Learning Spanish in South America is something I have wanted to do ever since I left high school. In my opinion it is much easier learning a new language when you actually live in that country and are exposed to the language on a daily basis. Although I should have, I actually didn’t learn much English during eight years of English classes at high school (in fact my English was pretty poor even after eight years, because I didn’t pay much attention). I only became fluent when I worked as an Au Pair in England for six months.

I had some very minor prior Spanish knowledge before we came to South America, as I had some Spanish at school. However, that was a veeeeeeery long time ago and while I remembered the odd verb declinations my grammar knowledge was literally non-existent. Chris had no prior knowledge of the language at all, so our challenge was to become fluent within nine months in the sense that we don’t want to have to think before being able to say a sentence.

Learning

You can take Spanish classes in almost every country in South and Central America. Due to impending work commitments in Peru, we narrowed our search down to the surrounding countries though and after a bit of research it turned out that Bolivia has got some good quality schools and cheap prices. Our friends Dalene and Pete praised the city of Sucre as a wonderful place to live in for a while, and as Sucre also has plenty of Spanish schools, that’s where we headed. It was the right decision as we fell head over heels in love with Sucre.

We visited about 5 different Spanish schools to get a feel for the different offers, but the one that stood out to us was the South America Spanish school. The lovely director, Bertha, was warm and welcoming and we knew immediately that we would be in good hands with her. It turned out that our gut instinct proved to be spot on and we ended up extending our three-week Spanish course to nearly six weeks in total. The school was located in a quiet building, the study rooms were very bright and airy, and our kitchen had endless supplies of tea and coffee. We took private classes (3 hours per day) each and both of our teachers were excellent (hello Edith and Silvia!). The classes were evenly broken down into grammar, conversation and reading/comprehension.

learning spanish in south america sas school bolivia

The South America Spanish school premises

What I liked about my classes was that I didn’t just stay in the classroom all day. My teacher took me out to a museum, a market, the beautiful local graveyard, and even a march on women’s rights (I asked if we can go along as I worked on a few women’s rights projects in Cambodia, so was naturally very interested in this). This way I not only learned tonnes about the local culture, but I was also able to practise my Spanish with locals.

learning spanish in south america protest march

Me on a women’s rights march – that dog is a policemen by the way who was dancing and entertaining the crowd throughout the entire time (why do German policemen not wear dog costumes like that?)

Bertha really made sure that all of her students had the chance to learn something about the Bolivian culture too, so she organized cooking classes in her house, dinners with other students and teachers, we watched a crazy local football game, we learned a very confusing Bolivian dice game, we had film nights and we even went to the Oruro carnival together. She also organizes volunteering options for those who are interested. So if you are thinking of learning Spanish in South America I can highly recommend the South America Spanish school.

learning spanish in south america bolivian dice game

The rules of this game were so confusing that even the Bolivians didn’t understand them. Somehow we managed to come fourth though and Chris even got a free drink for throwing five sixes in one go, which apparently never happens.

learning spanish in south america football game

This football game included five red cards, including a goal keeper and manager!

learning spanish in south america lunch

A teacher and student lunch with typical Bolivian food

So after four months in South America, how are we doing on the Spanish front? While we are by no means fluent yet, we are actually able to have a simple conversation with locals now. It sometimes still involves hand and feet, but we can (usually) get our points across. We are working on improving our Spanish all the time though and are hoping that we will get to a decent fluency within the next five months. Undoubtedly we will continue to make lots of mistakes, but at least they keep the locals entertained, for example when Chris said this to his teacher:

“Cuando era huevo…” (when I was an egg). He was of course supposed to say: “Cuando era joven…” (when I was young). 🙂

Have you ever learned a foreign language? If so, what was the funniest mistake you have ever made?

 

 

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About Tammyonthemove

Tammy & Chris are a couple hailing from Germany and England, meaning between them they are efficient and polite, but unable to talk about football. Find out why they stopped pushing pens around the British civil service to travel the world on their blog.

