I get a lot of questions regarding dealing with the language barrier while traveling.
Many of the countries I have explored weren’t English speaking countries and I was more than okay. However, had I spoke the local language, I have no doubt I would have had a much more culturally indulgent experience.
While I was in Indonesia, me and the guy I was with rented some motor scooters and set off to explore. We had the map of Bali on the inside cover of a Lonely Planet guidebook (not very detailed at all) and the names of some sights/towns we wanted to explore. Neither of us spoke a word of Balinese or Indonesian and 98% of the people we encountered didn’t speak any English, yet we managed to feed ourselves, get everywhere we needed and see everything we wanted.
It was awesome to see what we could accomplish without speaking the language, but in no way would I consider our adventure efficient.
We drove in circles a lot.
We constantly stopped on the side of the road to yell out the town name we were trying to get to before taking off in whatever direction the person pointed.
This was all part of the adventure. I enjoyed it, and I highly recommend this type of adventure to everyone, however, I know we missed a lot of amazing food and hidden gems simply because we couldn’t ask any questions of the locals or get their recommendations.
How am I so sure of this?
Well, I made it my goal to significantly improve my Spanish speaking by the end of 2015.
To start the year, I actually moved down to Mexico for three months. Through this experience I really saw how speaking the local language lends to a completely different travel experience.
I remember the first time I made someone laugh with an off the wall comment I made in Spanish. It was such a cool feeling—I was instantly determined to become fluent in the language.
Let me start by saying: I’m still nowhere near fluent, but I definitely made significant improvements in those three months.
Before I left, I qualified my Spanish as good enough to get myself into trouble and then halfway out.
It was good enough to talk with native speakers in some fashion. It wasn’t pretty, but I could get my point across and be understood.
After reflecting, being understood in some capacity when speaking to locals is a huge reason why I was able to make such improvements in the three months I was there.
Currently, I could never give a professional presentation in Spanish, but...
- I know enough to ask for recommendations at a restaurant and get blown away by a meal I didn't even know existed.
- I know enough to shoot the shit with locals at a bar to the point where I have them laughing at WHAT I'm saying and not HOW I'm pronouncing it.
- I know enough to start a conversation with a stranger, and build a good enough connection to get their contact information to hang out again.
These experiences are some of my favorite when I’m speaking English—it gets taken to a whole new level of gratification when it’s happening in Spanish.
My time in Mexico let me get a little taste of the amazing benefits of being able to speak the local language, yet, my abilities still don’t allow me to let conversations evolve as deeply as I think they could.
This is why I have never been more motivated to improve.
My experience in Mexico was more motivating than frustrating because my command of the language let me peek behind the metaphorical curtain at what was possible, because I was actually talking and meeting people, instead of studying vocabulary tables and grammar rules.
This is a very personal motivation, and I think everyone needs a personal passion for learning something new if they have any chance at being successful.
However, I also have some less personal motivations for learning Spanish...
Reasons To Choose Spanish
- It's the second most common native spoken language in the world.
- 20 countries have Spanish as their official language (21 if you include Puerto Rico), which unlocks some awesome travel destinations.
- It's the most common second language learned and spoken.
Basically, learning Spanish will drastically increase the amount of people you can fully interact with on both your travels, and on a daily basis.
So what’s the most effective way to learn Spanish?
How To Learn Spanish Effectively
First off, just because there are more effective techniques than others, doesn’t mean learning a new language will be easy. There's still a lot of work and practice needed to be successful, so you will need proper motivation.
I think the key to getting this motivation is early success by starting to speak the language with local speakers as quickly as possible, instead of putting so much weight on memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules.
Obviously, if you’re going to be speaking with locals you are going to need SOME command of the language.
“Luckily” for me, I took Spanish for six years when I was in school and retained enough in those six years to already be able to have a basic conversation when I moved to Mexico—a testament to how “effective” the strategy they teach in schools is for learning a language...
If you’re new to learning Spanish, there are much better ways to start, which will get you to this basic command much more quickly and effectively.
Here's what I recommend...
Benny Lewis is the master at language hacking and I love his strategy of learning by playing through the language, instead of through dusty text books. Watch his awesome TED talk on language hacking below:
With Benny’s approach to language learning you are out speaking the language as quickly as possible, instead of spending months working on verb conjugations and vocabulary, and never having a conversation with an actual Spanish speaker.
If you’re new to Spanish, I recommend his product: Why Spanish Is Easy.
It’s important to realize this is NOT a language course, but rather, an approach to learning Spanish.
Benny shows you simple shortcuts you can use to develop the confidence to speak Spanish from day one, even if you don’t have a complete vocabulary or perfect grammar.
These are the exact shortcuts Benny used to become a confident and fluent Spanish speaker in just a few months, which is super helpful to get to the level I described above, without having to go through six years of inefficient schooling.
You can learn more about Benny’s unique approach to learning Spanish by clicking here.
Experience Spanish Every Day
If you can’t travel long term to a Spanish speaking country, you can bring Spanish into your life with technology. Now that I’m back in the US, I use the following 3 apps to make sure I get some sort of practice every day:
Duolingo (www.duolingo.com) – A structured app that takes you through a tree of learning, exposing you to both grammar and vocabulary. The app uses multiple methods to give you a full learning experience through reading, writing, speaking and listening.
Memrise (www.memrise.com) – This is a great tool for learning new vocabulary. Users submit mnemonic devices in the forms of pictures and sentences for vocabulary words and users can then vote on the most effective ones. Then, through effective use of elaborate encoding, choreographed testing, and scheduled reminders, the app helps you lock in new vocabulary to your long-term memory.
Tunein Radio (tunein.com) – TuneIn enables the user to discover, follow and listen to what’s important to them. From sports, music and talk, Tune In provides listeners access to more than 100,000 real radio stations across the globe. I use this app to tune into Spanish speaking stations to listen to music and talk shows. It’s great to practice by listening to actual Spanish speakers and getting a hang of their speaking cadence and learning to differentiate between different words.