In the globalised world we live in, travelling to far-flung places knowing only a few words of the local language is possible and how most have managed for years, especially if we look at English-speaking tourists. While learning words such as ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘yes’ and being able to point at a menu or a map is one way to get about, we think that with some more phrases up your sleeve, your experience travelling in Spanish-speaking countries will be far better. Here are some of the reasons why.
Fully immerse yourself in the culture
South America is bursting with vibrant cultures and peoples, from the tropical Caribbean coast to icy Patagonia. Although museums and travel guides can spew the facts from pre-Columbian to post-colonial times, the best way to experience a culture is to live it – by speaking Spanish, you are halfway there.
Knowing Spanish as a tourist can be the key to unlocking so much cultural knowledge in your travels, as it is safe to say that a lot can be lost in translation. Language is woven into culture in so many ways, through popular culture as well as religious ritual. Being able to understand what a priest is saying at a Semana Santa (Holy Week) procession or understanding a tour guide when they retell the legend of El Dorado will fill in the gaps that other non-Spanish speaking tourists have in their knowledge.
Having learnt Spanish beforehand, you will probably be better versed in what various Latin American cultures have to offer, especially in terms of cuisine or places to visit. Often, tourists may want to try national and regional dishes without knowing what is actually in them. By being able to ask a simple question like ‘Qué es?’ (what is this?), and then understanding the response, you’ll learn more about what dishes consist of and what local ingredients are used, as well as making sure you avoid stuff that doesn’t take your fancy.
Accelerate your Spanish learning once there
If you take the initiative to learn the language beforehand, your Spanish language learning journey will run a lot smoother. In doing so, it will be a lot easier to get around once you are there. If you don’t, you might find it an overwhelming experience and are less likely to be able to learn the fundamentals of the language before being confronted with more complex conversation and colloquial language.
With a head start on the language front, it can only get easier as you put your Spanish language skills into practice. Accent and vocabulary vary massively from country to country across Central and South America, so by mastering the foundation of the language you can then go on to adapt your spoken language skills depending on the country and environment you find yourself in, picking up colloquialisms along the way!
As well as regional delicacies, learning the fundamentals of the Spanish language will better equip you for the various regional accents you will encounter! Not only do accents vary between countries, but they also vary greatly between regions within the same country. For example, in Colombia, the accent on the Caribbean coast (costeño) differs hugely from that in Bogotá (bogotano). Therefore, with some Spanish under your belt, you will be able to get to grips with new and unfamiliar accents a lot quicker than if it were your first time listening to and speaking in Spanish.
Form new relationships
As the wise Nelson Mandela once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. Learning to speak the native language of the country you decide to visit will mean that you are more likely to develop lasting memories and relationships. This is an especially important point for those travelling alone, as although independent travel can be exhilarating, it is always great to have help and friends along your journey.
This is key when you are staying in people’s homes. Although most towns and cities across Central and South America are host to many great hotels and hostels, a lot of the tourist culture revolves around homestays, which run similarly to hostels, except they are a lot more economical and you will probably be fed plenty of wonderful food made with local recipes and ingredients.
Communities across Central and South America are famed for being incredibly friendly and welcoming towards foreign tourists. They love to learn new English words and about different cultures as well as teach tourists some colloquialisms and share their passion for their own culture and language.
See and experience things off the beaten track
We all know about the must-see places which are heaving with tourists for the best part of the year. But other than the beautiful Machu Picchu or the Caribbean gem of Cartagena, there are loads of brilliant places slightly off of the beaten track that you are more likely to find through some good old Spanish-language word of mouth.
In many parts of South America, especially in rural locations where you might find some of the more dramatic geographical sights, many hostel or casa owners and workers will predominantly communicate with you Spanish. By being able to converse with them, not only will you be subject to friendly treatment (extra mango juice maybe?) but you could also receive some words of wisdom and gain great recommendations from people who truly know the vicinity and what it has to offer.
Feel safe on your travels
Though nowadays travelling internationally is pretty safe when you are sensible and abide by the law, it is still important to equip yourself with as much knowledge (and insurance) as possible before travelling abroad. Knowing some Spanish might be able to get you out of some sticky situations in South America, as well as help you to follow the safest paths, get into tourist-friendly taxis and stay in reputable accommodation.
Although a lot of advice can be found extensively in travel guides and online, when it comes down to instinctive decisions as well as navigating new places in smaller groups, having the added knowledge of some Spanish language could help you a great deal in ensuring your safe travels.
If you have certain health or dietary requirements when travelling, being able to express your needs in Spanish is essential and will make the experience a lot easier. Whether you are lactose intolerant or require an emergency visit to the hospital, some key phrases could be the difference between life and death (as dramatic as that might sound) or avoiding a dodgy stomach.
Receiving treatment or buying essentials from the pharmacy could also be a far smoother affair with some Spanish knowledge under your belt, and will help to ensure that you are buying the right medication or remedy.
Find work more easily
Many people work abroad to fund their travels as well as experience different ways of life and work. With some knowledge of Spanish, finding work in a Spanish-speaking country will be a lot easier and the transition into working life will inevitably be smoother. Whether you want to work as a farmhand or get a clerical job in an office for a few months, a knowledge of the Spanish language will help you massively along any path you wish to pursue.
While total immersion is one of the keys to fluency, there’s no doubt that learning some Spanish beforehand will ensure you have a much better experience in many different ways. Here at ESpeak, we love to travel and immerse ourselves in new cultures and languages. It is mostly because of this, alongside hard work and dedication, that all of our tutors are fluent spanish speakers.
We have lots of experience working and travelling in South America in recent years, so if you are looking to travel abroad for work or pleasure we would love to help you with any recommendations. We also offer online Spanish conversation classes to give you the confidence boost you may need before setting off and even once you’re out there! Get in touch via our Contact page if you are interested.