The Guide to Learning Spanish in Latin America
Language Immersion Schools Have So Much to Offer
| Bariloche, located in Argentina’s Lake District, is a popular destination for travelers and language students. Photo ©Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.
The vast continent of Latin America (including the Caribbean) has over 350 million Spanish speakers, which exceeds the entire English-speaking population of the U.S. and Canada combined. With a rapidly growing Hispanic population in the U.S. and increasing economic ties with Latin America, Spanish is no doubt the most important foreign language for Americans. Although Spanish is widely taught in the U.S. both on the high school and college level, the best way to study Spanish is to immerse yourself in the language is by taking a learning vacation in a nearby country. Those living in North America are fortunate to have Latin America as a neighbor, and with 20 Spanish-speaking countries in the region, selecting the right location involves choosing from a plethora of diverse and exciting study and vacation programs.
8 Tips to decide the best place(s) to study Spanish in Latin America
1) Follow Your Interests and Priorities
To make the most of your Spanish study abroad experience, you should consider your interests, then combine them with practical considerations such as your budget and available time. Do you enjoy Peruvian music, or Guatemalan handicrafts? Why not study Spanish in Peru or Guatemala to learn more about the local culture? Have you always been interested in hiking in the Andes? Then choose a South American country where the majestic Andean peaks are never far away. Do you want to see the jungle and watch wildlife? Costa Rica and Panama have a lot to offer in that regard. You can also head to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, or Venezuela—all offering a variety of nature parks that offer great experiences of rain forests and tropical savannas. If you’ve always wanted to go to Machu Picchu, then take a Spanish course in Peru, and visit the Inca ruins. If cost is at the top of your priority list, Central America is the best choice, but if you really want to take tango lessons, then it’s better for you to spend the extra money and study Spanish in Argentina. Any Latin American country you have visited before and enjoyed is also good candidate for a language immersion program, since you already know what to expect.
Cusco, Peru, offers a great combination of the Inca and Spanish cultural heritage. Photos ©Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.
2) What is Your Budget?
There are several factors you should keep in mind if cost is an issue. In addition to the course fee, you also have to budget for room and board, as well as expenses for entertainment and excursions. The course fee and living expenses are lower in less developed countries, but sometimes economic crises and currency devaluations can lower your expenses dramatically, even in countries that had a high cost of living before. Argentina’s peso was pegged to the dollar one to one, until a monetary crisis forced the government to drastically devalue the peso in early 2002. Within a few months the U.S. dollar was worth almost four times as much, which is one of the reasons why Argentina was long a very popular and affordable destination for Americans. Unfortunately Argentineans were hit hard by a few economic crises, and poverty increased dramatically as a result, even as significant inflation has made the dollar less strong of late, though there are still deals to be found.
Airline tickets represent a large chunk of the overall expenses for a Spanish course abroad. No matter how many travel websites and agents tout cheap airline tickets, airfare prices are on the rise. By selecting a country closer to home for your Spanish study, you can significantly reduce your travel expenses. A ticket to Central America can cost half of a ticket to South America. Still, ticket prices vary considerably between airlines, and even the day of the week you fly. By doing careful research and comparing prices you can save significantly. A flight with an additional stopover, for example, can be quite a bit cheaper than a direct flight. Finding out about baggage weight limits and packing accordingly will also help you prevent surcharges.
Another cost factor is the location you choose within a country. Capitals and large cities usually have higher course fees and a higher cost of living than small towns. Popular tourist centers are generally more expensive than lesser-known destinations. Also, if you are planning to travel after completing your language course, consider the overall cost of travel in the country of your choice. Traveling long distances in large countries such as Mexico, Chile, or Argentina, will cost more than traveling in geographically smaller Costa Rica or Panama.
3) How to Choose the Right School?
There are now so many ways to search for a language school that meets your needs and more.
- Conduct an online search using your favorite search engine, where you will find websites like TransitionsAbroad.com offering a variety of language program options to choose from, along with participant reports.
- Seek out the good selection of language schools in countries in Latin America, some of them small and locally owned, others part of a larger network or global affiliation.
