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How to become Fluent in Spanish with a 3 month Immersion Program

Posted by | July 11th, 2013

This is a testimonial from Spanish student Travis Peck from Delaware, USA. If you, as Travis, would like to have a shot at winning some free Spanish lessons over Skype, click here for more information about what you need to do...

After graduating from the University of Delaware in 2012, I decided that I wanted to accomplish something life-changing in the 5 months I had available before I started medical school. However, at the time I had no idea what this life-changing activity would be. After spending more nights searching the Internet for ideas than I would like to admit, I stumbled across a blog of doctors who were writing about the advantages of the ability to speak Spanish. Bilingual doctors are able to treat a wider patient base, form more profound relationships with their patients, and receive more trust and admiration from the people they serve. With the current changes in immigration laws, it appears that the number of Spanish speakers in the USA will only increase. This blog served as a stroke of realization for what should be the destination of my time and energy before medical school. Spanish!

I didn’t have any experience studying Spanish when I made this decision. I also didn’t have any friends or contacts in countries in Latin America. This made my decision seem a little bit ridiculous to family and friends. However, I was determined to learn and was not going to let the opinions of others deter me. My dedication led me to purchase a ticket for Guatemala City, Guatemala in February (I worked 55+ hours per week from December to February in order to save up the money necessary for the trip.) I purchased the ticket without any concrete plans for how I would study Spanish, where I would live, and what I would do with my time in Guatemala. In hindsight, it probably would have been better to plan things out in more detail, but I was in a rush to get to Latin America and start learning!

Me and my Spanish instructor from Guatemala
Me and my Spanish instructor from Guatemala

Upon arriving Central America, I realized that this whole Spanish thing was going to be a little bit harder than I expected. I couldn’t understand a word of what the locals were saying and I didn’t have anyone to help me out. However, instead of being discouraged, I was all the more motivated to increase my knowledge of the language. I signed up for a local Spanish school and spent my first 24 hours buried in basic grammar books. For my first two weeks in Guatemala, all I did was go to classes at my Spanish school, eat, study Spanish, sleep, and repeat. And after only two weeks, I was amazed at the process I had made. I was able to have basic conversations with the locals and could understand the majority of the articles in the newspapers (with the aid of the pictures.) I was extremely content with the progress I had made, but it was time to dive into the culture. I definitely recommend intensive studying to start an experience in Latin America if you don’t have a basic-intermediate level of Spanish. It will arm you with the tools you need to make friends, learn about the culture, and rapidly increase your Spanish. Taking part in a Spanish immersion program that combines intensive Spanish lessons with a family home stay is definitively the way to go.

I signed up for volunteer work in a health center in a small-rural town, and signed up to be a sports teacher at a close-by elementary school. Spanish was the only language spoken in both of these occupations. A little known fact that I quickly picked up on is that little kids can be excellent Spanish teachers. They’re willing and excited to teach new words and colloquial phrases. The health center also provided an enriching education experience through conversations with patients and health workers. On the weekends, I found a local tourism agency that went on trips to the famous natural landmarks in the country. I will be the first to say that Latin America is the most beautiful continent in the world. From enormous volcanoes to hot springs, lagoons, and beaches there is no end to the natural grandeur. These trips also provided great opportunities to meet other Spanish students and see the indigenous people of the area.

The two gentleman that I worked with at the health center really helped with my Spanish and they became good friends as well
The two gentleman that I worked with at the health center really helped with my Spanish and they became good friends as well

After around a month of working and tourism, I had acquired a nucleus of Latino and foreign friends. I also felt that I was at home in Central America. And it was amazing how fast my Spanish was advancing. After a little less than two months I was making jokes with Guatemalan friends, watching movies in Spanish, and giving patients advice on their sicknesses. Most importantly, I was extremely happy and I wouldn’t have changed anything about my life. When I arrived in Latin America, I had only planned to stay for 2 months, but there was no way I could miss out on more time south of the US border. I made arrangements to stay for another month and a half, despite the preoccupation in my parents. I also had a taking the C1 level of the Cervantes Spanish test. This is an advanced level of the language and was going to take a lot more work.

During my time in Guatemala I had the opportunity to hike to the top of the Tajumulco, the highest volcano in Guatemala
During my time in Guatemala I had the opportunity to hike to the top of the Tajumulco, the highest volcano in Guatemala

In my last month and a half, I worked very hard in the classroom during the day Monday-Friday to accomplish my goal. However, I didn’t let myself forget that I was in Guatemala to enjoy myself, meet new people, and learn about the culture as well. I spent time with my friends every night and always did something interesting during the weekends. Looking back on it now, I would say that these activities helped my Spanish just as much, if not more, than my textbook studies. I only spoke Spanish in my time in Latin America and my oral comprehension was greatly aided my by Latino friends. In addition, it really motivated me to learn more because I wanted to understand everything they were saying, and to be able to communicate more fluently. In my time in the school, I noted that the biggest difference between a successful and a student who can’t seem to make significant progress is the motivation he has to learn the language. Students who are truly passionate about reaching a better level of Spanish are almost always successful. The key to finding this motivation is to make the learning process enjoyable, and that’s exactly what my nights with friends and weekend excursions did for me.

The date for my Cervantes test arrived at the end of May, and sadly I had to buy my return plane ticket for the day after the test. I took the C1 test, and although I still have not received my official result, I am fairly confident that it went well. My time spent immersed in the language made it relatively easy to comprehend the verbal section, and my time spent working with grammar and textbooks in the classroom really helped with the reading and writing.

I only studied the language for 3.5 months, which is not very much time to reach an advanced level, but I am living proof that it can be done. I believe the biggest reason that behind my rapid progress was my decision to completely immerse myself in the Latino culture. I did not speak a work of English outside of Skype calls to my parents; I ate the traditional food, danced the traditional dances, and worked with locals. Everything I did was done as Guatemalans would do. In addition to helping with the language, it made my experience incredibly enriching and allowed me to create unforgettable memories and friends. I would advise anyone to take 3 months out of his or her education or work to travel Latin America. You will learn a useful new language, make great new friends, and deepen your knowledge about the world and about yourself. However, my disclaimer is that all of this will only be possible if you truly immerse yourself in the Latino culture. So make the leap and don’t hold back anything!

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2 Responses to "How to become Fluent in Spanish with a 3 month Immersion Program"

  1. Great article! I too came to Latin America with almost no knowledge of Spanish and dove into it full-speed. I arrived in a small Caribbean town on the coast of Panama with only a Spanish-English dictionary and lived/worked among the locals. Immersion is certainly the most effective way to learn and in just a few months I was functioning surprisingly well. The first step is overcoming the fear of embarrassment and the tendency to be self-critical in communicating. The next step is exercising linguistic muscles by relaxing and having fun with accents and the pronunciation of words.

    Good job and best of luck with your new language skills!

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