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Learn Spanish in Latin America: The Guide

Learn Spanish in Latin America: The Guide

Learn Spanish in Latin America – Your Guide

So, you want to learn Spanish in Latin America? Congratulations! Learning a language is one of the most exciting ways to connect with new people and places.

Learn Spanish in Colombia - El Valle de Cocora
Learning is an adventure, like in El Valle de Cocora in Colombia. Photo by Dan Gold.

Forget your high school or college Spanish classes: nothing compares to learning Spanish amongst native speakers.

Step off the plane and discover yourself surrounded by Spanish. Conversations in Spanish will flow around you and foreign words will float past your ears. Welcome to Latin America, a universe of Spanish… and your new classroom.

Getting Started with Learning Spanish

There’s no cookie-cutter formula that will take you to Spanish fluency or cultural competence. Not to mention figuring out where and how to study Spanish abroad can be overwhelming.

Where to start? What will it be like? How should you choose? Don’t worry:  That’s what we’re here for.

This article will touch on a few key topics including the best places to learn Spanish and the best approaches to learning Spanish.

Whether you’re looking to learn Spanish in general or in Latin America specifically, read on to get started on your next great adventure.

What’s the best place to study abroad in Latin America?

Map of Latin America - Best places to Learn Spanish in Latin America
There are 19 countries in Central and South America that speak Spanish. Which one should you study in? Photo by Sara Riaño.

You come upon a picture of your friend in Mexico City in front of a sweeping cityscape.  ¡Me encanta México! The best country on earth! reads the caption.

Soon you’re flooded with inspirational shots of smoking volcanoes in Guatemala, waterfalls in Costa Rica, old school cars in Cuba, and coffee farms in Colombia.

You know you want to study Spanish in Latin America, but where to even begin? How is it possible to choose among so many amazing countries? Which will be best for me to study Spanish?

No matter where you choose, you’ll have access to a new culture and language; there’s no wrong choice. That said, you’ll need to do some personal reflection to make the choice that’s right for you.

Choose from 19 Spanish-Speaking Countries in Latin America

Learn Spanish in Colombia- Medellin
Medellín, Colombia. Photo by Néstor Morales

Do you know how many countries in South America speak Spanish? Central America? The Caribbean? The first step to choosing the best place to study Spanish is knowing what your options are.

South America

There are nine Spanish-speaking countries in South America. There aren’t many generalizations about the Spanish on this continent: the accents in these countries range from the Italian-sounding Argentinian accent to the sing-song lilt of the ‘Paisa’ accent

Central America

Want to learn Spanish in Central America? There are six Spanish-speaking countries. You’ll find less diversity in the Spanish spoken than South America, with Panama standing out most for its Caribbean influences.

chart of spanish speaking Central American Countries

Caribbean

Spanish is also the official language of several Caribbean countries. The Spanish spoken here is often challenging to understand as the words get “cut off” at the end, making it difficult for Spanish learners to communicate here.

chart of Spanish speaking countries in the Caribbean

 

North America

chart of spanish speaking north american countries

And then there’s Mexico. Mexico is actually considered part of North America – which is why it’s not included in the above lists. It’s still considered part of Latin America though!

Whew, there we go, that’s all 19 Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America.  So, with all these to choose from… where should you study?

For the Budget-Conscious: Guatemala

Volcano in Guatemala a great place to learn Spanish too!
Guatemala is famous for destinations like this volcano in Chimaltenango. Photo by Gary Saldana.

Guatemala has many attractions for the traveler looking to hike volcanoes, relax by a lake or go hiking in the mountains. It is home to spectacular Mayan ruins, limestone bridges, and huge markets.

Spanish learners choose to come here for the particularly affordable Spanish schools. Schools typically offer intensive classes with four hours of 1-on-1 instruction with a tutor.

While Antigua is known for being pretty touristy, others go to Quetzaltenango (Xela) or Lake Atitlan for a more local experience. An extra plus: the Guatemalan Spanish is spoken with a slow, clear accent.

 Guatemala is a great place to learn Spanish for anyone looking for intensive private classes in a small-town or rural environment.

For Cultural Immersion: Colombia

Learn Spanish in Colombia- Picture of Medellin Colombia
Medellín, Colombia. Photo by Juan Saravia.

Colombia has been gaining fame as a world-class travel destination; Lonely Planet voted it #2 top place to travel 2017 for good reason. Colombia offers everything from Salsa dancing to jungle treks to the lost city to quaint coffee villages and internationally famous icons like Fernando Botero, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Juanes. It’s the most biodiverse country in the world while also offering international, cosmopolitan city life.

This all pales in comparison to the magical experience of connecting to Colombian culture.  Colombians are known for their hospitality, warmth, and openness to welcome you into their culture.

