¡Buena Suerte! 10 Tips To Learn Spanish

by Troy Peden

Guatemala has been a mecca for Spanish Language study in Latin America for decades. Prospective study abroad students are attracted to the rich indigenous culture, the colorful geography, and the affordable language classes. The great climate and the amazing food are bonuses. Many of the smaller towns in the western highlands of Guatemala are home to privately owned Spanish Language schools. Some are less than reputable while others adhere to strict academic guidelines. Many are even accredited by US and international universities. You will likely learn more Spanish in a shorter amount of time and for less money studying in Guatemala than you ever would at home.

Immerse yourself with the culture by living in a homestay.
Immerse yourself with the culture by living in a homestay. Photo by Miranda Schreiber

So now that you have chosen Guatemala for your study abroad experience, learn how to make the most of your stay. These tips will help you to improve your language skills and stand out among a sea of resumes when you get back home. As one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, it is easy to apply your skills to business, healthcare, education, or simply your next trip! Here are a few tips to get the most language skills for your money.

1. Research Schools In Advance  

It is important to spend some time looking at your options. Schools vary greatly. Consider factors such as class size, number and duration of courses, and living arrangements if necessary. There are many online reviews but they often focus on the quality of an individual teacher and are the encouraged product of the school itself. Go beyond the review and look at some independent indicators. Some good indicators of quality are: do they host US university groups, do they offer transferable credit, and do they outline their academic mission or method on their website.

2. Teacher Rotation

If you decide to take individual one on one lessons, request that your teacher be changed every week. Most schools will allow this. The reason for this is that the skills of the teachers vary so greatly. Some instructors have education degrees while others have little to no experience. If the teacher knows they are only with you for one week their feelings will not be hurt when they are rotated on Monday. If you come across a teacher who is really making you learn, you can always change your request and retain that teacher. Plus, it is beneficial to practice with different people. This will expose you to different accents, slang, and teaching methods.

3. Request A Homestay For One

Ask that you be placed in a homestay that accepts only one student. This will increase your language practice dramatically. You will be forced to speak Spanish while at home, and not be be trapped in your comfort zone by other students who want to speak English all the time. It is too easy to fall into English when surrounded by others that know it. It also helps ensure your homestay will feel more like a home instead of a hotel and it is vital to have a comfortable place to practice. One of the most important elements of learning a new language is confidence.

4. Carry A Notepad

Everytime you hear a word you have never heard before write it down. This may seem impossible at the beginning when it feels like every word is new but pick and choose and it will help immensely. Look it up later and learn it. If you heard it used, chances are it is a practical word and will be used again. The action of writing it down aides memorization plus it is a great place to store everyday sayings and slang. It will also help you not feel overwhelmed. If there is day when your brain feels as if it could not fit one more single piece of data just know it is written down and can be studied later. By the time you go home you will have your own personal dictionary in tow.   

5. Focus On Conversation And Conversate

One on one classes in particular are conducive to learning through conversation. You will have plenty of time to dissect the parts of speech later, focus on the flow of the conversation in front of you. When you learned English as a toddler no one told you what an irregular verb or past participle was but you still learned to speak like a native.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice

Put yourself in situations everyday in which you have to learn new words. Go to the bakery until you are completely comfortable ordering every type of bread then move to the café.  Haggle for a hacky sack at the market, ride a bus to a neighboring town, and talk to a stranger in the park. Just reading the back of labels while in line is great practice. It's like Spanish class only free.

7. Read Before You Go

Learn the basics about Guatemalan history, politics, and geography before you go. When you know the basics its easier to understand the culture plus you don't annoy locals with questions that seem so basic to them.

8. Haggle For Tuition

This may seem like an uncomfortable task for many students from the US and Europe but the majority of the schools will give discounts for multiple weeks, for payment in advance, and simply because you asked. It is not offensive in Guatemala and considered commonplace. Haggle prices in the market first for some practice. If you can't haggle there you will become a walking dollar sign to the vendors.

9. Be patient.  

Easier said than done, of course, but this is advice is for travelers everywhere but particularly applicable in Guatemala. Their pace is a bit slower, the speech is a bit slower, and you will find yourself even walking a bit slower just to enjoy the grandeur of this amazing place! The fact is you are going to mess up and you are going to mess up a lot. That is just the name of the game. Realize you are not going to be perfect right away, in fact probably not for years, so take your time. Most locals deeply appreciate you trying to learn and will offer a great deal of help.

10. Build A Foundation Of Useful Terms

Most tasks and outings can be completed using only a handful of the same terms such as please, thank you, have, where, need, good, bad, and the most important of all, how do you say insert one million words here. Your conversation improves and becomes more detailed as you build upon these commonly used terms. Don't spend hours memorizing every single kitchen utensil, instead considered the words you need everyday and build from there. Look online for lists of most commonly used words and phrases.