For me, learning the language has always been one of the most fulfilling aspects of travelling to a new country. In fact, my first ever solo trip was a full time language course in Spain, and it’s still one of my fondest travel memories.
Since then I’ve always made an effort to learn some of the local language wherever I am, and it never fails to add a fun and rewarding dimension to my trips. If I’m based somewhere long term I will usually take classes, however for shorter stays I still try to learn as much as possible through self teaching.
Spanish is one language that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time studying overseas, and I’ve since learned that there are many different variables to consider when deciding to do this.
In this post I’ll run through each of them, and hopefully by the end of it you’ll be on the verge of heading overseas to make Spanish your official second (or third or fourth) language 🙂
Spain or Latin America?
Every prospective Spanish student wonders the same thing – “Should I study in Spain or South America?”
I’ve actually done both – studying Spanish for 5 weeks in a language school in southern Spain and then again for 9 weeks at a language school in Peru and also Ecuador. There’s obviously pros and cons to each, which I’ll lay out below.
Studying in Spain
Purists would argue that you should study in Spain because you’ll be learning the “official” Spanish (or Castilian, as it’s sometimes called). In a way that kind of makes sense – the language did originate there after all. You’ll also be situated in Europe, with France, Italy, Switzerland and Portugal just a train ride away, but keep in mind that Western Europe is one of the world’s most expensive regions.
As for the language itself, the Spanish in Spain is slightly more complicated, the one notable difference being the extra verb form “vosotros” (basically that means you’ll have an extra form to learn for each verb – annoying, but no biggie).
There are also small pronounciation differences, for example, the Spanish have the lisp when they pronounce their C’s and Z’s (i.e. gra-thi-as) while the Latin Americans pronounce it as an S. The letter V also varies – the Latin Americans pronounce it as a V while the Spanish pronounce it as a B. Again, not a big deal but worth noting.
One thing you’ll definitely notice is people in Spain speak significantly faster than the Latin Americans, and I found this made them a little harder to understand. For advanced speakers it won’t matter so much, but it can make quite a difference for beginners.
Lastly, it’s important to consider where in Spain you want to study – every region speaks a different dialect and this will impact your learning. For example, I studied in Andalusia where I was often spoken to in the Andaluz dialect. I was a beginner at the time so this wasn’t ideal for me (of course, this problem is easily avoided by studying in Madrid).
- Situated in Europe with many travel opportunities
- “Official” Spanish (although with many different variants and accents)
- Beautiful weather, food, excellent tourist infrastructure
- More expensive
- Many different dialects in the country
- Spanish is slightly more complicated
Studying in Latin America
People argue that you should study in Latin America because their version of Spanish is more widely spoken, however this isn’t entirely true. Every country in Latin America has their own unique style of Spanish with very different accents, words, phrases and slang. For example, I studied in Peru for two months and when I visited Colombia I suddenly found it extremely difficult to understand anyone. Then when I visited Argentina it was the same thing all over again. The takeaway here is, regardless of whether you study in Spain or Latin America, the Spanish you’ll learn is going to be a little bit different to everyone else’s.
In my opinion, the true benefit of studying here is you can travel around the continent and everyone will still be speaking Spanish, even if it is a little different. Therefore if you’re looking to study for an extended amount of time, say, 6 months or more, Latin America would definitely be the better choice. You could experience 3 or 4 countries, all the while continuing your studies and familiarising yourself with several accents and phrases.
Also Latin America is still mostly comprised of developing countries meaning everything, including your tuition fees, will be far cheaper than in Spain. I remember my classes in Peru only cost me around $60 a week, whereas in Spain it was at least 3x that.
As for the language – it’s simpler and easier here. They speak slower and the grammar is slightly more basic as I discussed earlier. I did come across a lot more slang here, although I’m not sure whether it’s because my Spanish improved and I just noticed it more or if that’s actually representative of the language itself. Either way – I found the people in LatAm much easier to understand.
One last thing to note is that travel around South America isn’t exactly cheap or easy. Flights between countries are actually very expensive, and taking buses is generally long and arduous. It definitely won’t be like Spain where you can jump on a train and be across the border within a few hours. Keep this in mind if you plan on country hopping.
- Cheaper cost of living and tuition
- Large variety of countries to choose from
- The Spanish is simpler and easier to learn
- General travel issues with developing countries (hygiene/safety/transport/tummy issues)
- Each country speaks a slightly different Spanish, none of which are Castilian (if that matters to you).
As you know I’m all about stretching dollars so Latin America is generally my first choice. The many different countries to experience and the the lower cost of living is just such a big plus for me. Also, much of Latin America is still developing and the continent(s) is changing quite quickly. While Spain probably won’t evolve too much over the next 10 years Latin America certainly will, and that urges me to see the continent now before it enters first world territory. Of course, that’s just me, and your priorities are bound to be very different!