- Check out networks of Spanish schools online that span several countries, which is a often a good indicator of a school’s quality. The teaching curriculum is usually identical in all affiliated schools, and the teaching materials and methods have been tested to maximize the students’ progress.
- Contact local schools directly to book your course. Booking directly is generally cheaper, but has the disadvantage that you have no assurances about the quality of the language school.
- Book with a reputable placement agency in the U.S., with the advantage that many offer a satisfaction guarantee.
- Find out how long the school has been operating, what their teaching methods are and the qualification of the teachers. There is no certificate for "Teaching Spanish as a Second Language" that corresponds to the TEFL certification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), so each school has its own criteria for choosing qualified teachers.
- Look up the credentials of the teachers. Some schools require a master’s degree in education from their teachers, but this depends on each school. Although English is usually not spoken during class, I have found it helpful if the teachers speak some English, so you can address them after class with specific questions or concerns you may have.
- Research the school before you pay for your classes so that you will be able to choose a high-quality program that fits your needs. To that end, go to forums and ask questions, browse review sites, and contact school alumni to receive first-hand information. Any good language school will allow you to contact alumni as they should have nothing to hide. The more alumni you speak to the better as a potential participant. You should ask polite but probing questions.
Before making a final choice, you should compare several schools and find out details about the instruction and the policies.
- How many hours of instruction do you get per week?
- What are the class sizes?
- Does a school refer you to homestays or do you have to find room and board on your own? Staying in a homestay with a local family can enhance you language-learning and cultural experience.
- What are the cancellation and refund policies, and does the school offer a satisfaction guarantee?
- What other services does your school offer, such as airport pickup, cultural events, and excursions?
Due to the competition for students as well as the pride many of those working in language schools have in their land and culture, it is common for programs to offer excursions to nearby sites of interest, and other adventures to balance time spent in the classroom learning Spanish. Find out if the school offers such expeditions if that is of interest to you. In addition, some schools offer a combination of language learning and activities such as traditional dance, music, cooking, handicrafts, art, and even surfing. Extra activities may involve additional costs and these should be kept in consideration when comparing schools and finding an ideal match.
Many Latin American countries suffer from poverty and social inequalities, and there are now an increasing number of language schools combining volunteer work with language study. Volunteering is a great way to improve your Spanish, become immersed in the local culture, and determine the skills you can offer to help to contribute to improving the living conditions of the local population. Do you have carpentry, nursing, computer, or other skills you wish to share?
Buenos Aires has a vibrant street life. Photo ©Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.
4) How Long will you be Studying or Vacationing?
The length of your course you take should be determined by your language learning goals. Are you a beginner who wants to get a serious jump-start in Spanish, or have you studied Spanish before and just want to brush up your conversation skills through immersion? To really receive the long-term benefits from a Spanish course, I recommend sticking with it for at least 2-3 weeks. For beginners, this is long enough to allow you to get immersed in the language and the culture of your host country, meet the local people, and gain some basic conversation skills. But keep in mind that language acquisition does not happen overnight. You will have to set aside time for practice and study if you really want to make progress.
Don’t expect miracles from an intensive course. Learning a foreign language takes time, and not even a super intensive course can substitute for the time that is necessary to study grammar and vocabulary. On a yearlong student exchange in Brazil I decided early on that I would not study vocabulary, since I believed that it would come naturally over the course of an academic year. However, most students who take a much shorter language course don’t have the luxury of hearing a word ten times before they grasp its meaning. Vocabulary study is really your main tool of improving your Spanish skills, and there are only so many words you can memorize each day. So have realistic expectations. If you have the time and the money, studying Spanish abroad for a month will significantly enhance your skills as a beginner, and two or three weeks will be enough to boost the skills of someone who has some previous knowledge of Spanish.
5) How Diverse is the Destination Culture?