25 Thoughts on “Can you learn Spanish in 9 months?

  1. Though I took Spanish for many years in high school and college, my Spanish-speaking skills are pretty pathetic. I remember a couple mistakes I made while trying to speak Spanish to a taxi driver in Costa Rica a few years back. 1) “estoy embarazado” – I was trying to say I was embarrassed, but what I was actually saying was that I was pregnant (oops!) 2) “estoy casada” – I meant to convey that I was tired, but what I actually said was that I was married. Both mistakes got big laughs from the taxi driver!
    Justine recently posted…A Guide to Motorbiking Nusa LembonganMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on May 3, 2014 at 5:51 pm said:

      Ha ha, I have made the exact two mistakes too Justine! Too funny! Those words are so easy to confuse though.

  2. One of the highlights of our trip so far was our stint at a language school in Mexico. We are still working on it, but even the basics has made it so much easier to get around. And the people of Latin America are very accommodating and happy to let you practice!
    Emily recently posted…We Love SantiagoMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on May 4, 2014 at 8:21 am said:

      I agree. It makes your travels so much easier if you can speak the language a little. You are getting treated less like a gringo and more like a guest I think.

  3. First, that language school in Bolivia sounds fantastic! I love that they take you out of the classroom and give you some hands on experience to supplement all the book/technical learning. Truly the only way to learn a language is to speak it and make plenty of mistakes, but by being out in the world, I bet you can get a really good idea fairly quickly of what vocab you need, which is great.

    Second, for not having much Spanish background before you started, it sounds like you’ve made a lot of great progress (due in no small part to your dedication, I’m sure!). The little mistakes you make along the way are all just part of learning the language, and honestly, generally the more awkward/hilarious the mistake, the more likely you are to learn the word/term/grammatical point and not make the error again! I can’t think of anything particularly embarrassing, although when I was living in France while in highschool and trying to improve my French fluency, I did accidentally tell them that I had a bunch of “corners” in my pocket as opposed to “coins”… I didn’t know the words was “pieces” so simply went with “coins”, so obviously there was a bit of confusion at first, but you know, I’ve never made that mistake again! 🙂
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (& More!) About: LAOSMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on May 4, 2014 at 8:23 am said:

      I agree Steph. I met one student who was just far too shy to even try and speak to locals. I think you can only learn it if you jump into the deep end! Otherwise it us a waste of money and time.

  4. What a great blog post! Thank you for sharing this! That spanish school in Bolivia, and especially your teacher Bertha, sounds perfect! We are going to South America later this summer, and are actually thinking of taking spanish lessons somewhere. Was thinking of Antigua in Guatemala, cause a friend of mine has good experience with a school there. But will definitely check out this one in Bolivia! Thanks!

    I learned Deutsch in high school and college. Don’t remember much though, unfortunately, since it’s been a while. But I do understand some when people are speaking, and can still read it, but can’t speak much. The Deutsch grammar is a bit complicated :). Hope to learn it again more fluently some day, maybe live in Deutschland for a while.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 4, 2014 at 8:26 am said:

      Thanks Maria. We were thinking of going to Guatemala initially too, but I am glad we went for Bolivia. The accent there is very nice and easy to understand. I think Chris can feel your pain with German. It is a whole different beast of a language and while Spanish only has verb declinations, German also has conjugations. It must be hard to learn.

  5. I think going to classes is essential to learn a language properly, at least for me. I did it when I went to the UK years ago to learn English and it helped me so much. I’m now trying to learn Spanish, I’m currently in the South of Spain but there are no classes here where I am, so I’m doing an online course and trying to practice when ever I get the chance, but I can tell it isn’t the same than taking a course.