Which should you choose?
Obviously there’s no right answer here – it largely depends on your preferences and your reasons for learning the language. I think the only real question you need to ask yourself is, where do you intend to use it?
If you forsee yourself spending more of your life in Spain, learn it in Spain. If you intend to spend a lot of time in Latin America, learn it in Latin America. Pretty obvious, right? Of course, if funds allow it I’d definitely advocate trying to experience both – they’re each incredibly fulfilling in their own ways.
How to study?
You’ll also need to decide “how” you want to learn the language. Some people just show up, find a bunch of language partners on Couchsurfing and then teach themselves with a Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone course. Others enrol in an intense 30 hour per week course and are conversational within a month (I’m a big fan of this). So what are your options?
This is not affordable for everyone, particularly in Spain. Good language schools cost money, but in my opinion a good school is definitely worth every cent. If you’re a complete beginner, I would say a month in a language course is the best possible way to get started. This ensures you create an excellent foundation and have a good understanding of the basics. Remember – habits are easy to make and hard to break.
To find my school in South America I used the site languagecourse.net. You can compare a large collection of schools there and also read reviews from other students, which is always helpful. To find my school in Spain I used STA Travel. Their programmes are a little pricier (I was working at the time so had a much bigger budget), but the school I ended up at was incredible, and I would highly recommend them.
Things to look for in a language school
- Location – Ensure the school is located in a central location and close to public transport. If the school is located out in the suburbs your transportation costs will skyrocket, and you’ll also be far away from the action which is never fun. Also, consider the cost of living in the city you’ve chosen – living in Madrid will obviously be more expensive than living in Cadiz.
- Price – Price varies a lot between language schools; make sure you shop around!
- Facilities – Some schools will come fully equipped with a gym, pool, restaurant, shuttle service, perhaps even dance and cooking classes. However, this usually results in higher fees too, so make sure you’re going to use the facilities if you’re paying for them! At the very least, make sure the school offers the essentials, such as wifi and course materials.
- Reviews – Check sites like languagecourse.net and read through the reviews of previous students – these will give you the best idea of whether the teaching and facilities are of a decent quality.
While studying in Spain I had 1 on 1 conversation classes, and this sped up my progress exponentially. If your budget allows, I’d highly recommend some sort of private tuition.
However, it can be quite difficult to find a “good” and affordable private tutor. I think the best way is through word-of-mouth, so ask other students, check out the notice boards in cafes etc and look on sites like Craigslist (or put up an ad of your own). It’s also common that your language school will offer this service, and while it may be more expensive you can usually be confident the teaching quality will be high.
If you’re an English speaker, Spanish is actually quite an easy language to grasp and you can get quite far with self teaching. I recommend the website Duolingo, which has an incredible free course that covers near everything there is to know about Spanish grammar, all broken down into small, easy to follow lessons. As mentioned earlier, you can also use a programme like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur (these cost money however). For online dictionaries, grammar explanations and translations, SpanishDict is my go-to site.
Whichever method you choose, you’ll need a language partner to practise with. I actually think the best place to find one is Couchsurfing – most countries will have a language group and you can simply post your request for a language partner there. You could also try a site like Interpals – another free language networking site. Of course, most language schools will also have a language partner programme to help you out with this.
Of course, organised study isn’t the only option. Many volunteer programmes throughout Latin America offer daily Spanish classes to assist you with your role, and the environment you’ll be in is perfect for Spanish learning (often lower socioeconomic communities where English is hardly spoken). Au pairing is also possible in Spain and Latin America, which will allow you to live with a local family and practise your Spanish constantly with native speakers. The great thing about these options is that your room and board will usually be covered, allowing you to stay in the country for a lot longer than you normally would be able to.
How long do I need?
People often wonder, is it worthwhile to just do a one week or two week course? My opinion is this – it depends.
If you’re from New Zealand (like me) heading to Spain for a two week course seems like a bit much. Just getting to Spain and back is already around 3 days of travel, and you’ll probably need another week or so to beat the jet lag. In that case, I’d recommend at least a month to get your money’s worth. On the other hand, if you’re from the Europe then a two week trip down to Spain would work perfectly.
As for actual learning time, you could expect to learn a lot in 2 weeks. Spanish is quite easy to grasp for native English speakers, and many of the intense courses (25-30 hours per week) are designed to have people fluent in 6 months. If you attend your classes, you can expect to move quite quickly.
For those who are planning a big backpacking trip of Latin America, my advice would be to spend the first two weeks in an intensive Spanish course – it will change the dimension of your trip entirely!
As you can see, there’s quite a bit to think about when deciding to head overseas and study a language. To some people it can seem odd (why would you go on holiday to study?) but to others it is incredibly rewarding. In the end, just go with your gut and enjoy it. It’s a beautiful language and whichever avenue you choose I’m sure you’ll have a blast.