The Spanish Challenge: Achieve Fluency Before Leaving South America

Six months ago, I relocated to Ecuador, a Spanish speaking country, with little to no Spanish speaking skills of my own. I moved in with a host family, started volunteering as an English teacher at a local high school, and attempted the task of learning Spanish.

Half a year later and I’m sad to say I’m still nowhere near being fluent. Although I’m infinitely better than I was before I left London, I still have an extremely long way to go.

Why am I not fluent in Spanish yet?

As I always knew, my issue lies with laziness. From time to time I’ve been impressively proactive; scribbling notes, making conversation solely in Spanish, and even spending afternoons looking up wayward words and phrases I haven’t yet got to grips with.

But, for the most part, I’ve been hanging out with my fellow volunteers; English-speaking friends who I can’t help but speak our common native language with. So while I speak Spanish at work and with my host family, English still reigns supreme in my day-to-day life.

Things are changing, though. A few weeks ago, I left my home in Cuenca and began travelling in earnest; up through the Ecuadorian Oriente and across the border into Colombia. A direct shift from a teacher’s lifestyle and straight back into backpacking.

Luckily for me, my time in South America doesn’t end with a departure from Ecuador. While my friends head back to England for a new chapter, and the start of their university lives, I begin another chapter of my own; travelling, writing and volunteering my way around this huge continent.

But it’s not just the pursuit of those listed above that’s going to keep me going. For I have an ulterior motive – a challenge – and something that could end up being the making or breaking of me.

So here’s my Spanish challenge: I am not going to leave South America until I’m fluent in Spanish.

Of course, there’s plenty of debate over what ‘fluent’ means. Generally speaking, the better you are at a language the more you realise how much there’s still left to learn.

Just because you understand Spanish doesn’t mean you know the local dialect…

In a perfect world, I’d feel comfortable talking to anyone about any topic – be it history, culture, politics, or literature – but this is something that could easily take many more years to achieve. So I’d settle for the more varied, possibly less skilled but ultimately the most satisfying achievements with my language skills; things that, at present, I can see being a possibility but that still remain tantalisingly out of reach.

I want to be able to email my Ecuadorian host mum and brothers about my travels in flawless Spanish. I want to chat effortlessly to every taxi driver who picks me up. I want to expand my social circles in each city I move to, speaking only in their native language.

And don’t even get me started on how much safer I’d feel in a strange new place if I could ask anyone passing by for advice or help. Something your average gringo definitely can’t do.

But most of all? I want to not have to think when I speak Spanish. I want to feel like my mouth is doing the talking and my mind is making minimal effort. I want those verbs to conjugate automatically, those tenses to fall into place without effort, and that once-strange vocabulary to be more familiar and appropriate than English.

Slow and steady: my Spanish advances so far

There are some elements of this that are happening already, of course – which is also of great help to my eventual aim. One of the many benefits to living in a Spanish-speaking country for so long is the unconscious ability to start combining your first language with the one you’re trying to learn; so even though I predominantly speak English with my friends, we still throw in a hefty dollop of Spanish tambien.

A typical conversation amongst us could easily go as follows:

“Hola chica, como vas??”

Bien gracias! Have you heard from that guy about getting wristbands for the club yet?”

“No, not yet… Creo que él está durmiendo. Or he’s just being lazy.”

“Ahh entiendo.. I hope he calls though! We need to sort our plans en la noche and we might not vamos en el club if he doesn’t habla para ti…”

And the end result of said typical conversation. We always end up at the club.

Sometimes I even find myself idly translating the sentence I’ve just said out loud into Spanish in my head – like when my thought process does this for me:

Por ejemplo: cuando mis amigos y yo vamos a bailar en noche, hablamos mucho en espanol con mucha gente.

Simply put, we spend a lot of time dancing in clubs in amongst the Cuencan partygoers, and our Spanish increases tenfold when we’ve had a drink or two, or just so happen to be dancing with quite an attractive Ecuadorian.

Cuenca club life: the making of our every weekend out here

What’s my motivation?

So why am I hell-bent on my self-imposed grounding on South American soil? Well, in case you didn’t already know, this place is pretty damn cool.

Graffiti face in Cuenca

The people are awesome, the food is fantastic and the nightlife is simply hilarious. There’s incredible graffiti hiding around every corner, photo opportunities everywhere you look, a myriad of ‘must-see’ sites and even more unknown ones.