What makes Spanish learning abroad so enjoyable in the region is lively interaction with locals and immersion in their culture. Some Latin American countries are more culturally diverse than others and some have more deeply rooted native traditions than others. You can choose among countries with strong European or indigenous traditions, or one where the culture of the Spanish colonizers has blended with the indigenous culture to form a unique blend. Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia have very strong indigenous cultural roots, making them fascinating and colorful places to visit. On the other hand, the African and Caribbean heritage of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic provide for a very lively and outgoing culture in different ways. Argentina and Chile on the other hand, are more European, but they still have uniquely local traditions. The way of life of the gaucho, as cattle herders are known in Argentina, is a unique cultural tradition that has contributed to the national cultural identity. Similarly, the Andean cultures in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia draw on their vast heritage from the Inca Empire, and many age-old traditions are still widely practiced.
Many native traditions are still alive in Bolivia. Photo ©Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.
6) Health, Safety, and Comfort Considerations
Feeling comfortable and safe in your host country is an important consideration but should not become exaggerated in your own mind. Most Latin American countries have gone through dark periods in their recent history, and the legacy of decades of dictatorships can still be felt all across the continent. Drug traffickers operate in Latin America, especially in Central America. They are often responsible for kidnappings and a general increase in crime. Many stories are sensationalized by the commercial media, and the images projected often do not reflect the daily peace of everyday life in so many parts of every country.
Language students and long-term travelers should nevertheless carefully research the political and economic stability of the country and cities in which they plan to stay. Fortunately, there are currently less Latin American countries with rampant inflation or severe economic crises than in the past, but poverty does exist and can contribute to periods of civil unrest, demonstrations, and strikes. But like those who watch the news too much, you can't let such images in the media prevent you from living your life.
If you have health concerns about some of the exotic diseases found in tropical America, you might want to consider a country with a cooler climate, such as Argentina or Chile, or a higher elevation, such as the high plateau (Altiplano in Spanish) in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, where mosquito- and insect-borne diseases are rare. Still, if you get vaccinations for Hepatitis, yellow fever, typhoid fever, and tetanus, you should be safe. If you take common health precautions, eat only peeled or sanitized vegetables and fruit, and only drink bottled water, you will avoid the most common health problems that affect foreign visitors. Malaria is another major health concerns for foreign visitors to tropical America. Concerned travelers should ask their doctor about taking prophylactic medication during their stay in Latin America. In general, malaria is more likely to occur in rural areas of the humid tropics, but is rare in urban areas. Some countries in Central and South America are disaster-prone, with regular hurricanes, earthquakes, and even volcanic eruptions. Find out beforehand how safe your potential destination is from these threats, but as a point of reference, remember that anything can happen in San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, and Miami as well.
The level of development of your host country may also be an important consideration. If you are used to a high standard of living and comforts, you might want to consider one of the wealthier and more developed countries in Latin America, such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Argentina, or Chile. In many remote or developing areas for example, running water may only be available intermittently. In humid tropical areas, your host family may not have hot a shower, air conditioning or fans, and it may take some time getting used to the heat. But "when in Rome" think those with any sense of adventure and desire to experience something new and authentic.
Another question you should ask yourself is how well you can handle cultural differences and an unfamiliar way of life. Do you seek the exotic or the familiar? Are you used to challenging yourself with new and unknown cultures, customs, food, and experiences, or do you prefer to advance cautiously and first experience cultures not too vastly different from your own? Latin America’s more developed countries, such as Mexico, Chile, and Argentina offer an urban standard of living comparable in many ways to North America.
7) How Important is Being Near Nature?
After weeks of classroom attendance, the most rewarding experience for students is to travel in their host country before returning home. Depending on your choice, you will be able to experience some of the greatest travel destinations in all the Americas. While visiting steaming jungles and smoking volcanoes will not improve your Spanish, consider what your country of choice has to offer in terms of natural attractions and travel destinations. If you enjoy hiking and trekking in high altitudes, Central America has little to offer compared to South America, with its majestic mountain ranges. But Central America has great jungle environments, and beautiful Mayan ruins surrounded by rain forests. If you love to relax on a beach, Central America is the way to go, offering you a wealth of choices between beaches on the Caribbean and the Pacific. In Central America most countries are small, and national parks are everywhere within easy reach. South America, on the other hand, is vast. Getting to your favorite outdoors destination may take several days. I don’t suggest that you should base the destination of your language study only on a country’s natural attractions, but selecting a region that best meets your travel interests can provide for an exciting finale for your stay abroad.