Whether you set off to buy arepas on the street or are sipping guaro at a tienda, you’ll have the chance to interact with friendly locals who will share their time and exchange conversation.

Colombia is home to a wide variety of Spanish accents, many, including the ‘rolo’ accent from Bogotá and ‘paisa’ accent from Medellín, are clear and easy to understand. Many students flock to Colombia Immersion specifically because of the desirable Colombian accent.

Most Spanish learners go to Bogotá or Medellín to study. We’re biased towards Medellín (that’s where we are!) but don’t take our word for it.  Medellín is great because it’s easy to learn and practice Spanish with the locals. People are so friendly and patient here!

Overall, we would recommend Learning Spanish in Colombia to anyone that wants to talk to locals and connect with Colombian culture, enjoy a lively urban lifestyle or participating in ecotourism in beautiful natural destinations.

 

For the History Buff: Mexico

Learn Spanish in Latin America
Photo of Popocatepetl in Cholula, Mexico. Photo by Pedro Lastra.

Say the word “Mexico” and the imagination conjures images of sombreros, tacos, and Aztec pyramids. Happily, these are all realities of any visit to this Latin American country. There is a vast number of things to do in Mexico. You can climb pyramids in the morning and dine to crooning mariachi bands as the sun sets.  You’ll have infinite access to tortas, tamales, tacos, and -if you’re in Oaxaca- tlayudas.

Other countries also have Mayan ruins and colonial towns, but spend any extended amount of time in Mexico and you’ll feel the country’s rich history creeping out of every crevice to captivate you with its mysterious allure.

For Spanish language learners, it’s a great country to sample local flavors while interacting with history through the many museums and architecture. We’d recommend learning Spanish in Mexico to anyone with a large appetite for museums, tortillas, and a thirst for culture.

For the Europhile: Argentina

Learn Spanish in Latin America
Argentina boasts a European atmosphere

It may come as a surprise that Argentinians identify as European, but spend an afternoon in Buenos Aires and you’ll quickly feel the sophisticated atmosphere of outdoor cafés, old-world architecture, notes of Tango drifting through the air, and, wait… is that Italian being spoken?

Argentina is a unique country to learn Spanish due to the Italian-sounding “Che Boludo” accent, the use of ‘vos’ instead of ‘tú’, and plentiful local slang. So, least to say, Argentina is not for the faint of heart if you’ve spent any time learning textbook Spanish.

Nonetheless, Argentina is a spectacular country known for natural beauty including Patagonia, glaciers, and rugged coastline featuring friendly Sea Lions. Not to mention some of the best wine on the continent.

What’s the best way to learn Spanish abroad?

What is it like to learn a language? Knowing this before setting off will help you.

Have Realistic Expectations for Learning Spanish Abroad

Learn Spanish in Latin America
Don’t freak out. Learning Spanish is doable if you have the right expectations.

Avoid frustration by getting your expectations right. The internet has a lot of conflicting information, so we wanted to set you straight on some common misconceptions.

  1. Anyone can learn a language.

“I don’t have a language learning brain”

“I’m just not cut out to learn a language”

“I’m too old to learn a language”

These are common excuses for not studying a language. Cut it out! As human beings, we are wired for language learning: we speak our native language perfectly well, after all. Language makes us who we are.

When it comes to learning Spanish, you’ve got to remember: learning a language is a skill like any other. It may be easier for some people, but more than natural talent it comes down to developing a study approach that works for you. If you’re dedicated to learning Spanish, your success is more related to hard work than to linguistic talent.

  1. You probably won’t become fluent in Spanish in one month.

How long will it take to learn Spanish? While it is possible to make great progress in a month – we’ve seen Spanish learners go from zero to having small conversations in Spanish after just four weeks- expecting to go from zero to native speaker in a matter of weeks is not realistic.

Furthermore, the word “fluent” is a vague, overused word that gets misinterpreted. Do you want to fluently buy bread at the store and handle everyday interactions and small talk, or fluently give a speech about international politics and human rights? We can promise you won’t be doing the latter after a month.

Want a more helpful framework? Check out the European framework for language learning and understand different areas of fluency in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. You can also check out our Spanish levels to understand what a realistic progression in the language looks like.

  1. How much does it cost to learn Spanish?

It’s a myth that learning Spanish is expensive when in reality there are choices for every budget.

Here is how much it costs to learn Spanish based on a variety of approaches:

Free: You’d be amazed at how many free resources there are for learning Spanish. Mix and match language exchanges, free online language apps like Duolingo, language learning websites, language learning podcasts and helpful guides for beginners like this resource.

You’ll get great access to information at no cost, though these approaches lack structure and guidance. Free Spanish learning resources usually complement an investment in some kind of language instruction.

