Some languages aren’t going to do much for you in another country, but if you travel in most of Latin America, you’re going to need at least a basic grasp of Spanish from place to place. You can take the easy and cheap route by using one of the many software tools out there, but you’ll progress a lot faster with at least a week in some kind of Spanish school immersion program.
Learning another language is hard. It’s so hard in fact that most of us will travel to multiple countries in our lives where we don’t learn more than a few phrases and we never get around to the numbers even. We English speakers are quite fortunate that we can get by in a whole lot of places just using our native language, plus communicating gets easier all the time thanks to Google Translate and other artificial intelligence tools.
Part of the lack of motivation goes beyond that though, to the usually accurate assumption that we’re never going to use that language again. I spent close to half a year in Turkey and I don’t think I’ve uttered more than their word for hello since then outside of putting an order in at a doner kebab stand. I taught English for more than a year in a suburb of Seoul but apart from knowing what all the menu items are in a Korean restaurant, there’s not been much use for what I learned there since. I learned how to read Korean while I was there and that knowledge has faded from lack of use.
I’ve worked hard on my Spanish, however, since it’s the language of my adopted home but also a language that can be useful in so many other countries. Some of that work included classes in two countries.
Here are some destinations to consider if you’re looking to learn Spanish from a native speaker. I’m going to start at the bottom of South America, with the recent World Cup champs, and head north from there.
Studying Spanish in Argentina
Spanish for Latin America is very different than Spanish for Spain, but in Argentina is where the two draw closest together. The people of Buenos Aires like to say they speak Castellano, or Castilian, which they view as a more pure form of Spanish than what the rest of the Americas speaks. They use the “vos” familiar verb form that almost nobody else outside the southern cone of South America does (and it has mostly died out in Spain). There’s a soft “j” sound to a lot of words like “villa” where the double-el would be pronounced like a “y” more commonly. (So kai-yay for street—calle—sounds something like cah-zshay in Argentina.)
Then you have the Italian effect on the local version of the language, where the Italian immigrants who came in droves in the past infused their own influence on the language (and the hand gestures), making Argentine Spanish quite difficult for someone to get used to if they’ve studied or lived elsewhere like I have.
So why would you want to take a Spanish course in Argentina? Well if you’re going to live there, that’s an obvious reason. If you’ve fallen in love with a local, that’s a double incentive. If you’re going to travel around there a lot that’s another reason and right now as I’m writing this, Argentina is probably the best travel value in the world. It’s amazing what you get for your money there (as long as you bring plenty of cash).
It’s easy to set up Spanish lessons in Buenos Aires since the capital has the greatest concentration of language schools, but you’ll also find established ones in Mendoza and Salta. It would be easy (and affordable) to line up a private tutor in smaller cities like Bariloche too if you want a more relaxed place with easy access to nature.
There’s something to be said for the hybrid learning you’ll get here too: you’ll easily be understood with the accent you absorb if you’re heading to Chile, Colombia, or even Spain. Learning one verb form too many is probably better than being one short, again, especially if you also want to communicate well in Spain. Then if you want to work in the wine industry, learn to dance tango, or become a polo player…
Spanish Classes in Peru
Come for the Inca ruins, stay for the language of the conquistadors. No, that’s probably not a very politically correct marketing slogan, but Peru does have a whole lot going for it and if you go through the right immigration steps, you can spend six months in a row there before you have to leave for at least six months.
There are plenty of pleasant places to set up for a while and study, but the most obvious choices would be Cusco or Arequipa. There are also smaller towns scattered around that have at least one Spanish school and you could hire a tutor almost anywhere. Sure, you could study in Lima but unless you’re a real foodie or it’s a rare window when the city weather isn’t overcast, it’s kind of a gloomy place to live in my opinion.
Peru is one of my favorite countries and I find most of the people there easier to understand than in a lot of other Spanish-speaking countries. They don’t drop letters at the end of words, they enunciate, and most of them don’t sound like they’re trying to win a contest for how many words they can spit out in 20 seconds flat. So it would provide a good base.
Learning Spanish in Ecuador
Thousands of people a year take Spanish lessons in Ecuador because the country happens to be one of the most popular in South America for expats from the USA and Canada. The cost of living is quite low, they use the U.S. dollar as currency, and the minimum income requirement to get residency is one of the lowest in the world, just three times the local minimum wage of $450 — so $1,350 per month going into 2023.
As a result, learning Spanish in Ecuador is quite easy to set up, with schools in larger cities like Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca, but also in smaller towns where expats gather such as Vilcabamba. As with Peru, most visitors find the Spanish here to be clearer and easier to understand than in many other Latin American countries, without as much slang to navigate as, say, Mexico.
Ecuador is not all that large, but it’s crammed with a wealth of things to see and do, especially if you love nature and the outdoors.
Head to Colombia for Spanish Classes
As I’ve talked about here in other articles, Colombia is becoming a better value every year and it’s now one of the most reasonable places to live in when you head south to a warm climate. Medellin is the hotspot for remote workers and digital nomads, so there are plenty of Spanish schools ready to help you improve your conversation skills. You’ll also find schools in Cartagena, Bogota, and Santa Marta.
