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Do You Need To Speak Spanish to Travel South America?

Do You Need To Speak Spanish to Travel South America?

If you are planning on backpacking South America, you might be wondering – “Do I need to speak Spanish?” Lee and I have been in South America for the last three months and in this post, we will share our first hand experiences with you regarding speaking the language.

Unlike many other destinations in the world where my answer would be, “no, you don’t need to learn another language.” – when it comes to South America I would recommend doing your best to build a basic level of Spanish. It will make your travels a lot easier and it’s not as difficult as you might think.

The Worldwide Prevalence of English Makes Us Lazy

As native English speakers we are lucky in a way, because our language is probably the most universally spoken around the world. Lee and I have travelled all over Southeast Asia and Europe and in every country we have encountered English speaking hotel and restaurant staff, tour guides and locals. We ordered food from menus translated into English and watched films with English subtitles. So far, we have been able to visit over 25 countries without having to learn another language.

This is a blessing in a way, because it makes travelling very easy for English speakers. However, it is also a curse because it makes us lazy when it comes to learning new languages.

Being in a situation where you have no choice but to attempt the local language is usually the only way that you will push yourself out of your comfort zone and give it a try. 

Communicating in a second language is hard, so unfortunately if there is an option not to – we will simply speak English to make things easier.

Copacabana

Copacabana, Bolivia

A Little Spanish Goes a Long Way in South America

So if you are wondering, “Should I learn Spanish before travelling in South America?” – the answer is yes.

I would recommend at least learning a very simple vocabulary, preferably one related to numbers, food, accommodation and the basics. In comparison to other countries where English was enough to get around, I have found that isn’t the case in South America. Depending on where you are, you might encounter hotel and restaurant staff who speak English – but a lot of the time you will not.

I can guarantee you that you will encounter people with little to no English – so you will want to be able to at least make your basic needs understood to them.

However, you don’t need to be completely fluent before you travel to South America! By all means, do not postpone or cancel your South America trip just because you can’t hold a conversation in Spanish. It’s not necessary to be an expert before you go, all you need is a base to start with and you will be surprised by how much you will pick up as you go along.

Musicians at the Fiesta de Virgen de Candelaria in Peru

Musicians at the Fiesta de Virgen de Candelaria in Peru

What Are the First Things to Learn?

So if you only have a short time before your trip backpacking around South America, what should you focus on learning in Spanish before you go? Here are some of the most important things I have found to serve me well in my first few months here:

The Polite Words

Politeness goes a long way. Above all, the first words that you should learn in any language are Hello, Thank You, Please, and I’m Sorry. In Spanish they are Hola, Gracias, Por Favor and Lo Siento. Also, say “Perdón” if you bump into someone or need to squeeze past them.

Numbers

One of the first things to learn are your numbers, because you will need to be able to ask ¿Cuánto es? (How much?) and understand the reply. This is important when asking the price of hotel rooms, souvenirs in the market, or anything else you want to buy.

Numbers from 1-100 in Spanish

Food

In many restaurants we have been in so far in Peru and Bolivia, there hasn’t always been an English version of the menu. It is helpful to have a basic vocabulary of food and drink words so that you know what you are ordering and can ask for it in Spanish.

BBC Spanish Vocabulary – Food and Drink

Accommodation

Along with speaking to waiters about food, your other most common interaction with locals when travelling in South America will be with the receptionist at your hotel or hostel. You should know some helpful phrases, such as:

Do you have a room for two people? - ¿Tiene una habitación para dos personas?

How much per night? - ¿Cuánto por noche?

Is breakfast included? - ¿Está incluido el desayuno?

Do you have wifi? - ¿tiene wifi?

More Spanish Hotel Vocabulary

Answering Where You Are From

In my experiences so far, one of the most common questions that people ask me is where I am from. People are friendly and curious about foreigners, so they will naturally want to know which country you hail from.

When they ask you the question, they will either say “¿De dónde eres?” (where are you from?) or “¿Qué país es usted?” (what country are you from?)

Since I am from Canada, I answer either “Soy canadiense” (I am Canadian) or “Yo soy de Canadá” (I am from Canada). Find your nationality on this list to figure out what you would say.

