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 region we call Latin America (including the Caribbean) has over 350 million Spanish speakers, surpassing the entire English-speaking population of the U.S. and Canada combined. With a rapidly growing Hispanic population and increasing economic ties with Latin America, Spanish is the most important foreign language for Americans. Although widely taught in the U.S., both at the high school and college level, the best way to study Spanish is to immerse yourself in the language by taking a learning vacation nearby. In North America, we are fortunate to have Latin America as a neighbor. With 20 Spanish-speaking countries in the region, selecting the right location involves choosing from an overabundance of options. Diverse, adventurous, exciting, and meaningful language immersion learning and vacation programs exist for any taste.
8 Tips to Choose the Best Place for you to Learn Spanish in Latin America
1) Follow Your Interests and Priorities
To make the most of your Spanish study abroad experience, consider your interests, then connect them with practical considerations such as your budget and available time. Do you enjoy Peruvian music, Brazilian food, or Amazonian 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, or Ecuador—all offering a variety of nature parks that offer extraordinary experiences of rain forests and tropical savannas. If you've always wanted to visit Machu Picchu, take a Spanish course in Peru and hike up to the Inca ruins. If price is at the top of your priority list, Central America is the best choice. Yet, suppose you really want to take tango lessons. In that case, you should spend the extra money and study Spanish in Argentina.
Any Latin American country you have visited and enjoyed is also a good candidate for a language immersion program since you already know what to expect culturally and the hospitality you will enjoy.
Cusco, Peru, offers a great combination of the Inca and Spanish cultural heritage. Photos ©Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.
2) What is Your Budget?
If cost is an issue, keep in mind a few factors. In addition to the course fee, you also have to set aside some cash for room and board, as well as for entertainment and excursions. The course fees and living expenses are lower in less developed countries. Nonetheless, sometimes economic crises and currency devaluations can lower your expenses dramatically, even in countries that once had a high cost of living. 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 popular and affordable destination for Americans. Unfortunately, Argentineans were struck by a few economic crises, increasing inflation for all.
Airline tickets represent a decent chunk of change for a Spanish course abroad. No matter how many travel websites and agents tout cheap airline tickets, airfare prices usually rise. By selecting a country closer to home for your Spanish study, you reduce your travel expenses. A ticket to Central America usually costs half as much as South America. Still, ticket prices vary considerably between airlines and even the day of the week you fly. By carefully researching and comparing prices, you can save significantly. A flight with an additional stopover, for example, can be cheaper than a direct flight. Determining 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 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. 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?
So many ways now exist 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 offering a variety of language program options to choose from, along with first-hand stories and reviews.
Seek out a wide selection of language schools in countries in Latin America, some of them small and locally owned, others part of a more extensive network of global affiliation.
Check out networks of Spanish schools online that span several countries, which can be 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 student's progress.
Contact local schools directly to book your course. Directly booking your program is generally cheaper, but it has the disadvantage that you need recommendations 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.
Please check out how long the school has been operating, their teaching methods, and the qualifications 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, it is helpful if the teachers speak some English so you can ask them specific questions after class.
Research the school before you pay for your classes to choose a high-quality program that fits your needs. Go to forums and ask questions, browse review sites, and contact school alums to receive first-hand information. Any good language school will allow you to contact alums since they should have nothing to hide. The more alums you speak to, the better. Try to raise polite, probing questions before making your language school choice.
Before making a choice—or choices for more than one school in more than one country—it would be prudent to compare schools and find 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 must you find room and board independently? Staying in a homestay with a local family enhances your 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 and 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 adventures to balance time spent in the classroom. Find out if the school provides such expeditions if you are interested. 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, such as samba lessons at a school in Brazil.
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 learning. Volunteering is a significant way to improve your Spanish, become immersed in the local culture, and decide the skills you can offer to help improve the living conditions of locals. 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 the course you take should be determined by your language learning goals. Are you a beginner who wants to pick up the language intensely, or have you studied Spanish before and want to brush up your conversation skills through immersion? To 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 become 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 only happens after a period of time. 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 necessary to study grammar and vocabulary. On a yearlong student exchange in Brazil, I decided that I would not study vocabulary since I believed that it would come naturally over 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 primary tool for 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 with some previous knowledge of Spanish.
5) How Diverse is the Destination Culture?
What makes language learning abroad enjoyable in the region is lively interaction with locals and immersion in their culture. Some Latin American countries are more culturally diverse, and some have more deeply rooted local traditions. You can choose among countries with European or indigenous traditions or one where the culture of Spanish colonizers has blended with the indigenous culture to form a unique blend. Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia have robust indigenous cultural roots, making them fascinating and colorful places to visit. On the other hand, the African and Caribbean heritage of the Dominican Republic and Cuba create a rich and lively 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 tradition that has contributed to the national 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. Regardless, such thoughts should not become exaggerated in your mind. True, most Latin American countries have gone through dark periods, and the legacy of decades of dictatorships can be felt 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. However, many stories are sensationalized by commercial media, and the images projected often do not reflect the daily peace of everyday life in 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 where they plan to stay. Fortunately, there are fewer Latin American countries with rampant inflation or severe economic crises than in the past. Yet, poverty indeed does exist and can contribute to periods of civil unrest, demonstrations, and strikes. Like those who follow the news too much, you can't let such images in the commercial media prevent you from living your life.
Suppose you have health concerns about some of the exotic diseases found in tropical America. In that case, consider a country with a cooler climate, such as Argentina or Chile, or a higher elevation, such as the high plateaux in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, where mosquito- and insect-borne diseases are rare. Nevertheless, if you get vaccinations for Hepatitis, yellow fever, typhoid fever, and tetanus, you should be safe. If you take standard 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 primary health concern for foreign visitors to tropical America. Concerned travelers should ask their doctor about taking prophylactic medication 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 also happen in San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Miami, and Texas.