Colombia offers some of the best short-term rental deals in the Americas, so this is a great country to spend a few months in if you have the ability to work remotely while you’re studying. Accent-wise it’s kind of a cross between North and South, easier to understand than Argentine Spanish but still using a “j” sound instead of a “y” sound for the double-el words.
Cheap Spanish Learning in Guatemala
If your budget is tight, Guatemala has long been known as the cheapest place to do Spanish immersion classes. It’s actually the first place I did any formal study, back when I took my family there on vacation. We spent a week at a homestay in Antigua, had hours of private lessons each day, and spent around $400 for the three of us.
The cost of studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala will vary depending on the type of course and length of stay. Generally speaking, the prices start as low as $85 for group classes and not much more for ones with private lessons. It’s difficult to spend more than $8 per hour on private lessons, especially if you sign up for 20+ hours at once. Xela is even cheaper than Guatemala and one school there offers a deal of $150 per week for one-on-one private classes, 3 meals per day, and a family homestay. San Pedro in Lake Atitlan is another popular option.
Homestays are prevalent if you want to be forced to practice with a local family. Try to get details on what you’re getting though: our stay wasn’t as interactive as we had hoped and the bathrooms were nastier than you’d find in a typical hostel.
The Guatemalan accent has a reputation for being quite neutral, so it’ll set you up for almost anywhere, plus they don’t tend to use as many unique idioms as you’ll find in our next entry…
Learning Spanish in Mexico
Mexico has long been the most popular country for Spanish immersion classes because of one major advantage: it’s right next door to the USA. Flights are relatively inexpensive from the USA and Canada, plus you have a wide range of living situations to choose from. There are probably Spanish language schools for foreigners in at least 30 different cities, maybe 50. Beach, mountains, metropolis, jungle—pick your perfect spot.
If you want to really practice outside of class, the beach resort areas are not really ideal. Tourists can get by in English in those places so you’ll have to work much harder by seeking out inland neighborhoods. The same goes for expat hotspots like San Miguel de Allende and Lake Chapala where foreigners seem to outnumber locals in some spots. If you’ve got a place to stay for some reason, go ahead, but it’s not the best environment outside of the classroom.
The best places to learn Spanish in Mexico are cities where you won’t hear much English. Some of the popular destinations that have multiple schools include my home of Guanajuato, Cuernavaca, Puebla, Oaxaca, Merida, San Cristobal de las Casas, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. If you have a reason to be somewhere else though, poke around and there’s probably a place to take organized classes. Otherwise, arrange a tutor.
Prices for group classes in Mexico usually run from $80 to $200 per week for group classes of 10 to 25 hours. For a private tutor it’s anywhere from $7.50 to $15 per hour, the latter being someone with a lot of experience and good recommendations. I’ve done classes in Mexico, my wife and daughter did even more. I’m probably going to start back up with a tutor soon, the hurdle being time more than cost since I’m away a lot on trips.
Other Options in the Americas
These are the only places to study Spanish in the Americas, they’re just my recommendations based on costs and outcomes.
Costa Rica is also fairly popular, partly because there are so many activities you can do outside of class if you’re studying somewhere like Fortuna (near Arenal Volcano) or beach areas such as Tamarindo, Nosara, or Manuel Antonio. Costs here are far higher than in the places I have recommended above, however, whether for classes themselves or your daily living expenses.
Bolivia isn’t all that popular as a travel destination, especially since it’s the one remaining country with high reciprocal visa fees just to enter. It won’t cost you much to stay, however, and you’ll find places to study Spanish anywhere that foreigners gather.
Chile has higher costs than Argentina, though they’ve gotten a bit better in recent years. There are few advantages to studying here, however, unless you’ve gotten a work transfer or you have someone to stay with. Their words tend to run together in a blur and they use more slang than any country except possibly Mexico. Costs to get there on a flight are often about as high as you can pay in this hemisphere.
If you have a particular reason to be in another Spanish-speaking country not mentioned here for some reason, it should be hard to at least find a reasonably priced private tutor if there’s not a school offering group classes.
Why Take Spanish Classes Instead of Using Software?
In my ongoing attempts not to suck at Spanish, I’ve tried just about every method out there except getting a local girlfriend. (I don’t think my wife would approve.) I’ve used most of the electronic options available, including free Duolingo and paid Rosetta Stone. My favorite has been Pimsleur as I think their method of drilling and repetition is the most effective in getting phrases to stick in your memory.
It’s difficult to really get beyond the beginner level with these though as you’re talking to yourself or talking to a robot. There’s nobody to ask questions of, no way to gauge if what you’re saying will really be understood by the person on the other side of the conversation. Also, those gamified apps love to show you how much progress you’ve made, but then you listen to a native speaker on the street or on TV and you can’t understand a single word of it.
In general, the advantages of studying Spanish in Latin America include the opportunity to fully immerse oneself in the language and culture, practice speaking and listening skills in a natural setting, and take advantage of the lower cost of living in many Latin American countries. Use every method available to you to learn, but it’s hard to top classes or private lessons for really learning how to communicate in another language.
Then you can enhance what you’ve learned with those software tools in addition to books, video meet-ups, conversation exchanges, TV shows, movies, and other methods. There are some good podcasts out there too. My favorites are Spanish and Go (they also do immersion retreats in Mexico) and the Duolingo podcast.
How about you? Have you studied Spanish in another country? How did it go?