One of the biggest pieces of advice I can offer to anyone headed to South America is to learn at least a bit of the language before you go. Don’t under estimate how helpful this can be. While other popular traveller destinations, like Asia and Europe, tend to spoil us by being able, on the whole, to speak pretty good English, most of the general population you’ll meet in South America won’t speak any other language than their own. Even in particularly tourist areas and cities, English speakers are hard to come by – making everything from buying bus tickets to finding a hostel almost impossible. Travelling in this continent can be tricky if you don’t try to at least learn the basics.
Luckily, there are plenty of great websites to help you get started. Whether you want just the basics to get you by, or you’re serious about studying Spanish long term, these are some great options to help you learn la lengua bonita…
www.bbc.co.uk/languages/spanish Free. Good for: grammar, vocab, and language immersion.
The good old BBC is a fantastic resource for learning just about anything, completely for free. Their online Spanish course remains a firm favourite of mine, covering the basics right up to expert level. If you’re not a total beginner, you can kick off with a free Spanish test to work out where you need to start learning. BBC Spanish includes games, videos (like Gary Lineker introducing Match of the Day in Spanish), vocab lists from holiday basics through to slang phrases, online tutorials and pronounciation guides – covering everything you should need to get going!
The best aspect to the site, though, is the 22 episode interactive video drama Mi Vida Loca, which is perfect for beginners and can be completed in 12 weeks! I also love the huge database of Spanish news, TV and radio – which includes articles from Latin American countries to help you focus on the different language styles of countries you’ll be visiting!
www.studyspanish.com Free. Good for: grammar.
This is a great site to use if you’re serious about speaking Spanish at a higher or more conversational level. It starts off with pronunciation guides, lists of helpful vocab and simple grammar rules which are great for beginners, but includes in-depth tutorials on all the verb tenses and grammar rules that you’d learn on a full Spanish course at school. The verb drills are a great way for more advanced Spanish learners to practice, while the cultural notes provide a solid background to the language you’re learning.
If you want to continue learning, you can buy the premium membership or the conversational Spanish course, but the basic package is completely free and so thorough that it really is a useful online resource.
The downside? The Study Spanish site is pretty dry: there are no videos or images, just written articles on grammar and vocab which are laid out in units of increasing ability.
www.fluentu.com Free for limited access, basic is $8 per month. Good for: vocab and language immersion.
Fluent U is a brilliant new concept which will be handy for all levels of Spanish learners. It’s a huge online database of Spanish media, including music videos, commercials, movie trailers and more, which you can watch to fully immerse yourself in the language and pick up new words. The media are authentic native Spanish videos gathered from around the web, and are subtitled in Spanish with English translations. If you spot a word you don’t recognise, you can click it for in-context definitions and examples. There’s also a learn mode, which uses videos and quizzes to teach vocab.
The site includes a great Spanish blog with tips like ‘8 Simple Rules for Mastering Spanish Gender’, which is a handy supplement for learning the language. You definitely can’t use this site alone for learning Spanish, but it’s a great tool to assist you along the way and it provides another dimension to your listening practice and vocab learning.
www.rosettastone.com Online subscription starts at £14 a month for 12 months. Good for: live online teaching sessions, games and more.
I took out a six month subsciption to Rosetta Stone’s online course before my own trip, and was really impressed. The online course follows the same concept as the home course, using flash cards, visuals and repetition to teach vocab and grammar rules in an almost hypnotic way which is proven to work. The course starts right at the very basics, but it takes a while to get to a more advanced stage because this is a slower, but more complete, way of learning.
Online subscribers get access to Rosetta Stone’s TOTALe website, a database which includes stories, speaking practice, and games which can be played either solo or with other language learners. You can also interact with native Spanish speakers learning English in a language swap, and take part in regular online live learning sessions with a Spanish speaker via Skype. For me, these were the best part; not only because learning direct from a teacher is the best practice and gives immediate and accurate feedback on your speaking skills, but also because praise from a real person is the best encouragement when it comes to learning a language.
www.babbel.com Free for limited access, or from £4.45 a month. Good for: beginners.
When you first join Babbel, which is free to try out, you can take a short test to check your ability. The site is great for learning at a beginner or intermediate level, but after that you’ll probably need to find something more in depth. There are a range of courses available, which work similarly to Rosetta Stone, using visuals and flashcards, plus repetition and multiple tests of the same thing, to drill the basics in an almost hypnotic way which means they really sink in. The courses are fun, and include ones which focus specifically on the speaking and listening, or reading and writing, skills – something that, in my opinion, Rosetta Stone is slightly lacking. I love the Countries and Traditions courses, which let you learn about the culture of Spanish speaking countries to give the language some context, while Special courses teach you idioms or very helpful lessons like “false friends” – words that sound similar to English words but mean something totally different.
The mix of lessons is great, and the learning method of repetition and flashcards is perfect for beginners.
* Of course, not every country in South America is Spanish-speaking, although the majority are. The three sites marked with an asterix also include a Portuguese option, for those heading to Brazil.
Have you tried any of these websites out for learning Spanish, or found any other useful ones? Share your tips in the comments!