    I love how you do several activities whilst learning, it’s a great way to also know more about the local culture. Keep going! 🙂
    Franca recently posted…The 7 Things We Miss From AsiaMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on May 4, 2014 at 8:28 am said:

      I think if you are taking an online course you wont have the interaction with a teacher, which is also practising your listening and comprehension. So I agree, having a teacher is probably better. Do you find though that with your knowledge of Italian it is a but easier?

  6. I have studied Spanish immersion style in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Spain. It is such an amazing experience!! I think learning about the local culture and getting that insider perspective is as valuable as the language instruction. I very much recommend going to a Spanish speaking country to learn in this way, especially one where you can easily afford 1:1 instruction. I got so much further with my studies in Central America than Spain simply because it was 1:1 and not in a class.
    Sharon recently posted…Off the beaten track – travelling through the Guianas part 3My Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on May 4, 2014 at 8:31 am said:

      If you are a beginner I’d always do 1:1 Sharon. Everybody has got a different affinity for languages and a different speed to learning too. Once you know the grammar then group lessons can be quite helpful as well though as you can practise group conversations. I prefer 1:1 though.

  7. I have the same goals and plans. We want to spend a lot of time in South America and definitely want to start off somewhere where we can really learn the language and it not cost us too dearly in time or money. I like the sound of the “real life experiences” and speaking Spanish during your time at the school in Bolivia.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 4, 2014 at 8:34 am said:

      Bolivia would be perfect fir you them Corinne. It offers one if the cheapest courses in SA and the country is just beautiful!

  8. That school sounds fantastic! I took an intensive Mandarin course when I first moved to Shanghai. It was three hours a day, five days a week, for three months. I did learn the basics well, but we never left the classroom so my confidence on the street never really improved. By the time we left China two years later, I could have basic conversations with taxi drivers and market ladies, but that’s about it.

    I’m moving to Latvia this summer, so hopefully I can find a language school there that will give me more opportunities to learn and practice in the field.
    Heather recently posted…How to Have Fun Almost AnywhereMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on May 4, 2014 at 11:58 am said:

      Mandarin myst be so hard to learn though. All the different tones. I felt the same about Khmer. I could only say basics after two years in Cambodia. Good luck in Latvia!

  9. Oh, I have no doubt that you guys will reach fluency in no time with those kind of intensive language lessons and being surrounded by the language! I took two years of college classes in Spanish, but I’m not surrounded by it though I do hear it frequently because my husband’s family speaks Spanish to each other–I’m not fluent but I can just about always understand what’s going on!
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 13, 2014 at 5:20 pm said:

      I hope so Rachel. I am not exposed to much Spanish at work, but I am still hoping that I will get to a fairly decent fluency. Fingers crossed!

  10. What an amazing experience this sounds like learning Spanish in South America. What better place to learn the language than in one of the home countries! I was fortunate enough to learn French growing up (only in school though) and it is certainly a huge benefit nowadays to be able to speak multiple languages. Kudos to you for that and thanks again for sharing such a wonderful experience!
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  11. I’ve always thought it would be easier to learn a language living in-country. I always planned to go to Guatemala but I’ll actually be doing 3 weeks in Costa Rica in January. Fingers crossed I learn a bit!
    Sky recently posted…Central America Adventure – 2 months to Departure!My Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on November 9, 2014 at 10:02 am said:

      It is much easier Sky! You just have to make sure that you hang out with locals as much as you can to practise. For me this is the best way to learn.

  12. So glad to hear you loved Sucre’s SASS Tammy! The whole immersion experience is a tad daunting at first, but I think being thrust into the Spanish speaking world from the get-go makes the whole learning process easier, not to mention quicker. We loved our time learning Spanish in Bolivia, and even though we’re back in Melbourne, Dan and I still speak to each other in Spanish every day…it also helps to keep the travel memories fresh!
    Brigid recently posted…How to Learn Spanish in BoliviaMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on February 18, 2015 at 12:42 pm said:

      I agree Brigit. If you don’t keep at it you will soon forget what you have learned. Glad you had a similar experience to us.

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