Taking some time out to live in a foreign country and perfect your Spanish skills will be one of the greatest experiences you’ll have in your life. To get the best out of your trip, you’ll want to progress as fast as possible. Not only so you come away with a more developed skill, but also so you can enjoy it more while it’s happening.
The biggest mistake people make on Spanish immersion trips is thinking all they need to do is book a flight and the rest will just fall into place. The truth is, you can spend years in a country and pick up almost nothing. Approaching your trip in the right way is key. Here are some steps you should take to ensure that your brave endeavour is not just an expensive failure.
1. Enroll in a class and continue structured learning.
Going to class doesn’t need to stop just because you left your home country. You should actually enroll in some kind of structured education as soon as you arrive, whether it’s evening classes (usually cheaper) or private tuition. Yes, this eats into your travel budget, but you don’t have to take as many lessons as you were taking at home. Language tuition is a good way to stay on your toes and maintain good habits. Your independent learning will progress faster if you have something structured on the side. And a massive you’re likely to meet people who are going through the same things you are. That’s a huge bonus!
2. Try a homestay.
For the fastest and cheapest Spanish immersion, a homestay is probably your best option – but it might not always be available and it also carries a degree of risk. In a homestay environment you get to stay with a local family in return for cash or helping them out with things at home. Depending on where you go, your host family might not speak any English which will leave you fully immersed and having to learn fast. Another bonus is that you tend to get a cosy family environment from it and free meals.
The downside, of course, is that it’s an intense experience to have with a bunch of strangers, and if you find that you don’t like the family then it could make your life miserable. Just make sure you read reviews and try to find a reputable organisation to set up your stay – that way, the odds are in your favour that it’ll be a wonderful, enriching experience.
3. Try volunteering.
Employers can be pretty picky about your language ability. But volunteering organisations tend to be more easy-going because they really need volunteers. Conservation projects, local farming and teaching English to children are common volunteering opportunities in Latin American countries and present an amazing opportunity to speak with native speakers.
Just be careful you don’t get ripped off. ‘Voluntourism’ is generally aimed at rich people looking for an all-inclusive ticket to finding themselves. You’re best to scope out the situation yourself when you arrive, and apply for positions directly in organisations that interest you. In Recife, Brazil, the Happy Child charity works to keep street children on the right track, and you can volunteer as a mentor or activity leader. Or if you like the look of the Galapagos Islands, you could sign up to help save sea turtles.
4. Get a job in hospitality.
Becoming a bartender or waitress can really flex your language skills quickly. You’ll find yourself having to react to unpredictable situations and, at the same time, make small talk with local people which is always good practice. In order to get a job like this you’ll probably have to be at least at an intermediate level. But this provides real Spanish immersion, and once you start doing it you’ll find yourself improving much faster.
5. Watch television and movies in your target language.
There’ll be a great temptation to spend a lot of time watching Netflix shows, particularly when you’ve just arrived and haven’t met anyone yet. But this is damaging to your progress because it breaks your immersion and gets you thinking in English again. Instead, watch the local news, children’s cartoons, game shows and movies, even if they seem to be low-budget trash. This will really help with your comprehension skills while you’re waiting for opportunities to practice with people in real life, and it can also help you to understand local culture and politics.
6. Make friends with native speakers.
This is by far the best method of learning quickly, because you’ll find yourself discussing a wide variety of topics in the least predictable of ways. As you connect deeper with people you’ll find your skills improving almost without even realising it. And when this realisation eventually hits it can be euphorically satisfying. This, in turn, motivates you to go even further and learn more. Your experience then just snowballs in value.
Of course, making good friends can be hard enough in your own native language, never mind in a second or third language. But because I believe so strongly in this as the most important aspect of any travel experience, I’ve already dedicated several articles that will help to make things easier for you.