Quit my job. Check.
One-way ticket to Buenos Aires. Check.
Backpack that’s way heavier than it should be. Check.
Spanish knowledge. Zero.
I was about to fly to South America for 4-months. I was going to explore the places in my dreams, and of course, I was going to learn Spanish along the way. But little did I know, there were other lessons in store for me:
1. People want you to succeed
One of the first things I noticed is that I would barely muster a word or two in Spanish before someone said to me “Hablas español muy bien!” (You speak Spanish very well!). It was a clear exaggeration, given my speaking ability at the time rivaled that of a 2-year old, but it really showed that they appreciated the fact that I was trying.
As a beginner who doesn’t have much confidence speaking in a foreign language, it’s normal to have a knot in your stomach every time you have to say something. But after hearing people tell you again and again how “well” you speak, it encourages you to come out of your shell a little bit, and just go for it.
2. But…they will “switch” on you
I quickly realized that most native Spanish speakers I met spoke English much better than I spoke Spanish. As soon as they figured out that my Spanish wasn’t great, they would instantly switch the conversation to English.
Waiter: “Hola, listo?” (“Hello, ready?”)
Me: “Si, me gustaría…uhhh…tener…hamburgesa?” (Yes, I’d like…uhhh…to have…burger?)
Waiter: “Sure, do you want fries with that?”
Generally, people think they’re doing you a favor by switching to a language that you’re more comfortable with. But it can be pretty frustrating when you are a learner who needs practice. So what do you do when this happens?
Fight through it. I’ve had whole conversations where I’m speaking broken Spanish to someone, and they are responding to me in English. Better yet, just tell them that “Quiero practicar español” (“I want to practice Spanish”), and most of the time they will happily play along.
As you improve over time, you’ll notice that fewer and fewer people will switch on you like this, and eventually, when it stops happening altogether, that’s when you’ll know that you’ve made it!
3. Beware the tourist bubble
Travel is a great way to meet some outstanding, like-minded people. However, most of these people will be travelers, just like you.
I had made a great group of friends in Peru; they were Australians, Brits, and South Africans. We traveled together for a month and it was some of the best times I had on my trip. But at some point, I came to the realization that I had not spoken a single sentence of Spanish in weeks!
This can easily happen when you’re on the tourist trail. In many destinations, every hotel, restaurant, and tour agency speaks English. And sometimes, one of your travel companions will speak the local language well enough to communicate on behalf of everyone.
In my case, I was off the hook. I didn’t have to speak Spanish. All the logistics were taken care of and I could just relax and enjoy myself.
But I couldn’t help but feel that as a result, I didn’t develop a real connection with the place I was visiting, and the people who lived there.
4. A bit of extra effort brings amazing rewards
To try and break out of the tourist bubble, I decided that I needed to set off on my own. I hopped on a minibus to a small, out of the way town in the Colombian coffee zone.
Walking through the town square at night, I passed by a bunch of teenagers who called out to me (apparently they had never seen an Asian person in real-life before).
“A single word can turn into a conversation. A single conversation can turn into a friendship.”
Every day, we come across social situations where we could potentially say “Hello”, make a joke, or ask someone how their day is going. But too often, the little voice inside us says “Nah. Maybe next time.” and we go on about our business.
I ignored that voice. I walked over to the group, clumsily introduced myself and told them where I was from. Next thing I knew an hour had passed, and through a lot of mumbling, smiling and hand waving, I managed to learn a bit about them, and apparently had amused them enough that one of the boys invited me to his home.
The following day, I rode on the back of a jeep, weaving through the lush rolling hills. When I arrived at the boy’s farmhouse, the father gave me a tour of their plantation, where they grew coffee plants, bananas, and fruits I had never seen before. The mother grabbed one of the chickens from the yard and proceeded to make us a traditional home cooked meal. I was treated like an honored guest, and they wanted nothing in return.
5. Learn now and reap the benefits later
After returning home and feeling inspired by my trip, I finally became fluent in Spanish by studying for 9 months and taking online lessons with a Spanish tutor.
But my biggest regret was not spending that time to learn Spanish before my trip. It had crossed my mind, but as the trip got closer, and with so many things left to do, I never got around to it. Part of me naively believed that I could just pick up the language as I traveled, and simply being immersed in the environment would be enough.
If your goal is to learn a language for travel, then start today. If you’re a beginner and want to become conversational then start at least 6 months before your upcoming trip. Every hour you spend learning will pay off multiple times during your travels.
Review your Memrise decks every day, study up on grammar, and start practicing while you’re at home. So that when your trip starts, you can enjoy the rich experiences that another language brings you.
Chi Fang is an entrepreneur and language enthusiast who speaks Spanish, Mandarin and is currently studying Polish. He lives in Canada but frequently travels the world as a digital nomad.
He is the Founder of Verbalicity, a leading online Spanish school.