The level of development of your host country may also be an essential consideration. If you are accustomed to a high standard of living and comforts, 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 regions, your host family may not have a hot shower, air conditioning, or fans, and it may take some time to get used to the heat. But "when in Rome," think travelers with a sense of adventure and desire to explore 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 closer to yours? Latin America's more developed countries, such as Mexico, Chile, and Argentina, offer an urban standard of living comparable to North America.
7) How Important is Being Near Nature?
After weeks of classroom attendance, the most rewarding experience for students is to travel around the host country before returning home. Depending on your choice, you can experience some of the most incredible travel destinations in all the Americas. While visiting steaming jungles and smoking volcanoes will not improve your Spanish, consider what your country of choice offers in terms of natural attractions and travel destinations.
Perhaps you enjoy hiking and trekking in high altitudes. In that case, Central America has little to offer compared to South America, with its majestic mountain ranges. Conversely, Central America has great jungle environments and beautiful Mayan ruins surrounded by rainforests. Or you love to relax on a beach. In that case, Central America is the way to go, offering you a wealth of choices between beaches in the Caribbean and the Pacific. In Central America, most countries are small, and national parks are ubiquitous. South America, on the other hand, is vast. Getting to your favorite outdoor destination may take several days. I don't suggest that you base the destination of your language learning only on a country's natural attractions. However, selecting a region that best meets your travel interests can provide a memorable climax to your stay abroad.
8) How to Choose an Appropriate Location in a Country?
Large urban centers in Latin America generally represent the best and the worst these countries offer. In general, capital cities and large metropolitan areas have some disadvantages. Cities are usually where the most wealth and the most significant poverty are concentrated. Impoverished peasants from the countryside are attracted to large cities due to material promises. Nevertheless, many may end up in 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 can make 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. They 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 generally safer, and the people are usually friendlier than in large cities. The colonial or historical flair of a small town is often more attractive than a modern urban center. Such travel and study choices depend primarily on your personal preferences and 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 in the region, you may need help 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 annually. In areas with fewer tourists, locals understandably tend to be more friendly, welcoming, curious, and genuinely interested in meeting foreigners.
Consider some of these suggestions and take a little time researching several countries and schools. If you do, your language course or vacation in Latin America will likely be a memorable and rewarding experience and change your life. You may find yourself lured back like a traditional Spanish folk tune.
Latin American Language Learning Info
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
Below is a shortlist of the pros and cons of learning Spanish in various Latin American countries, with links to articles and resources:
Pros: Close to the U.S.; relatively well-developed with good infrastructure; a large country with a wealth of fantastic destinations for language learning; a diverse culture and ecosystem; not as cheap as Central America, but still affordable; low airfares from the U.S. Mexico City is now one of the most interesting and exciting cities in the world.
Cons: Regional social unrest, petty crime, and drug trafficking in specific locations; many attractive areas are very popular with American tourists and expatriates, so learning Spanish can be more difficult.
More Articles and Resources about Learning Spanish in Mexico:
Study Spanish Language at Schools in Mexico
Perfecting Language Skills at the Instituto Cultural in Oaxaca
Spanish Language Learning in Oaxaca, Mexico Through the Senses
Pros: A largely well-developed country, many national parks and great natural beauty, a good network of Spanish schools, relatively safe, lesser health risks, and lower airfares from the U.S.
Cons: Culturally less diverse than other Central American countries; a very popular tourist destination with a significant North American presence.
More Articles and Resources on Learning Spanish in Costa Rica:
Study Spanish at Language Schools in Costa Rica
Spanish Language Learning in Laid-Back Costa Rica
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; earthquake-prone.
More Articles and Resources on Learning Spanish in Nicaragua:
Language Learning in Nicaragua: Choose from Central America’s Best Bargains
Spanish Study Inside a Volcanic Crater, Nicaragua with Proyecto Ecólogico
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 for affordable airfares from the U.S.
Cons: Strong U.S. influence makes Panama a less attractive popular tourist destination for some.
More Articles and Resources: Study Spanish at Language Schools in Panama
Pros: Great Mayan heritage and strong indigenous cultural traditions; low-cost destination; a spectacular lake and many volcano ranges; low airfares from the U.S.
Cons: Poorly developed, increasing crime rate and drug trafficking.
Study Spanish at Language Schools in Guatemala
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; relatively 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 for Learning Spanish in Ecuador:
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; reasonably 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 on Learning Spanish in Peru:
Study Spanish at Language Schools in Peru
Enjoy a Taste of Spanish in Cusco, Peru: Language Learning and Cultural Immersion
Study Spanish in Arequipa, Peru: A Warm School in a Warm City
Pros: European cultural influences are surprising, with some indigenous traditions; well-developed with good infrastructure, safe with low health risk; spectacular and diverse scenery in this long country, and a mix of mountain and ocean environments.
Cons: Higher cost of air travel from the U.S.; higher cost of living than other Latin American countries; relatively cool and damp climate.
More Articles and Resources:
Study Spanish at Language Schools in Chile
Pros: Well-developed, rich 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 other Latin American countries. Locals can be a bit aggressive, especially in Buenos Aires.
More Articles and Resources:
Study Spanish at Language Schools in Argentina
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: Higher cost of air travel from the U.S.; higher cost of living than other Latin American countries.
Recommended cities: Sucre, Cochabamba.
Note: Please see our individual country directories for many excellent Spanish language schools in Latin America.