Learning Spanish in South America: Bolivia

A little bit of Spanish goes a very long way in South America – where in most countries almost no one speaks English, even in hotels and at tourist attractions. Travelling this continent will be extremely tough if you don’t make at least some effort to learn the local language, and since classes in South America tend to be much cheaper and more immersive than in the UK, I recommend starting your trip with a week (or more) or lessons.

So, I’ve started this series all about Learning Spanish in South America to give you an idea of what it’s like. There are nine Spanish speaking countries in South America, but where to learn depends on a number of factors: where you’re starting, what your budget is, and – crucially – what the accent is like. So keep reading to see if learning in Bolivia would work for you. If you’ve learnt in any South American country, please get in touch as I’d love to use your experiences in an upcoming post.

Bolivia Chile Border

Bolivia Chile Border

Bolivia

Best City for Learning: Sucre

Bolivia is one of the most popular countries for learning Spanish amongst backpackers, largely due to the low cost of lessons, and the abundance and variety of schools and tutors. It was where I chose to learn, even though I hadn’t planned to take any classes, simply because they were so cheap!

“Landlocked and mountainous Bolivia has South America’s lowest cost of living, and you might even pick up one of the country’s 36 indigenous languages from the majority-indigenous population while you’re there.” GoOverseas.com

Salar de Chiguana, salt flats in Bolivia

Salar de Chiguana, salt flats in Bolivia

Being such a popular destination for learning Spanish means that lots of Spanish schools have opened up to meet the high demand from the traveller population. This means there are loads of schools with lots of experience and a really great structure, but also plenty of schools and tutors who have sprung up just to make money from tourists and won’t offer a great experience. My advice is to seek recommendations from other travellers who have just completed some lessons – it’s not hard to meet some. Or, I’ve listed two Spanish schools later in this post which both come highly recommended.

“One very important point to consider while choosing Latin America for a Spanish immersion program is the influence of indigenous languages. For example, Quechua heavily influences the Spanish of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, as Nahuatl does Mexico.” Amit from alwaysspanish.com

Although Bolivia isn’t considered one of the best countries to learn pure Spanish, as the dialect and accent tends to vary from regular Spanish, I found it fairly easy to understand and be understood there, unlike in Northern Peru or coastal Colombia. Particularly in Sucre, where the relaxed pace of life seems to have had an influence and people speak slowly and patiently. Because it’s a common place for backpackers to learn, Bolivian Spanish schools have made sure to adapt their lessons to include notes on other accents and prepare travellers for the Spanish in other countries they might be visiting.

Cholitas in traditional dress

Cholitas in traditional dress, La Paz

“I found the Bolivian accent actually one of the easiest to understand.  They don’t tend to use a great deal of slang in comparison to other countries, and they speak relatively slowly – especially compared to Spanish people from many parts of Spain!” Kiara Gallop

The best city in Bolivia for learning is undoubtedly Sucre, which is where almost everybody heads. There are a number of reasons, but mostly I think the city’s quiet atmosphere really lends itself to any kind of study. It’s a university town, so everywhere you look there are students walking to lessons or doing homework in the park, and although it’s actually the capital of Bolivia it’s much smaller and quieter than La Paz. There are so many Spanish schools to choose from, and hostels like Celtic Cross even arrange for private tutors to come in every day. Because so many people come to Sucre specifically for lessons, it has a very studious atmosphere; people can always be spotted studying in hostel common areas, parks and at bars, which is great encouragement to do your own homework. It’s also really easy to arrange a homestay in Sucre through many Spanish schools, or independently, which can be a really good way to increase your practice opportunities (see the bottom of this post about learning in Colombia for more information).