Learn more: 5 free ways to learn Spanish abroad

  • $20 – $250: From textbooks, paid online courses, to online tutors, these affordable approaches to learning Spanish won’t break the bank while offering a bit more structure for Spanish learners. A course provides much-needed structure, while online tutors can provide awesomely personalized attention to your learning process.

Learn more: Top Resources for learning Spanish

  • $250 – $1,000: You get an impressive bang for your buck in this intermediate price range. If you stay in Medellin, Colombia, for example, you can comfortably live a modest lifestyle for $800USD (or less if you’re thrifty) a month, and language schools can be astoundingly affordable. At Colombia Immersion, even a full month of intensive Spanish classes (20 hours a week) costs under $750USD.

 

  • $1000+: If money is no object or if you are determined to study in an expensive spot, you always have the choice of signing up for a luxury experience or a language course in more expensive cities or countries. These can run up to $5,000USD, like for prestigious, US-based programs run by Middlebury.

There are endless approaches to learning Spanish, so simply choose the price of that works best for your budget, lifestyle, and time constraints. There are no excuses!

Other useful resources: 

More favorite free Latin American Spanish resources 

Using Netflix to tune up your Spanish

 

  1. Showing up alone won’t make you fluent in Spanish.

There’s nothing more frustrating than thinking something will be easy, only to find that it’s not. So, let’s be clear: learning a new language is a challenge and does not happen instantly.

Yes, immersion in a language is extremely important. It gives learners not just access to native speakers, but the ability to interact in a language’s authentic cultural context.

That said, be prepared to work hard, to struggle, to have good days and bad days, and to confront difficulties. Once you accept that it will be a long journey, you can be prepared to face challenges head-on.

Pro Tips for Learning Spanish In Latin America

We asked Colombia Immersion students their best tips on how to practice Spanish while studying abroad.

The best place to get advice is from people that have been there and done it themselves! We asked them what they wish they had known before they left to study abroad and their advice for people learning Spanish in Latin America.

Here’s what they had to say.

Becca

learn spanish in latin America

Home country: USA

Occupation: Fellow at Kiva

Age: 25

Spanish Learning Tips: The most useful thing I’ve done while learning Spanish is telling people I’m Russian whenever people try to speak English to me.

People always laugh whenever I tell them that, but it’s the only way I’ve been able to avoid English completely and really commit to Spanish.

Also, make an effort with the accent. When your accent is good, people assume your Spanish is better than it actually is.

Finally: Smile! If you’re joyful and actively trying to involve yourself in the culture you’re exploring, people will be automatically drawn to you.

Simon

Home country: Germany

Occupation: Student

Age: 27

Spanish learning tips:

One thing that really helped me was learning the pronunciation first. Gabriel Wyner’s book “Fluent Forever” discusses at length why this is a good idea, but here’s a summary:

  1. It’s incredibly hard to fix the pronunciation later on.
  2. Getting the pronunciation right, right from the start will make both learning new words and speaking a lot easier (since the brain doesn’t remember the pronunciation of each word separately)
  3. Once you internalize the correct pronunciation, it’s easier to decipher what natives say.
  4. It’s a lot more fun. You start feeling like a native speaker.  Also, locals will likely compliment you on your accent.
  5. There’s no better place than learning the pronunciation when you’re spending some time abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. Back home it’s a lot more difficult.

Dorene  

Learn Spanish in Latin America

Occupation: Marketing Strategist and Co-owner of Travel Life Media

Home country: Canada

Age: 46

Spanish Learning Tips: I recommend attending language exchanges since they give you the opportunity to practice what you’ve learned in Spanish class by speaking with Spanish-speaking locals. They also help with a few other things:

  1. Making friends with locals. Language exchanges are very warm, friendly and encouraging environments. Here mistakes are good, there is no judgment, and errors are corrected in a helpful and encouraging way. You also meet new friends – the added bonus.
  2. Building confidence. You soon realize you are not alone as you meet fellow language learners, and soon you realize Spanish speakers learning English run into the same mental challenges – confidence, listening, pronunciation and understanding is easier than speaking a new language.
  3. Improving your native language.  By hearing about challenges other learners have, you can even learn about grammar and get better at English!
  4. Practicing Spanish with English speakers. Always thought it was weird to practice Spanish with someone who was a  native English speaker, but I now see the benefit. It is easier to listen and understand grammar, pronunciation, sentence structure with someone with your own language. You also discover areas you are doing well, and ones that you need to improve on!

¿Están Listos?

We hope you’ve found this article helpful for planning your trip to Latin America to learn Spanish. Best of luck on your journey, and if you have any questions at all, don’t hesitate to contact us or send us a message in our chat window!

P.S. What are your views about learning Spanish in Latin America? Prefer destinations that we didn’t mention? Are there any tips we missed? Please let us know and comment below!

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Learn Spanish in Latin America