Explaining That You Don’t Speak Much Spanish

I have often asked a simple question in Spanish, only to receive a complex response spoken in rapid fire which leaves me completely bewildered. It is important to be able to explain to people that you have a very very basic command of the language, so they should speak to you like they would to a three year old. As soon as most people realise that you don’t speak Spanish well, they will simplify their message and use more body language – which makes it much easier to grasp what they are trying to tell you.

Some great phrases for this are:

Slow down, please – Mas despacio por favor

I speak very little Spanish - Yo hablo muy poco español

Sorry, I don’t understand - Lo siento, no entiendo

Repeat, please? - Repita por favor

Women in traditional costume near Colca Canyon, Peru

Women in traditional costume near Colca Canyon, Peru

Tips For Getting By on Very Little Spanish in South America

When I first arrived in South America, I spoke very little Spanish. I had taken a few classes, but I was nowhere near fluent. How did I make up for my lack? Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Smile and be patient. The right attitude goes a long way and people will take more time to understand you and help you if you are pleasant to them.
  • Write it down. Carry a notepad with you and write down numbers or names to avoid confusion. For example, the word for 13  (trece) sounds a lot like the word for 3 (tres), so writing it down will avoid confusion about price later.
  • Listen for the words you know. For example, Lee and I walked past a restaurant once to look at the menu. The hostess standing outside said something to me I didn’t understand. I said, “Mas despacio, por favor?” and she repeated it slower. I was able to catch the words “diez minutos” (ten minutes). From the context, I figured out that she was telling us that the wait for a table at that restaurant was 10 minutes – even though I didn’t know any other words in her sentence.
  • The phrase “¿Cómo se dice ____ en Espanol?” is very helpful. It means, “How do you say ___ in Spanish?” Just point to the object you want to talk about.
  • Don’t be afraid to sound a bit like a caveman when you first start out – don’t worry too much about proper grammar. For example, the other day I asked the receptionist of our hostel, “¿Pagar habitación ahora?” which means “Pay room now?” My grammar was Neanderthal-like, but she understood what I meant! The most important part is to get your message across, you will become more refined as you learn.
  • Use your body language! Most of communication is non-verbal, so use gestures, facial expressions and pointing to things to help get your point across.
  • Get over your nervousness and give it a try! Speaking a language you are just learning is very intimidating, but once you get over your fear of speaking to strangers in Spanish you will learn so much faster. You will make mistakes, but they aren’t the end of the world so don’t worry. Think about it, if someone was learning English and they made a mistake, would you hold it against them? Probably not, unless you are a massive jerk.
  • Try to learn new vocabulary words as you go along and use them again so that you remember them. The new vocabulary words I have learned in the last few weeks or so include “jabón” (soap), “papel higiénico” (toilet paper), “saco de basura” (rubbish bag) and “carta”(menu) – because I had to ask for them. Also, I learned the phrase “para llever” which means “to take away” in the context of ordering food. You will really be amazed at the number of words and phrases you pick up as you travel.
Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa, Peru

Spanish Language Learning Resources

So how can you improve your Spanish before your trip to South America and during your travels? Here are a few of your choices when it comes to Spanish language learning resources:

Spanish Lessons

If you have the time to take some Spanish lessons in your home country before you go on your backpacking trip around South America, this will really benefit you. Learning in a group is fun and social and having a knowledgeable teacher whom you can ask questions to is very helpful.

Also, when you arrive in South America there are many opportunities to take Spanish lessons during your travels. Most of the cities we have been to so far have had several language schools offering Spanish lessons by the hour for very affordable rates. Also, it’s a fun way to make new friends – especially when you are travelling solo. Just do a Google search for “Spanish Lessons in (City)” and you will have lots of choices.

DuoLingo

Another great Spanish learning resource is the app Duolingo, which you can download onto your Smartphone. You will have many bored hours sitting on buses during your trip, so why not use that time to improve your Spanish? This app is really simple and fun and it involves matching words with pictures, as well as speaking and writing sentences. Here’s a review of DuoLingo from the language-learning master Benny Lewis.

Rosetta Stone

This is considered to be one of the best examples of language learning software produced so far and after looking at it with Lee for the last few days, I can see why. It teaches you by immersing you in the language, without providing you context in your native language. You match up phrases with photographs, so you learn to say what you see – rather than constantly translating back and forth in your head. Here are some tips on how to use it effectively.

