When it comes to long term travel in South America, I honestly can’t stress enough how much easier your life will be if you learn a little Spanish. Many popular travel destinations, like Europe and Asia, tend to spoil us by having very good English as a second language, but in many South American countries, even in the big cities and popular tourist destinations, almost no one speaks any English. I’ve already talked about some great apps and various language learning websites which you can use to learn a little of the lingo before you leave, but since the best way to learn is through lessons and practice, I really recommend taking Spanish lessons in South America when you arrive. Lessons over there tend to be much cheaper than in the UK, and are usually geared towards travellers – so the teacher will focus on exactly what you need to survive long-term in their country.
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 this is the first in a series of posts all about the best places to learn across the continent, starting with Argentina. 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.
Best Cities for Learning: Buenos Aires, Bariloche
Some people list Argentina as one of the hardest places to learn Spanish. The accent there is unique compared to any other Spanish speaking country, the language has a very differnt vocabulary using lots of slang not found elsewhere, and the locals tend to speak much faster than their neighbours, making learning pretty tough. The biggest, most confusing difference, is the Argentine pronounciation of the ‘ll’: in castillian Spanish the sound is ‘y’, with me llamo Emily (my name is Emily) pronounce may yamo Emily, while in Argentina the sound is a ‘sh’, as in may shamo Emily.
“Everyone else on the continent will tell you that Argentina is actually the worst place to learn Spanish, and they kind of have a point – the porteño accent is extremely distinctive, the verb conjugations are different and locals use all kinds of slang that doesn’t translate at all once you cross the border. However, Buenos Aires’ popularity among expats, study abroad students and volunteers has made it a top destination for foreigners.” GoOverseas.com
One of the best places to learn would be the capital, Buenos Aires, because of the number of great Spanish programmes and cheap hostels to be found there. It’s a really interesting, metropolitan city with loads to do and an amazing night-life, giving you a good mix of downtime and study time. Another great destination to learn in is Bariloche, one of the most popular backpacker cities in Patagonia, nestled by a picturesque lake in the foothills of the Andes. There are loads of Spanish schools and homestay programmes, which you can mix with lots of outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking in spectacular scenery; an amazing environment to learn in.
“In terms of diversity of options, Buenos Aires has one of the highest numbers of Spanish schools in Latin America – not to mention plenty of high-ranked universities that are open (and often very affordable!) to foreign students.” GoOverseas.com
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend learning in Argentina unless you’re travelling there exclusively or for a long time, because the language difference can be very confusing across countries. That being said, it is a wonderful country and the language programmes there are great – so it is a good place to learn, and there are steps you can take to make sure your new language skills are transferable. I spoke with two travellers who learnt in Buenos Aries about their experiences…
The Student: Rotem Zur-Klapwijk, a 32 year old traveller from Israel who runs the blog Homeless Globe Trotters.
The Tutor: Laura Bercovich (firstname.lastname@example.org) in BA.
The Prices: Rotem’s private tutor charged 100 pesos (about $12 or £7) an hour for 2 people (“blue rate”), in April 2014.
Rotem studied with a private tutor (Laura Bercovich) for 4 hours a day, 5 days a week for four weeks, and went from an extremely basic level to intermediate: “I can easily speak in restaurants, hotels, with strangers on the streets etc. I can read and write to my spanish-speaking friends“. Rotem agrees that the accent in Argentina is different to other countries, but says that the accent in BA is actually relatively clear compared with the rest of Argentina and that learning there made speaking and listening in other countries much easier. Her teacher also made sure that Rotem was aware of all the different accents in other countries – if you do learn in Argentina but your also heading to other countries, make sure you ask your teacher to help you practice in the other accents.
“It’s actually an added value in my opinion and we can recognise the Argentinian accent when we hear it now.”
Rotem’s course sounds really thorough, and has covered everything you’d need for travelling South America and more:
- Present, future (2 forms), present progressive, present perfect and past (preterito indefinido), including irregular and reflexive verbs.
- Also Ser/Estar, por/para, gender, gustar, pronouns (este/a etc), possessions (mi/ nuestra etc)
- Vocab like family, food, house, clothing, professions, body parts etc.
- Basic conversations like ordering in a restaurant, directions, introducing oneself.
The Student: Justin Sharkey, a 26 year old from Sydney, Australia who runs the blog sharkouttawater.com.
The School: Buenos Aires Spanish School (BASP).
The Prices: $195 USD (about £120) for one week of four hour classes.
On Justin’s arrival in South America, his Spanish was more or less at beginner level, having done two courses with overlapping content. His trip started in Argentina, so it made sense for him to begin learning there, and he chose the Buenos Aires Spanish School (BASP), which has an excellent location in the heart of the city. As I said before, BA is an awesome city and a great place to spend time learning, but Argentina can be a difficult place to learn, which was exactly Justin’s experience.
“Argentinian Spanish I find difficult- they speak rapidly with a very different accent and have a very different vocabulary.”
His school seems to have been a pretty good one; although he’s unsure of the structure he says lessons were tailored based on previous knowledge of the students. The school offers thorough classes tailored to all levels, and runs a whole range of social activities and course add-ons to make practising language more fun. After a week of classes four hours a day, and a follow up course in Ecuador, Justin’s Spanish is now at an intermediate level, so those courses have definitely paid off.
School or Tutor?
There are many pros of choosing a private tutor: Rotem and her husband were both at different levels when they started learning with Laura, she had learnt Spanish before (but, like me, had forgotten much of it) but her husband hadn’t. So, they started with the basics, which was a good refresher for Rotem, and Laura adjusted the class to both students’ needs: “for example, she let me explain the grammar to my husband, asked me to talk more etc”.
“The good thing about a private teacher is that she can fit the class to what we want, so for example she taught us the body parts since we followed yoga in Spanish, or the songs of Manu Chao because we like him.”
Private lessons are available through a Spanish School too, but the group lessons tend to be cheaper and if you’re an absolute beginner you can join a class where everyone is at the same level as you. Schools organise additional activities like Spanish-language cooking classes or tango lessons, and many can arrange homestays with local families for total language immersion. Learning at a school gives you more opportunity to practice with other learners – in a slow-paced and friendly environment which is less intimidating than real-life practice – and can be a great way to meet people and socialise, too.
Have you learnt Spanish in Argentina? 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.