Excited about an upcoming study abroad trip? Spanish immersion programs are fantastic if you want to learn about a new culture and improve your Spanish-speaking skills! Here, Seattle, WA tutor Paola E. shares some must-read tips for making the most of your experience…
One of the ultimate goals of Spanish learners who are committed to becoming fluent is to take the biggest leap and join a Spanish immersion program in a country where Spanish is spoken. Al fin! (At last!) The Spanish they are learning comes to life; they can see it, hear it, and interact in the target language wherever they go.
An immersion program is incredibly enriching, however, it is not uncommon for teachers to receive students who, after months (or years) of traveling or even living in a Spanish-speaking country, aren’t able to speak the language. The good news is that with dedication and a little planning, this can be avoided, and learners can take their conversational skills to the next level.
Below, I share 12 no-brainer tips for those who are committed to making the most of their experience abroad.
Before Your Trip
1) Take some Spanish lessons to learn the basics. The more knowledge you have, the faster you’ll improve when you’re abroad. It will allow you to interact with locals from the moment you arrive (and therefore learn more Spanish!). You want to be extremely comfortable with numbers and the alphabet. You’ll be glad you are when you need someone to spell that ridiculously long address for you.
2) Get exposed to the language every day. You can listen to something in Spanish during your commute, as you’re doing chores, or even while taking a shower. Make it a point to discover new awesome songs, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and learning apps (Duolingo is great!).
3) Take a Spanish pronunciation class or at least one private pronunciation lesson. This will save you tons of frustration by learning good pronunciation early on. This will also improve your listening skills.
4) Find a Spanish Meetup group in your area and attend at least a couple of times, and practice with native Spanish speakers and other learners. Consider this a warm-up before the real immersion.
5) Get out of the Spanish closet, and use it at ALL times! Yes, at first, it WILL be exhausting, but do your best to stick with it. It’ll pay off BIG time!
6) Write down new words you want to remember when possible. You can take a picture, write a note on your phone, or go old-school and keep a pocket notebook at hand.
7) Try to surround yourself with as many native Spanish speakers as possible. Some ways of doing so are:
- Staying with a host family.
- Signing up for a group physical activity like yoga or dance lessons (yes, even if it’s just for native Spanish speakers). These are great for meeting people aside from your Spanish classmates, and the lessons are fairly easy to follow. You’ll be surprised how body language compensates for the words lost in translation.
- Arrange an intercambio de español/Inglés (exchange) with a local Spanish speaker. This is a great chance to discuss the words you have been writing down (see tip #6).
8) Avoid the number-one enemy of every learner abroad: Do NOT use any language other than Spanish. If people you need to talk to can’t speak Spanish, minimize the use of English. I can’t emphasize enough that this is the best thing you can do for your Spanish. Every minute you spend speaking in another language is time stolen from your investment in learning in a Spanish immersion program.
9) Keep your part of the interaction in Spanish even if people respond to you in English. Some locals really want to help you feel more comfortable, and others enjoy practicing their English with foreigners. Resist the urge to switch to English. For instance, instead of asking “Cómo se dice ‘to have dinner’ en español?”, you can ask “Cuál es la palabra para comer en la noche?”
10) Limit yourself to a small travel dictionary or phrase book/phone app, and use it only if extremely necessary.
11) Don’t let your Spanish get rusty! Practice every day, continue with your Spanish lessons, and try to arrange an intercambio. If you can’t do it in person, you can do so online.
12) Let your Spanish-speaking friends, family members, or coworkers know that you’re learning Spanish, and ask them if you can use Spanish with them sometimes. Then, take the initiative, and ask a specific question in Spanish here and there when you both have the time.
Enjoy yourself no matter what during the entire learning process! Spanish immersion programs can be an incredibly memorable and valuable experience. You do want people to help you by correcting you, so don’t feel bad. Remember, a learner’s goal, at first, is not so much to have correct grammar, but rather to make oneself understood and to be persistent.
Happy learning, amigos!
(Special thanks to Layton from Seattle for the picture!)
Paola E. teaches in-person Spanish lessons in Seattle, WA. She is a certified Spanish interpreter, has traveled extensively throughout Spanish-speaking countries, and can speak three other languages in addition to Spanish and English! Learn more about Paola here!
Photo by Jana Lynch