Southern Venezuela offers outstanding natural beauty. Photo ©Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.
8) How to Choose a Location?
Large urban centers in Latin America generally represent the best and the worst a country has to offer, but in general, capital cities and large urban areas have some disadvantages. Cities are usually where the most wealth and also the greatest poverty of a country are concentrated. Impoverished peasants from the countryside are attracted to large cities due to their promise, but they may end up in slums and shantytowns. Enormous social discrepancies among the population sometimes are reflected in a higher crime rate. Urban crime in the largest cities raises fear among the locals and makes them less outgoing and willing to meet strangers. On the other hand, if you love urban culture and entertainment, then studying Spanish in a large city may be your best choice. You will find trendy restaurants and clubs, art house movie theaters, dozens of museums, art galleries, and plenty of other entertainment options—not much different from the pros and cons of living in New York or Chicago. Language students who are not experienced and "street-smart" travelers would be wise to consider other options.
Smaller cities offer a better quality of life and are generally not nearly as prone to crime as large urban centers. Regional culture is also usually more lively outside of the capitals, and students and travelers are more likely to meet local people. Smaller cities maintain a lower cost of living, are safer, and the people are usually friendlier than in large cities. The colonial or historic flair of a small town is often more attractive than a modern urban center. Such travel and study choices depend largely on your personal preferences and level of experience.
Keep in mind that Central America offers many destinations that are popular with American tourists. Although Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama rank among the most beautiful destinations to visit in the region, you may find it hard to practice your Spanish since locals are used to English-speaking visitors. The farther you get away from the U.S. the greater your chances to have a truly authentic experience of the local people and their culture. In South America there are just a few destinations where American travelers or expatriates tend to congregate, which increases your chance to practice Spanish in your daily affairs and interactions. For example, Costa Rica welcomes 600,000 American tourists every year. By comparison, Argentina is 55 times larger, has 9 times the population of Costa Rica, and only hosts 300,000 American visitors every year. In areas with fewer tourists, locals understandably tend to be more friendly, welcoming, curious, and genuinely interested in meeting foreigners.
If you keep in mind some of the above suggestions, and take a little time researching several countries and schools, your language course or vacation in Latin America will be a rewarding and enriching experience likely to change your life and lure you back like a traditional Spanish folk tune.
For More Info
Here is a shortlist, in geographical order, of the pros and cons of learning Spanish in various Latin American countries, with links to articles and resources on TransitionsAbroad.com.
Pros: Close to the U.S.; fairly well-developed with good infrastructure; large country with a wealth of great destinations for language study; a diverse culture and ecosystem; not as cheap as Central America, but still affordable; low airfares from the U.S.
Cons: Regional social unrest, petty crime, and drug trafficking in certain locations; many attractive locations are very popular with American tourists and expatriates, so learning Spanish can be more difficult.
More Articles and Resources:
Study Spanish Language at Schools in Mexico
Spanish and Culture Lessons in Mexico
Perfecting Language Skills at the Instituto Cultural in Oaxaca
Spanish Language Study in Oaxaca, Mexico Through the Senses
Spanish Study in Mexico and Costa Rica for Educators
Pros: Great Mayan heritage and strong indigenous cultural traditions, low-cost destination; a spectacular lake and volcano ranges; low airfares from the U.S.
Cons: Poorly developed, increasing crime rate and drug trafficking.
More Articles and Resources:
Study Spanish at Language Schools in Guatemala
Spanish Language Immersion in Guatemala: The Contrasts Between Xela and Antigua
Study Spanish in Guatemala
Pros: Diverse culture and ecosystem, very affordable, growing tourism infrastructure; low airfares from the U.S.
Cons: Poorest Central American country and therefore less developed; wide-spread poverty; earthquake-prone.
