While you can get by with English in many parts of the world, this is not so much the case in South and Central America.
Here it’s quite common even for waiters, vendors and even tourist guides to only know Spanish, which creates a greater language barrier for some travellers. This also means it can really pay off to learn some Spanish!
But if just the thought of learning a new language makes you run for the hills, rest assured you won’t be completely lost without Spanish. You can still use hand gestures and other basic communication and get by.
For example, one of my travel buddies spent a year travelling Latin America without knowing any Spanish at all. He managed just fine, though I did have to make fun of him a little sometimes. For a while, it seemed the only word he knew was “necessito” (meaning “I need”). He would say it followed by the English word for whatever he wanted. Necessito water! Necessito food! Necessito toilet paper!
With some patience, you can make this work. Though rather than using my friend’s technique, you may want to use the phrase list or Google Translate. If you keep strictly to the backpacker hostel circuit, you will also be happy to know that most hostel staff is bilingual.
That’s not an ideal way to travel around Latin America though. You’ll make it harder for yourself, not to mention miss many chances to interact with the locals.
Even just having the ability to ask for directions, exchange pleasantries, or negotiate prices will be extremely valuable. You will also be less seen as a typical gringo tourist which means fewer attempts to rip you off and a generally more helpful attitude.
If you are thinking of learning some Spanish before or during a Latin America trip, here are some great ways to do it:
A language school in Guatemala
1. Listen to audio courses
One audio course that tons of Latin America backpackers use is the Michel Thomas Method. Pretty much everyone on the trail seems to know about it.
I have used this myself and it’s very good. It’s also not that expensive: the foundation course costs around $120 and it will teach you all the grammar and basic vocabulary you will realistically need. Compare this to Rosetta Stone which costs $300 for even the most basic package. (Many low-budget travellers actually pirate this course, though I wouldn’t endorse that here.)
Using an audio course is ideal for learning Spanish during your downtime, either back home or during your trip. For instance, you can put some of those long bus journeys to good use.
2. Get a dictionary or language app
This is an excellent and cheap way to boost your vocabulary. I bought an old dictionary for a dollar in a hippie bookstore in Guatemala, and often spent 10 minutes every morning looking up words that might be useful and writing them down.
Alternatively, get a dictionary or translator app on your phone. There’s many paid and free ones to choose from both on iOS and Android.
There are even some free learning apps (or at least, they are free initially). One that I liked using was Babbel which teaches you the basics interactively (i.e. by matching words to pictures, putting words in the right order, and so on).
Also check out this earlier post about language apps (and other useful travel apps).
3. Take classes
1-on-1 Spanish lessons are inexpensive in many Latin American countries with prices as low as $100 for a standard package of 20 hours (usually 4 hours a day over the course of 5 days, unless you go for something more customized).
Guatemala is a popular country to take lessons: they are very affordable here and the Guatemalan dialect is very pure and easier to learn. In South America a lot of people take classes in Bolivia for similar reasons. You will however find Spanish schools pretty much anywhere along the Latin American gringo trail. Though a lot of people will tell you that Bolivia is the cheapest and best country to learn Spanish in South America, while Guatemala is the cheapest and best coutnry to learn Spanish in Central America.
Taking classes is really the best way to accelerate your language knowledge, as there’s nothing like a teacher giving you real-time feedback. I took a week of classes near the start of my Latin America backpacking trip and was surprised by how much I learned in just that short amount of time.
Often you can choose where to have your lessons. Some teachers will have interactive dialog sessions with you while walking around town, and others can come to your hostel for private teaching.
4. Talk to locals
A great way to learn the language is from people who speak it every day!
Many courses actually offer you the opportunity to also stay in a homestay where you can practice Spanish in your daily interactions with your host family. Volunteering during your trip is another way in which you can have regular interactions with Spanish-speaking locals.
Another way is to simply not be shy and talk to locals whenever you can. Try to make some small talk with vendors for instance, or make friends with bilingual locals. Even if you stumble through your sentences, the effort is usually appreciated. Remember to ask people to correct you and your Spanish ability will probably make leaps and bounds.
5. Go to language exchanges
Bars or hostels will sometimes organize language exchanges, which you can find advertised on flyers and notice boards. This seemed to be very popular in Colombia for instance, and I have heard it’s common in Ecuador too.
These language exchanges are often just an excuse for travellers and locals to mix and have a boozer, but many are also legitimately trying to improve. While it’s a little weird, try to get into a conversational mode where you only speak Spanish and the other person only speaks English, as this will benefit both parties the most.
While learning a new language can be challenging, it can also be fun and it can enrich your travel experience. For long-term backpackers in Latin America, I particularly recommend making the investment. I took a bit of time early on my big Latin America trip to learn the language and it paid dividends the whole way through.