family. We took 4 days of 3 hour lessons and by the end had a much better grasp of past, present and future tenses which helped us hold a conversation about what we had done on our travels and what we were going to do next. And while travelling, this covers about 80% of any conversation so it was really helpful.

Have a chat after a bottle of wine… or 3

We found that we were able to speak Spanish much better when we were tipsy or drunk. Sentences flowed much better, we weren’t worried about making mistakes and everything came to us a lot more easily.

In Salta we stayed at a ranch and drank quite a lot of red wine with the owners. We managed to discuss politics, world issues and all sorts in Spanish. I really don’t know where it all came from but I really enjoyed it.

Take a non-English tour

We found when we booked the 3 day Uyuni Salt Flats tour that it was cheaper to book a Spanish tour than an English tour. We figured we could also speak a bit of Spanish with the driver and it would be fine. Turns out another person on the tour didn’t speak Spanish so we ended up having to translate as well, we should have got commission!

We also took a couple of walking tours in Spanish, one by accident in Peru (we actually swapped to the English tour halfway round when we realised there was one) and another in Cordoba where there was no alternative.

A note about Argentinian Spanish, it is so fast! I think I picked up about 40% of what she was saying but understood the context. Our tour guide figured out we were struggling when she asked us to find out year of birth on a set of memorial rings representing the 200 years of independence, and we ran off to the 1800s and started stepping through all the rings one by one thinking it was a race to get through them all! Oops!

Still, it was a good way to pick up some new vocabulary!

Just keep chatting

Chat to shopkeepers, bartenders, hotel staff, anyone who will listen and speak back to you slowly and clearly. And chat about more than just the basics, we got into a conversation about BREXIT with a shopkeeper in Arequipa!

One of the most important phrases we learnt was “Puede hablame mas despacio, por favor?”, “Can you speak to me more slowly please?”. The only way to improve is to practice, sure you will make mistakes, but the only way to improve is to learn from those mistakes and improve on them next time.

This is where it helps having two of us, neither of us is fluent but we can spot each others mistakes. For example I’m terrible for confusing ‘we’ and ‘our’ in Spanish but I’m working on it, and am now much more aware of it every time I say it. Give it another few months I’m sure I’ll get there!

Watch a TV series or film on Netflix

I’m still trying to convince myself about this one after having watched Narcos and now JJ Alias, a series about Pablo Escobar’s hitman. I think if I watched it without subtitles it might pass as helping me. I did watch a program in Spanish with Spanish subtitles and that was pretty helpful to understand some of what was been said.

Do you guys have any tips for improving a language when travelling? Can we do anything differently to improve more? Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram for more travel photos @pitkinswithpassports

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