Last week, I shared a personal story and a little bit about why I think language learning is an important element of travel. The whole point of learning a language is to help us connect with people and understand their culture more deeply–an important element of responsible travel.
Today in Part 2, I’m sharing loads of resources to help you figure out how to go about learning Spanish or another language for your travels.
Since Roaming the Americas focuses on traveling in the United States and Latin America, and since Spanish is the predominant language in Latin America, some of these resources will be specific to Spanish. But there are quite a few general resources here as well, so I think you’ll find it useful even if you’re learning another language. If you have any resources for other languages spoken in the Americas, please let me know in the comments so I can add them in!
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Methods and Tips
I love this post by Benny Lewis about how to learn the basics of a language as you prepare to go on your next trip. What about when you’re actually on the road? Uncornered Market has some great tips for learning foreign languages while you’re traveling, and this post about learning Spanish on the road in Latin America from Along Dusty Roads is fantastic.
What if you really want to dig in deeper and work towards fluency?
Last year, I read a book called Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. One of my main takeaways was that when you’re learning a language, you need a mix of study (vocab, grammar, flashcards), comprehensible input (listening to and watching Spanish media that’s interesting and at or just above your level), and meaningful practice (real-life conversations rather than exercises in a grammar book). I think it’s helpful to have all of the information about how to learn a language distilled down into something bite-sized that’s easy to come back to:
study + comprehensible input + meaningful practice = learning
Here are few guidelines that Gabriel Wyner suggests:
- Learn pronunciation first
- No translating–this one is huge and one that I mostly agree with him on. Many language apps and websites have you study vocabulary by translating, but I think it’s much more effective to cut English out since the goal is to think in the second language, rather than constantly remember translations. However, I think translations are sometimes necessary to fully grasp the meaning of a word–like when there’s a word with no precise English equivalent.
- Use spaced repetition–if you read Fluent Forever, you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about, but here’s a short article from Benny Lewis that gives a good overview.
- Focus on frequency vocabulary–using a frequency dictionary of Spanish, you have access to the 5,000 most common words in Spanish. It gives you a place to start and helps you know how useful certain words are likely to be.
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- Anki–This is the flashcard software and app that Gabriel Wyner uses in his method. It’s so not flashy or sleek, but it lets you be in charge of the process of engaging with and creating the flashcards as well as using spaced repetition, which Wyner suggests are important elements of language learning.
- Forvo–Pronunciation by native speakers (clips can be inserted into Anki flashcards)
- Duolingo, Quizlet, or Memrise–These all have web versions and apps. Duolingo makes a game out of learning another language (you can even compete with real life friends), but it relies on memorizing translations and doesn’t allow you to make your own cards. Memrise and Quizlet are alternatives to Anki that some people find more user friendly (though not as versatile). They have options for creating your own cards and spaced repetition.
- Grammar books–Here are some suggestions for basic Spanish and intermediate Spanish.
- Frequency dictionary–I’m in love with this one!
- Podcasts: Real Fast Spanish (iTunes, Stitcher, and online) and Spanish Pod 101 (this is subscription-based, but they have some free content and a free trial)
- Netflix is a great place to find input that will be interesting to you because there are so many options. If you don’t have Netflix, you can also try this with movies you own, the library, Hulu (like Planeta NatGeo), Amazon, and more. Here are a couple of ideas and tips:
- Watch TV series or movies dubbed into Spanish with no subtitles. You could also start by using the Spanish audio with Spanish subtitles to help develop your comprehension, and eventually move onto no subtitles. A few ideas (titles currently on Netflix): Arrested Development, Orange Is the New Black, Chef’s Table, Narcos, Cooked, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Disney movies or other kids programs (easier when you’re just starting out).
- Unfortunately, Netflix doesn’t make it super easy to see which titles have dubbed Spanish audio. Here’s how to figure it out: Start playing an episode, and navigate to the options on the bottom right. When you scroll over the icon that looks like a rectangular speech bubble, you’ll see audio and subtitle options. Sometimes the only options will be English, and sometimes there will be Spanish audio but no subtitles, or vice versa. This is how you know whether a title is available in Spanish, but you can always Google for lists as well.
- Spanish language TV series or movies–These are titles originally produced in Spanish, so they’ll be truer to natural language and cultural references. A few ideas (titles currently on Netflix): Rebelde, Instructions Not Included, El Secretario, Club de Cuervos. Check here for Spanish movies on Netflix and here for Spanish TV series on Netflix.
- This post from the Transparent Language blog also has some great suggestions for binge-worthy shows in Spanish.
- Listen to an audio book and read along with a real book–Your local library probably has tons of audio books you can check out digitally along with an app so you can listen on your phone. If you want to own the audio book, you can also check out Audible (get 2 free audio books when you sign up for a free trial).
- News in Slow Spanish Latino–One of my top picks since it’s from Latin America, is updated regularly, and is news-based. If you want all the content, you have to pay for a subscription, but they also make a portion of their weekly program available for free. (Website, Android app, iPhone app)
- Radio Ambulante (iTunes, Stitcher)–Advanced, intended for native speakers
- DuoLingo Spanish Podcast (iTunes, Stitcher)–Beginner to early intermediate, switches back and forth between Spanish and English, intended to be “life lessons through language” (not explicit language instruction)
- Real Deal Spanish (Stitcher)–Short lessons, no longer updated, includes content for various levels
- Learn Spanish with La Casa Rojas (iTunes, Stitcher)–No longer updated, but you can still listen to the older episodes
- Coffee Break Spanish (iTunes, Stitcher)–Unfortunately, it seems the Stitcher feed is no longer updated, but iTunes has a lot of episodes
- Here is a listing of the language podcasts that iTunes has available. (Many are also on Stitcher for all my fellow Android friends, but you have to search on the actual app by category.)
- italki.com or gospeaky.com are both networks where you can chat live in other languages with native speakers around the world–language learning social media, basically. You can look for a native Spanish speaker who is learning English and swap time in each language to get practice speaking in real contexts. You can also use italki to find professional lessons or informal tutoring (paid services).
- lang-8.com–Writing practice (with corrections from native speakers)
- Look for real life opportunities to speak Spanish, like changing the grocery checkout to Spanish, talking to a native speaker that you know, or going to a local language meetup.
- Travel! Whether you know a little or a lot, the real life situations and people you encounter when you travel will teach you immeasurably more than a textbook. The key is to let go of perfectionism and do your best to communicate–most native speakers will be happy to help.
Just for Fun
All this learning…we need to laugh at ourselves once in awhile.
- This post from A Life With Subtitles cracks me up and has me nodding my head in agreement every time I go back and read it: 43 Thoughts You Have While Speaking Spanish (As a Second Language)
- This song about the woes of learning Spanish is a classic. I don’t even understand all of it, but it reminds me that I’m not alone in the frustrating and crazy process of trying to sort out Spanish vocabulary from country to country.
What language would you like to learn better? Have you found any great resources for language learning? What tips would you add?
This is Part 2 of a short series all about language and travel–check out the rest of the series below!