“Sucre is a beautiful city in which to learn. It’s relatively small (but there’s enough going on), safe to wander around alone at night, and the people are all extremely friendly and welcoming.” Kiara Gallop

Although there’s plenty going on, with lots of popular “gringo bars”, some great restaurants, and a few excursions in the nearby area, there’s not too much to distract you from your Spanish lessons. Sucre’s great mix of relaxation and scholarship is very conducive to study and really suits many travellers, plus it also makes it a great place to spend a longer period, so many expats in Bolivia choose to live in Sucre. If you prefer to take lessons in a livelier city with a better nightlife, then the unofficial capital La Paz is also a great place to learn. Or, there’s Cochabamba, which is ideally situated to visit the amazing national park of Torotoro- but note, you’ll meet far fewer other travellers there (which can be a good thing if you want to avoid distraction and be forced to practice by speaking to locals).

“The Maryknoll Institute offers some of the best known programs to learn Spanish. The level of those who have participated in such programs is very high. Cochabamaba is a beautiful city in the centre of Bolivia and an excellent base to explore the whole country.” TravelAdept.com

So, in conclusion, Bolivia makes a great place to learn Spanish thanks to it’s abundance of reasonably priced Spanish schools, and it’s incredibly low cost of living. Below, you can read about real experiences at two Spanish schools in Sucre…

Torotoro National Park

Torotoro National Park

Spanish School One

The Student: Emily Luxton (me), a 27 year old travel blogger from England who spent five months in South America earlier this year.

The School: Bolivian Spanish School, Sucre – bolivianspanishschool.com.

The Prices: $65 USD (around £40) for ten hours of one-on-one private lessons. (Prices correct in May 2014)

Sucre - The White City

Sucre – The White City

I chose the Bolivian Spanish School in Sucre on the recommendation of the Irish owner of our hostel, the Celtic Cross, as that was where he took lessons. It was also cheaper than the more popular schools like Me Gusta Spanish, and in a really nice area of town next to Parque Bolivar.

My partner, Sam, was travelling with me and spoke no Spanish beyond the few words I’d taught him, so we took separate private lessons. The classes are even cheaper if two or more of you learn together, or if you take group classes (a great way to meet people), but as my knowledge of the language was a bit all over the place I wanted to be able to focus exclusively on improving my language skills, rather than learn at the same pace as others.

We started with a short test, to establish our level, and avoid being taught things we already knew. After the test, my teacher and I had a short chat in Spanish, before starting the lesson – which was conducted entirely in Spanish. This was fantastic for me, as it forced me to practice everything I already knew  at the same time as learning new information.

Bolivian Spanish School (borrowed from their website).

Bolivian Spanish School (borrowed from their website).

My teacher, David, was absolutely lovely and made the whole learning experience really fun and easy. We always started and finished with a friendly chat in Spanish about things like books, my trip, or my life in England, which was great practice for me. We covered so much stuff in just five two hour lessons: reflexive verbs; the simple and imperfect past tenses; the conditional tense; and the simple future tense – as well as revising a lot of vocab. The lessons weren’t just boring verb drills and repetition, either: we read a short story together in Spanish, and one day we even took a walk in the market so that David could test me on vocab like fruit and vegetables – and show me the place to get the best sandwiches in Sucre!

The lessons were well structured but quite relaxed and very fun. Bolivian Spanish School hosts a lot of extra activities, too, to encourage students to socialise and practice Spanish. They have something on almost every night, like football games, dance classes, game and movies nights, and local tours most weekends. We took a cooking class with the school on our last night, and it was so much fun – although it was also so busy that I neither learnt the recipe nor practised my Spanish, but it was a great way to celebrate a week of learning.

I found the whole experience absolutely fantastic. Sucre is a great place to learn, and I definitely recommend the Bolivian Spanish School – and especially David!

Spanish School Two

The Student: Kiara Gallop, a 38 year old from Cambridge in England, who runs the fab travel blog Gallop Around the Globe.

The School: South America Spanish School, San Alberto 30, Sucre – sas-school.com.

The Prices: 30-35 bolivianos per hour (around $5 USD or £3) for group lessons and 40-45 bolivianos per hour (around $6.50 USD or £4) for private classes. (Prices correct in July 2014).

Countryside outside Sucre

Countryside outside Sucre

Before starting her travels in South America, Kiara took a distance learning IGCSE but she says that since it was completed over the internet she “seriously lacked in speaking and listening experience” and would still class herself as a beginner.

