10 Tips to Become Fluent in Spanish Abroad

by Janiva Cifuentes-Hiss

The most effective, enduring, and memorable way to learn Spanish is by fully immersing yourself in a Spanish speaking culture, which will provide you with an experience that you will carry with you for rest of your life. However, fluency will not be something that automatically occurs upon arrival. It will require a great deal of enthusiasm, commitment, and even courage. 

True language fluency goes beyond grammar, accents, and rote memorization of irregular verbs. To become both linguistically and culturally fluent is to emerge from a semester of Spanish study abroad with a profound understanding of customs in your host country as well as idioms and idiosyncrasies.

If you think you are ready for the massive untaking that is learning a second language, then get your studies off the right start. Here are 10 tips to help you become fluent in Spanish during your study abroad program:

Student painting in an art workshop

Alebrije workshop student and painter

1. Pierde el miedo.

Lose your fear. The biggest barrier to becoming fluent in Spanish is your own fear. Fear of making a mistake, being laughed at, or being misunderstood. Replace your fear with the courage to make mistakes (and learn from them), laugh at yourself (even when you don’t know what you just said), and trust in the human capacity to transcend language barriers. A local artisan is more likely to be impressed by your genuine curiosity about his alebrijes (Mexican painted wood figurines) than by the proper use of the subjunctive.

Fluency isn’t about perfection; it is about connection, confidence, and communication.

2. Viva la familia.

Hands down, the most effective way to immerse in the Spanish language and culture is by living with a local host family. Although it may be tempting to stay in your comfort zone with other international students in a dorm or apartment, nothing can compare to the experience of sharing traditional meals with a Spanish family, taking part in family cumpleaños and quinceañeras, and having late night “breakthrough” conversations with your host sister. Becoming a member of a Spanish family will be a priceless part of your study abroad program. Familia is more than blood relatives, it’s a genuine human connection that can last a lifetime.

A student with her host mother

3. Make local amigos.

Find a Spanish study abroad program that will help you set up intercambios (language exchanges) with locals who are interested in practicing English and helping you learn Spanish. Some Spanish study abroad programs even coordinate conversation clubs for study abroad students to meet locals and facilitate bilingual icebreakers to get the ball rolling. Get involved in local university clubs, sports teams, volunteer groups, or youth groups. Volunteer at a center for the elderly or a local school while studying Spanish abroad. A simple conversation can turn into a meaningful friendship.

4. Let your taste buds lead the way.

Hone your Spanish language skills over tapas (tantalizing variety of regional appetizers in Spain), through leisurely conversations drinking mate (a traditional hot infusion of the yerba mate plant) in Argentina, or cooking mole (an intricate sauce incorporating dozens of ingredients including chocolate, nuts, and chilies) with your host mother in Mexico. Find a Spanish study abroad program that includes cooking classes and opportunities to learn where the local food comes from. Get to know local products from plant to plate on a coffee tour, on a gaucho ranch, or family-owned vineyard. Pancita llena, corazón contento (A full belly is a happy heart).

5. Talk to strangers.

Develop “street smarts” to identify locals with whom you want to strike up a friendly conversation with. Say buenos dias to the local student waiting in line with you at the café, greet the friendly woman selling churros every afternoon on your walk home from the university, and ask the vendor at the produce stand to teach you the names of the fruits you are buying. Learn how to steer clear of the creepy guy eyeing you at the bar and how to assertively exit a conversation when you decide it’s time to say adios.

Cooking class in Mexico

Cooking class

6.  Make a personal dictionary.

Purchase a small libreta or pocket-sized alphabetized address book to create your personal Spanish dictionary. Every time you learn a new word, jot it down for future reference. Your dictionary will become a handy resource when you are trying to recall a specific phrase or location a few days later. Simple sketches, particularly of local fruits and dishes, will help you identify them in the future. A personal dictionary helps you document your journey to fluency, and will become a unique souvenir filled with local words and slang you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in the world.

7. Use technology wisely.

It’s nice to check in on Skype with your friends and family back home, and share photos and videos via Facebook and Instagram of your adventures studying abroad. However, it is a common study abroad pitfall to spend more time in the virtual world than interacting with culture you flew thousands of miles to explore. Too much time online can actually exacerbate homesickness and cause you to miss out on opportunities and relationships abroad. Use technology to make plans with local friends, look up a word, find out about cultural events and attractions, and research your weekend travel. Then turn off the computer and put away the Smartphone, so you can truly immerse in the real world of your host destination.

8. Solo español por favor.

While study abroad is a time to make lifelong friendships with fellow study abroad students, resist the urge to fall back into English. Even though it is challenging and even awkward, students who commit to speaking Spanish all the time with each other are much more likely to become fluent. Surround yourself with Spanish language media, including music, books, and films made in Latin America and Spain. Keep up with national and local news and even get hooked on a telenovela (soap operas). Dreaming in Spanish is an exciting milestone signaling that the language is sinking into your subconscious!

Students playing music on a street

Spending time with local friends

9. Get lost.

Whether you get off at the wrong train station and end up in a totally different town than you intended, become disoriented in the colorful and odorous labyrinth of a local market, or find yourself walking in circles through winding cobblestone streets, getting lost is an inevitable part of travel. Learning how to stay calm and ask locals for directions is a valuable travel skill. One of the best ways to practice your Spanish skills is to perform a necessary task, like getting from point A to point B. It is also a small test to see how well you are able to apply your Spanish language skills to resolve real-life dilemmas.

10. Learn to laugh at yourself.

Cherish your Spanish “bloopers”. If everyone laughs in response to something you just said, chuckle along and find out what nonsense you accidentally uttered. Some of the most memorable moments of learning Spanish abroad are when you ask a local woman if you can pet her cabello (hair) instead of her caballo (horse), or when you tell your entire class that you are embarazado (pregnant) instead of avergonzado (embarrassed). Everyone makes hilarious mistakes when learning a new language. The world is laughing with you, not at you!

At its best, the quest for Spanish learning is fueled by a genuine curiosity for cultures and an authentic desire to communicate.

You must measure your success not by the grade you got on your Spanish final, but by the meaningful connections and relationships you forged during your time abroad. This is the true purpose of language acquisition, as well as study abroad.

Each new word, phrase, conjugation, and conversation is a memorable stepping-stone on the path to language fluency. In Spanish immersion, as in life, the journey itself is part of the destination.