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Why you should learn Spanish to travel South America

There’s nothing more frustrating than when you arrive in a new country and want nothing more than to meet the locals and get under the country’s skin, but you quickly discover that they speak very little English and your phrase book, though it may help you book a room and order food, isn’t going to help you scratch the surface.

When I was travelling in Indonesia back on my gap year, I had that feeling of frustration every day, but I didn’t really realise what I was missing until I embarked on a 3 month journey around South America at the beginning of 2015. I study BA Spanish and Portuguese at university, and my language skills meant that travelling around Brazil for a month and then Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay was a completely different experience to the one I had in Indonesia.

Learn Spanish to travel South America

In parts of South America, unlike a lot of Asia, the level of English spoken is pretty low and so it can be much harder to get around relying on just English. What’s more the languages are relatively easy to learn (trust me!), and will be useful once your South American travels are over, both featuring in the top 6 most widely spoken languages in the world! Bonus for the CV right there.

Spanish should be your priority, as the majority of the countries in South America are Spanish-speaking, but no South American trip is complete without a visit to Brazil(I might be a tiny bit biased!), where a bit of Portuguese will be a huge help(I take my hat off to anyone that manages to travel Brazil with zero Portuguese). For those of you that think Portuguese is basically just Spanish with an accent (never say that to a Brazilian), you might have a nasty surprise when you rock up in Brazil expecting your Spanish to get you through.

Portuguese Spanish Meme

Learning a new language can be a hell of a lot easier than you think, and will be so worth the effort. Here are my top reasons for making the effort to at least learn Spanish to travel South America, followed by my top tips to how to learn a language for travelling. 

So why should I bother?

  • Getting around

Pretty obviously, general practicalities are far easier when you speak the language. In Brazil, for example, even in popular tourists spots few people speak English, which can make finding out where buses leave from or what the fastest/cheapest/most comfortable way from A to B is a complete headache. Being able to ask the locals the best way to do something can help you save both time and money!

  • Haggling

In South America, as is true world over, there’s often a locals price and a ‘gringo’ price. Having a decent grasp of the language means you can haggle over prices and shop around to get the best deal. The more you can knock prices down, the further your hard-earned pennies will take you.

Sucre Market, Bolivia: Learn Spanish to travel South America

  • Staying safe

You’re far less likely to get lost if you can ask people for directions, and actually understand the answers. Chances are, the response you get from someone isn’t going to sound anything like the set response in your phrase book. Needless to say, there are plenty of places in South America you don’t want to wander unwittingly into, so being able to understand someone’s directions may prove to be fairly vital (touch wood).

  • Making friends

Getting to know other travellers is brilliant, but there comes a point when you wonder why you’ve gone all that way just to hang out with people who are, quite frankly, very like the ones you hang out with at home.

Being able to speak the language means you can have a conversation with locals that goes beyond the superficial. And it’s not just the locals, in a lot of South America the hostels are full of South American travellers (you can’t move for Argentinians in Brazil), who are really friendly and will generally try to speak English with you, but after a few beers they will inevitably (wouldn’t you?!) start speaking amongst themselves in their own language, and if you can’t join in you’ll miss out on the fun!

  • Experiencing local life

If you make a few local friends, chances are they will give you the low-down on the best beaches, the best off-the-beaten track spots and the bars where the locals go in the evenings (which are generally one hell of a lot cheaper). After all, why bother going half way round the world to sit in a bar that could be anywhere?

So, where do I start?

You’re not going to be asked to write any essays, or probably write anything for that matter, so don’t stress about the grammar. You need to learn how to speak and understand the language as it’s spoken in the countries you’re going to (bear in mind European versions of the languages sound pretty different to their South American relatives), preferably from the comfort of your own bed.

Languages Meme: Learn Spanish to travel South America

This is one of the best resources on the internet, teaching you useful language in bite-size chunks, with spoken clips so you can start to improve your listening skills. Commit yourself to 10 minutes a day and see how far you get! If you took a language at school this is a great way to refresh your memory.

  • Michel Thomas 

Michel Thomas’ audiobooks are available to borrow from most libraries, and are a brilliant way to learn a language. He starts by telling you all the words that you already know in your target language (i.e all the words that are the same in English), so you get a confidence boost from the word go! There are courses in German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian amongst others. Perfect for listening to whilst doing the washing up, but maybe not in public, as it involves quite a lot of talking to yourself!

  • Films

How many hours a week of Netflix do you get through? Give up just a few of these and watch a film in Spanish or Portuguese instead! I find the best way to learn from films is to which them twice, with English substitutes on the first time around to make sure you understand the plot, and then again with Spanish or Portuguese subtitles so you can see how the words being spoken are written! Practising both your listening and reading without even getting out of bed?! Too easy!

  • Language Exchange

Wherever you are in the world, you should be able to find a language exchange that takes place in your area, where people meet up to speak in certain languages, or a tandem partner system where you find someone to meet up with for conversation in the language you’re learning, which you repay with conversation in English. These activities are sometimes advertised on community boards, on Facebook groups or on sites like Gumtree or Couchsurfing.

In Southampton for example there’s the Southampton Language Exchange, which connects tandem partners, and also organises a weekly meet up where all languages are spoken. Have a look online and see what’s available in your area. Practice with native speakers is the best way to get your confidence up!

Happy learning, and happy travelling!

Do you think travelling is better when you speak the country’s language? Did you learn Spanish to travel South America, and did it help? Have you got any language learning tips? Comment away! 


6 thoughts on “Why you should learn Spanish to travel South America

  1. Kia Marie Hunt

    This is such a great article, as a student of Spanish and Portuguese too, I totally agree!
    And I really think even if locals are friendly to you when you speak English, they warm to you on a different level if they see that you are making an effort with their language, gives you a real sense of achievement 🙂

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