So, like so many other backpackers drawn by the super cheap lessons, Kiara signed up for some classes at the South America Spanish School, based at San Alberto 30. “Run by a lovely lady called Bertha, it’s a relatively small school with just 4 teachers”.  Classes are flexible; students can choose the length and time they want their lessons.

“I found the experience very informal and relaxed. The classrooms are spacious and airy (if a little cold!), with a beautiful roof terrace and large communal living room and kitchen. I found Bolivian people incredibly friendly and easy to get along with.” 

South America Spanish School (borrowed from their website)

South America Spanish School (borrowed from their website)

Kiara’s experience sounds a little less structured than mine – for example, there was no initial test to help ascertain her current level of Spanish – but the school seems really friendly and good fun. Kiara says that her tutor simply started things off with a ten minute chat in Spanish, before beginning the lessons – but as these progressed a certain amount of structure began to form.

Like mine, Kiara’s lessons were almost entirely in Spanish, but as a beginner she says she struggled with this: “if I didn’t understand something, instead of explaining in English, my Spanish tutor would simply repeat more slowly in Spanish”. Although it left her a little bewildered at times, Kiara now feels the benefit of the Spanish-language lessons as they provide total language immersion. The lessons had an even split between speaking, listening, and reading practice, while homework was usually a written exercise. Because Kiara already knew the basics like verb conjugations in the present tense, her tutor focused on improving her vocabulary and learning further tenses.

“It felt more like meeting with friends who spoke a different language rather than being in a formal, structured classroom situation.” 

The relaxed pace and the friendliness of the school would probably really suit people whose school days are behind them, as many adults find it hard to focus in a lesson environment. And all the extra activities encourage practice in a relaxed and fun environment, as well as giving an immediate real-world application to the language. Kiara took a cooking class at the school’s owner, Bertha’s, home one evening, and says that the school also hosts regular film nights in the building where the classes are held, which “allows the students to get to know each other and practice their language together”. I’ve mentioned before that Spanish lessons are a great way to meet other travellers and socialise, and those that run extra curricular activities are the best schools for this.

“I feel like my knowledge of the language has vastly improved and my vocabulary has definitely grown, but what I didn’t have is time to practice. I came home a few weeks after I took lessons, so my advice to anyone would be to take lessons at the beginning of your trip, and practice at every available opportunity, even if you feel silly!”

Group Lessons or One to One?

Potosi

Potosi

Although group lessons are cheaper than one to one classes, the private lessons are so cheap at many schools in Bolivia that it can seem more worthwhile choosing those to get the full focus of the teacher.

It depends on how you learn, really. I’m quite shy, so in a group lesson I tend to stay quiet and let others speak and answer questions – which can make it look as though I’m not progressing, and deny me chances to practice. It’s the same story with lazy students, who tend to daydream whilst other people in class engage and speak. If that sounds like you, choose private lessons. One to one is also great, as it gives you the chance to practice conversational speaking and listening with a native speaker.

“Practising Spanish with a patient, clear-spoken teacher who also speaks English (and can therefore fill in the words I don’t know for me) is so much easier than practising Spanish with fast-talking locals, who take your first loss for words as an inability to speak the language and generally give up on the conversation.” www.emilyluxton.co.uk

Then again, if you find you learn better listening quietly amongst a group, instead of engaging directly with a tutor, then a group lesson is for you. If you’re more confident and social, a group lesson is a great way to interact and practice with other learners, and also a good chance to meet some new friends to practice with outside of lessons. I met lots of people who took group lessons, and it sounds like the interaction really helped cement their learning. But it’s all about how you learn – so choose what works for you.

Have you learnt Spanish in Bolivia? Let us know your experiences in the comments! And if you’ve learnt Spanish in any other South American country please get in touch to help out with the upcoming posts. 

About Emily

Emily Luxton is an award-winning travel blogger and writer with a special love for South America - her favourite continent and second home. A lover of slow, deep travel and really interacting with new cultures, she travels as often as possible on the hunt for new adventures.

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