Sunset on rio Napo

And, fundamentally, Spanish is spoken pretty much everywhere, so it’s a perfect stomping ground for me to practice and to learn. What makes things a bit trickier, though, is that accents vary across the continent; so do the conjugations of many verbs, and there’s a hell of a lot of slang that I’ve had to stop myself from picking up in Cuenca, because I know that people in Quito may not understand it – let alone those in Bolivia or Argentina!

All this combined means I’m facing a pretty difficult challenge – but I know I can complete it, however long it takes.

How am I going to achieve this Spanish challenge?

I’ve made no attempt to hide one of my main motivations for travelling in general. Volunteering is something that I love doing – and it’s also a huge help when it comes to language skills. Spending six months volunteering in Ecuador has definitely improved my Spanish. Even if the vast extent of my extra vocabulary is all to do with school-related instructions…

But with Ecuador behind me, it makes sense to take this lesson and utilise it in the other countries I visit in South America. So the plan is to make sure I volunteer my services in every country I pass through; whether for a few months or just a couple of days, I get the feeling that volunteering with Spanish speakers (most of whom won’t be able to speak English) should help me significantly.

There are so many options available to improve your Spanish out here, particularly when taking the volunteering route; staying with host families, working with locals, becoming part of a community. Even the CouchSurfing world is bigger and more welcoming in this continent than anywhere else!

So while I’m obviously not going to avoid talking to English speakers, I feel like it could be sensible to make English take a back seat. For the next few months, at least.

Colombia

I’m travelling with my volunteer friends until mid August, but once they’ve left me in the north of the country, I’m spending a week in Cartagena to do some intensive Spanish classes with Nueva Lengua. I’ve had really good recommendations from this language school, so I’m excited to see what improvements they can make to my skills!

I’m then heading down to Medellin for a week; in perfect timing, apparently, because the city’s yearly flower festival and biggest celebration is happening exactly when I’m there! So I’ll be hanging out with a few bloggers and getting to grips with yet another of South America’s unique customs. I’ll also drop in on Angeles de Medellin, an organisation providing care for displaced women and children.

Finally, I’m going further south to Bogota, the county’s capital, and staying with a friend I met on the beach in Montañita while I spend another week learning Spanish with Nueva Lengua Spanish School.

Brazil

After three Spanish-speaking countries, I take my first foray into another language – so I’m hoping that my Spanish will be good enough to pick up the similarities in Portuguese. I’m flying from Bogotá straight to Rio de Janeiro (thanks to the generous guys at Skyscanner) and heading into the nearby mountains for two weeks of technology-free volunteering: my cousin recently set up a healing community in São Bento and I’m helping out with building work.

Building work in Mysore

At the start of September, I plan to explore Rio for a bit, and maybe spend a few weeks volunteering in the favelas, before cutting across country – presumably aboard a multitude of long-haul buses – to reach the Bolivian border.

Bolivia

This country has been calling me for quite some time now, and I’m choosing to ignore those who say La Paz is a nightmare of a capital city. For a month or so, I’ll hopefully be volunteering at the Rotary Club’s centre for artificial limbs before heading for Sucre to work with a literary organisation who establish libraries in rural areas, run book groups and generally promote all things book-like.

And after that?

While I have some rather exciting projects in the works for my travels post-Bolivia, there’s no point in thinking quite so far ahead just yet. But I can reveal that they’d definitely benefit from Spanish fluency, so it’s a good timeframe to work within.

The ultimate resolve is to spend the second half of this year speaking Spanish as much as possible. Just like I said before i left London… But maybe it’ll be different this time around. Six months in Cuenca has gifted me the ability to not care if I make mistakes; I just speak regardless, which feels like half the battle.

And now there’s higher stakes to play for, after all. Because what’s life without a little challenge?

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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31 Responses to The Spanish Challenge: Achieve Fluency Before Leaving South America

  1. Jessi July 19, 2013 at 1:45 am #

    I love your plans! This is an awesome challenge! 🙂

    May I suggest a few things to help get you started on your way to fluidez? 🙂

    “Hola chica, cómo vas??”
    “Bien gracias! Have you heard from that guy about getting wristbands for the club yet?”

    “No, not yet… Creo que él está durmiendo. Or he’s just being lazy.”

