Most people will tell you that immersion is the best method for learning a new language. So you took a little Spanish in school and that one time you watched Pan’s Labyrinth without subtitles and you think, “Hey, I bet if I just go there I could be fluent in no time.”
Maybe. But probably not.
The truth is Spanish is more difficult in practice than on paper. Vocabularies differ from country to country. Accents are even harder. See if you have even the most basic knowledge on how to distinguish between Spanish accents. And chances are any Spanish classes you took focused on accents from whichever Spanish speaking country is closest to where you lived. For instance, if you studied in the UK, you probably learned something closest to the Spanish dialect, and a formal one at that considering there are about six different dialects within the country and variances within those. And while you may know how to pronounce every item on the menu of your local Mexican restaurant, you may be surprised to find your language level isn’t what you thought.
So what will happen if you take that leap and decide to come to Latin America without learning Spanish?
You will find yourself saying the same phrases over and over.
“¿Como se dice?” and “No entiendo” are my go-tos. But you’ll also probably be telling people where you’re from a lot. Taking a course before you leave will help you build a foundation for your Spanish so when you arrive you can focus on learning the local dialect and less on the basic necessities of daily communication.
You will find out not everyone in the world is trying to learn English.
Yes it is probably the most learnt second language out there, but Spanish has the second largest native speaking population in the world. And in the vastness of Latin America, it is much more useful to work on understanding the different dialects of Spanish than picking up English, a notoriously difficult second language to learn.
You will gravitate towards other ex-pats or English-speaking travelers.
You’re not the first to get the idea to pack your bags and head south and you won’t be the last. The countries of Latin America are beautiful and people from all over the world are drawn here. So you can easily find other native speakers if you look. After a little while you crave detailed conversations that you aren’t developed enough to have speaking Spanish. That’s fine, but don’t seclude yourself with these people. It’s important to get to know natives of the country you’re visiting in order to improve your Spanish and to really get to know the culture you sought to experience in the first place.
You will get impatient and find a teacher.
You may of come with a couple books and the notion that you have the will to teach yourself, but this will get old quickly. Finding a Spanish school or tutor will help you immerse in the culture, meet people, and advance in the language rapidly. Also, chances are you can find a teacher who is native to the country you’re in who can help you with the ins and outs of local dialect and slang.
You will learn the value of mistakes.
You’re going to make some blunders trying to communicate with people and you’re going to look a little foolish. But who cares? You’re putting yourself out there to learn and grow on your own accord. Making these mistakes is inevitable and you’ll learn to appreciate them as the best learning tools you have.