Colca Canyon, Peru

Colca Canyon, Peru

Learn Spanish With Michel Thomas

Michel Thomas is actually a pretty amazing dude. He survived being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, served in the French Resistance and worked with the US Army Counter Intelligence Corps during World War II. He has developed his own method of language learning called the “Michel Thomas Method” and his educational recordings are available in not just Spanish but also French, German, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, Greek, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese.

Personally, I like the Michel Thomas Method and find that it helps me to learn. He slowly introduces you to short words and phrases, starting with simple sentences and then building up to more complicated phrases. You learn the basic “building blocks” of the language first and then you must think out how to say the phrase, which really helps you to put sentences together.

Spanish Learning Podcasts

Of course, another great way to learn Spanish is to download one of the many great Spanish learning podcasts available. When you are on that 8 hour bus making your way across Peru, you can listen to podcasts on your mp3 player or smartphone and make the most of that boring transit time.

Here is a list of the best free podcasts for learning Spanish.

Talking to People!

One of the best ways to improve your Spanish is to practice it by talking to people! Take the time to chat with the people you see from day to day, from the lady behind the counter in the shop to your taxi driver to the other guests in your hotel. At first you will only be able to say the simplest things, but after a while you will be able to hold more complex conversations. The more you practice your Spanish by actually talking to people, the quicker you will learn.

Enjoy Learning a New Language

Yes, it can sometimes be very frustrating when you just want to ask something simple and you can’t seem to get your point across to the other person. Yes, it can be lonely and isolating when everyone is chatting in Spanish and you don’t know what they are talking about. Yes, it can be difficult and time consuming to learn a language. But don’t give up – and certainly don’t cancel your trip to South America.

South America is an amazing part of the world with so many exciting attractions to explore, from the Salt Flats of Bolivia to Machu Picchu in Peru to the mountains of Patagonia. The challenge of communicating in Spanish is absolutely worth it when travelling this great continent.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

Embrace the challenge and learn the basic Spanish you need to get around – and don’t stress yourself out about it. Relax, enjoy your travels, giggle when you use the wrong word and talk to people as often as you can. Not only will you be exploring new foreign lands, you will also be learning a new skill and developing yourself outside of your comfort zone – isn’t that what travel is all about?

Have you been travelling in South America? ¿Hablas español? Let us know about your experiences in the comments. 

About Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word.

8 comments

  1. Speaking a spanish language when traveling in south america is an advantage, but I don’t think it is necessary. I traveled South America many times and I am familiar with only few Spanish words, but this did not cause a problem to me. It might be uncomfortable sometimes because of the communication barrier but it is normal, it happens all the time when you go to other countries that don’t utilize English often as compared to countries that speaks the universal language.
    John Dane recently posted..How to Save Up to 80% Off Your Next Hotel

  2. It probably depends on where you’re going. A touristy city like Buenos Aires will probably have more English speakers, but a more remote spot probably will not. It’s always better to get familiar and learn basic phrases, food, etc. at the least.
    Adrienne S. @ Adrienne Away recently posted..What to Eat & Drink in Chile

  3. Personally I think that if you’re looking to truly see and experience the culture of the country then the only way you’ll be able to do so is to embrace it, and part of that is at least making an effort to learn at least some of the language.
    TravelDoIt recently posted..How To Name Your Travel Blog In 12 Simple Steps

  4. I’m currently in Medellin Colombia trying to learn Spanish using DuoLingo. I completely agree that knowing more of the language before I got here would have been very helpful. Thanks for the info about the podcasts!
    Jen recently posted..A Day in Medellin Colombia

  5. I think the major point with learning/speaking Spanish in South America is not that it’s necessarily integral, but that it will change your experiences drastically if you can actually communicate with people. I arrived in Ecuador 18 months ago and am about to leave Colombia for England, and I now consider myself almost fluent in Spanish – despite speaking barely any Spanish when I arrived. All because I kept on chatting away, knowing I was screwing up my conjugations and tenses but trying anyway.
    Flora the Explorer recently posted..Impressions from Inside Cuba

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