    “Ahh entiendo.. I hope he calls though! We need to sort our plans en POR la noche and we might not IR AL club if he doesn’t LLAMA POR tí…”

    Por ejemplo: cuando mis amigos y yo vamos a bailar POR LA noche, hablamos mucho en español con mucha gente

    Things like “at night”, “in the afternoon”, “in the evening” – they’re all with “POR”

    Also, since you conjugated “might” in the “we” form, even though you’re speaking spanglish, that means your next verb (ir) needs to be in the infinitive (non – conjugated) form.

    (source – over 10 years of speaking Spanish, living in Costa Rica, Spain, and a BA in Spanish)

    Hope this helps 😀

    • Jessi July 19, 2013 at 1:46 am #

      **We need to sort our plans POR la noche

      (sorry, not having html makes things hard to see when you type em out) 😛

      • Flora July 26, 2013 at 11:04 pm #

        Jessi, you’re a legend. I seriously appreciate the help – differentiating between ‘por’ and ‘para’ is one of those little bugbears that constantly irritates me! Hopefully when I get some Spanish classes down in the next few weeks I’ll start to get these things right more 🙂

  2. Naomi July 19, 2013 at 6:28 am #

    LOVE it. Definitely an achievable goal, I think – fluency is so much more about being comfortable speaking a language and making yourself understood than having perfect grammar and knowing every word you hear. I know how difficult it can be to learn a language when working as an English teacher, but now that you’re untethered you’ll make leaps and bounds 😉

    Also, you are SUCH an inspiration with all of your volunteering plans. I really admire that you dedicate your travels to it. <3

    • Flora July 26, 2013 at 11:01 pm #

      Thanks so much darling! You’re so right – feeling comfortable when speaking is a whole lot more important to me than simply learning things by rote in a classroom. Fingers crossed the bounding and leaping will continue indefinitely!

  3. Kiara Gallop July 19, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

    I just wanted to say I totally relate to the obstacles you’ve encountered regarding learning Spanish. I’ve just completed a GCSE in the subject, which you would think would guarantee a certain level of fluency. However it was a distance learning course so whilst i had a lot of practice with reading and writing the language, I still feel totally incapable of speaking it or understanding more than the odd sentenceof the spoken word. I even chose to take my skiing holiday earlier this year in the Sierra Nevadas in Spain to help with my difficulties. I thought that I’d have ample opportunity to speak in Spanish. What stopped me was fear coupled with laziness – fear I wouldn’t be understood and fear that I wouldn’t understand the response. So I left Spain a week later feeling no more confident and possessing no more spoken or comprehension skills than I did when I arrived. Now that I’ve finished the course I can already feel the knowledge slipping away from me. However I am being made redundant in October and, coupled with the fact that south America has always been on my hit list, I am seriously considering using some of my redundancy pay to spend a few months out there immersed in the culture, its people and its language. However it sounds as though this may not be as sure fire a way of learning Spanish fluently as I thought! Great article though, think it expresses the difficulties a lot of us Brits have with becoming fluent in a new language 🙂

    • Flora July 26, 2013 at 11:14 pm #

      You should definitely come out to South America and give your Spanish a go! I know exactly what you mean about being nervous to speak – but honestly, any bit of effort goes a long way, particularly out here. Locals absolutely love it when they hear a gringa speaking Spanish, even if you’re getting bits of it wrong!

      I wouldn’t say you’ll be fluent after a few months of immersion, but you’ll definitely improve – as long as you stick at it. I’m trying out classes here in Colombia next week and will take some more in Bolivia in October, so I’ll definitely be updating which how those immersion classes go!

  4. Jessica Wray July 19, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    Oh, how I know how this goes! Only after studying in Argentina, then taking more classes in university, then interning in Ecuador for a few months did, I feel like I was finally just reaching at fluency. Of course, once I got to that spot it was time to go home. I’m moving to Spain in one month and I’ll have the same goals as you! I’ll have to remember to make some Spanish speaking friends and try my best not to be lazy, but it’s hard!

    Have an amazing trip around South America! x

    • Flora July 26, 2013 at 11:10 pm #

      Sounds great Jessica – how long are you moving out to Spain for? I’m sure there’ll be absolutely no problem with making Spanish-speaking friends 🙂 Practicing is definitely key though!