More Articles and Resources:
Study Spanish at Language Schools in Nicaragua
Language Study in Nicaragua: Choose from Central America’s Best Bargains
Spanish Study Inside a Volcanic Crater, Nicaragua with Proyecto Ecólogico
Pros: Fairly well-developed, large number of national parks, good network of Spanish schools, safe (but rising crime rate), low health risks; low airfares from the U.S.
Cons: Culturally somewhat less diverse than other Central American countries; popular tourist destination with a strong American presence.
More Articles and Resources:
Study Spanish at Language Schools in Costa Rica
Spanish Language Study in Laid-Back Costa Rica
Spanish Study in Mexico and Costa Rica for Educators
Pros: Largest tropical forest in Central America, diverse environment: Pacific and Caribbean coast, rain forest and mountains. Moderately well-developed with adequate infrastructure; safe, but tropical diseases are present. The U.S. dollar is the paper currency of Panama, so you won’t have to deal with foreign exchange; affordable airfares from the U.S.
Cons: Strong U.S. influence makes Panama culturally less interesting; popular tourist destination.
More Articles and Resources: Study Spanish at Language Schools in Panama
Pros: Culturally diverse, with Caribbean influence; great natural attractions from beaches to jungles and mountains; fairly affordable; airfares from the U.S. are only moderately higher than to Central America.
Cons: Moderately developed urban areas, but wide-spread poverty; health risk from tropical diseases, danger due to civil unrest and violence.
Pros: Diverse ecosystem; rich cultural heritage and indigenous culture; the U.S. dollar is the currency of Ecuador, so you won’t have to deal with foreign exchange; generally fairly safe; very affordable; cheapest airfares in South America from the U.S.
Cons: Frequent civil unrest; economically and politically somewhat unstable; poorly developed, with rudimentary infrastructure; health risks at lower elevations.
More Articles and Resources:
Study at Spanish Language Schools in Ecuador
Study in Ecuador: Quito's Spanish Language Schools are Many and Affordable
Vacations in Ecuador: Combine Language Immersion with Ecotourism
Pros: Popular travel destination with rich cultural traditions and great historical heritage, diverse ecosystem, low cost; fairly safe, but with health risks in tropical lowlands.
Cons: Poorly developed outside urban areas which can make travel difficult; most language schools are located in popular tourist destinations; higher cost of air travel from the U.S.
More Articles and Resources:
Study Spanish at Language Schools in Peru
Enjoy a Taste of Spanish in Cusco, Peru: Language Study and Cultural Immersion
Study Spanish in Arequipa, Peru: A Warm School in a Warm City
Pros: Great cultural heritage and rich indigenous traditions; diverse ecosystem—from the Amazon basin to high peaks in the Andes; low-cost destination; fairly safe, but with some health risks in lower elevations.
Cons: Less-developed; few destinations for Spanish study; higher cost of air travel from the U.S.
Recommended cities: Sucre, Cochabamba.
More Articles and Resources: Study Spanish at Language Schools in Bolivia
Pros: Well-developed, great culture, friendly people, vast country with diverse culture and natural environment; safe, low health risk.
Cons: Higher cost of air travel from the U.S.; higher cost of living than in other Latin American countries.
More Articles and Resources:
Study Spanish at Language Schools in Argentina
Pros: Strong European cultural influence, with some indigenous traditions; well-developed with good infrastructure, safe with low health risk; spectacular scenery and diverse mountain/ocean environment.
Cons: Higher cost of air travel from the U.S.; higher cost of living than in other Latin American countries; fairly cool and damp climate.
More Articles and Resources:
Study Spanish at Language Schools in Chile
Learning Spanish in Chile at the Tandem Santiago Spanish Language School
Regional Articles and Resources
Language Schools in Latin America is an extensive listing of Spanish schools all across Latin America
Family-Friendly Spanish Schools in Latin America
Language School Hopping: Study Spanish Across Central America
Top Mountain Towns to Study Spanish in Latin America and Spain
The following organization is among the many that will arrange a language course in Latin America for you:
Note: Please see our individual directory pages for many excellent individual Spanish language schools in Latin America by country.