  5. Steph July 19, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

    Wow, that is awesome! I spent 8 months in South America and I never did achieve fluency (we’ll see if another 6 months in Mexico helps any). Traveling with Mike definitely made it harder, I think you will learn a lot more traveling solo!

    • Flora July 26, 2013 at 11:08 pm #

      Solo travel definitely has its advantages :p Fingers crossed we’ll both improve over the next six months!

  6. Aoife July 20, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    I’m currently planning my gap year and South America, Argentina, is hogging a 5 month spot. The problem is I don’t speak a word of Spanish… For a while I thought I could just wing it with some everyday vocab, or learn whilst I was there (I know how lazy I am), but this post, along with your ‘Am I Incapable of Learning Spanish?’ has told me I need to start learning! Now my friend and I have signed up for an immersion course, so thank you for that push!!

    Your volunteering plan around SA sounds incredible, especially in Brazil. Good luck and I can’t wait for some more posts!

    • Flora July 26, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

      Ahh that sounds awesome Aoife! Much as I hate scaring people into thinking they simply HAVE to learn Spanish to cope out here, there’s no doubt that it definitely helps..! Good luck with your immersion course – I’m about to do a week’s worth of immersion in Cartagena too 🙂

  7. Mig July 21, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    Nice challenge! Learning Spanish for volunteering will make the experience much more meaningful.

    • Flora July 26, 2013 at 11:05 pm #

      That’s the hope, Mig!

  8. Victoria July 29, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

    So many exciting plans Flora! Love it! La Paz is awesome. I loved it there. I know a great couchsurfer who I can put you in contact with.

    • Flora August 1, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

      Thanks Victoria, I’m so excited for the next few months! Can’t wait to get to La Paz – and I’d love to get in touch with your friend!

  9. Magallanes August 2, 2013 at 11:37 pm #

    impressive. What accent do they predominantly speak in South America? Is it also more like the Mexican sound?

    • Flora August 4, 2013 at 3:04 am #

      I haven’t been to Mexico so I’m afraid I don’t know! Although the accents differ significantly from country to country, and some cities have very different accents to each other, too.

  10. Eleisha October 9, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

    Can totally relate to eveything you write about the trials and tribulations of learning spanish. I am seven months into my trip around central and south america and have definately faced the same problems (namely my own laziness!). Great blog 🙂
    Suerte!

  11. Julio Moreno December 28, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Good luck with your challenge. Do you have any spanish speaking heritage or did you just study it? I am actually Mexican American viviendo en Korea, asi es que estoy estudiando Koreano! 🙂
    Suerte!

    • Flora January 1, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

      Nope, no Spanish speaking heritage apart from a semester of Spanish 101 when I was studying abroad in the States 🙂 Muchas gracias por tu mensaje Julio – y buen suerte con estudiando Koreano!

  12. EscapeWriter January 14, 2014 at 10:04 am #

    Well, Spanish is a beautiful language. Music to my ears!
    But grammar can get quite complex and the Latin-American words, regional expressions and slang differ so much from standard Spanish.

    • Flora January 19, 2014 at 12:16 am #

      Luckily I really enjoy learning the linguistic differences from country to country – it keeps things interesting!

  13. me ha gustado tu web y gracias por dejarme decirte q la gente q siempre ha sufrido los imsomnios siempre han podido ayudarse de este programa ahi encontraras un monton d gente con tus sintomas y os ayudareis con los grandes consejos y tecnicas aplicables .gracias

    • s.sadasivam June 20, 2014 at 10:55 am #

      Hola, I am living chennai in INDIA. I know manything in spanish. But a great drawback no one in spanish. I am learning spanish from 2006 onwards. I am able to speak about myself and about something as in level as a 3rd level elementary student.. I wrote five hoolywood films subtitles in english and aswell as spanish. Every film took seven hours. But what is the result. Asusual i am able to talk something. that is all. Tenglo no problema. Soy abuelo. No, No soy anciano. Tengo setenta tres anos. Sou jubilado. Kindly give some advice according to my level and my living place. This is my second requestation. s. sadasivam. de chennai de India.

      • Flora July 11, 2014 at 1:17 am #

        Bueno, felicidades por tu español! No piensaba que hay muchas personas en India que hablan español 🙂 Porque tienes el internet hay muchisimas lugares para hablar y practicar su idioma, muchas sitios — solo usas Google para incontrarlos!

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