Immersion is the gold standard for learning a foreign language.
But you can’t just go to a foreign country and hope you’ll learn the language. There are several steps you need to take for Spanish language immersion to work well.
In this post, I’ll share several tips based on my personal experience about how to do effective Spanish language immersion in a foreign country.
Let’s dive in.
1. Never Stay in a Resort
Many people stay in resorts when they go on vacation.
But if you’re trying to do language immersion, this is basically the worst option.
Even though I’ve never actually stayed in a resort, I have a pretty good idea what it’s like. You have a bunch of food available, often beachfront, and other services without ever leaving the building in some cases.
So it’s like a glorified hotel, and you never have to leave.
If you’re going to immerse yourself in a foreign language, don’t go to an all-inclusive resort. Instead, get out amongst the people.
I will explain how in the remaining tips below.
2. Look for an Airbnb Room in Someone’s Home
Possibly the best option is if you find somewhere to stay inside a Spanish-speaker’s home.
An easy way to do this is to use Airbnb, and look for a room within a native family’s home.
For example, I just recently stayed in a room inside the home/apartment of a native family in Cartagena, Colombia.
Each day while I was there I ran into the señora (she was usually doing stuff in the kitchen), and we chatted about various things, including my plans for the day, food options, and more.
Staying in someone’s home gives you easy access to Spanish speakers, and a lot of opportunities to practice (sometimes out of necessity).
So it’s definitely a recommended option, and much better than staying in a resort!
A free / cheap alternative to Airbnb is couchsurfing.com. I’ve used that a couple times in Latin America, with good success. It takes a little more effort to arrange, but can be a great option for language practice.
3. Ask Simple Questions (and Go from There)
An easy way to start conversations is to ask a simple question. This is relevant in any situation whether you’re sitting on a park bench, on the subway, in a restaurant, and so forth.
In other words, if you want to practice a little Spanish, just ask someone for directions, or what time a business will close, or where to find an ATM, or whatever else makes sense at the time. Hopefully you get the idea.
The result may be a simple, very short conversation where they just answer your question. But it’s often very easy and natural to continue the conversation for a few more sentences.
Simply by asking simple questions in Spanish, you get a Spanish conversation going, and it may continue for a while.
This won’t happen every time, but a fair percentage of the time you’ll end up chatting with the person for a minute or two, or more.
So asking simple questions is a great way to get started, and it doesn’t need to feel intimidating.
4. Talk to Random People
I alluded to this above, but whenever you’re in a situation with a “captive audience”, make sure you take advantage.
Even if they’re not “captive”, still take advantage.
This includes people in the park, people on public transportation (like buses or subways), the waiter at a restaurant, the clerk in a store, and many other examples.
Whenever you run into random people, see if you can use the tip above (ask them a simple question), and it may turn into a conversation. Regardless, you just have to put yourself out there a tiny little bit and talk to some random people.
For example, I was recently on a boat coming back from an island near Cartagena, Colombia. There were 3 other people on the boat, and none of us were talking to each other. But after a while, I asked the girl next to me where they were from, and it led to a 15-minute conversation (and an invitation to go out with them later that evening).
Before I opened my mouth, they didn’t know that I could speak Spanish, so they probably weren’t going to start talking to me. But once I started talking to them, they were perfectly happy to chat.
5. Read Out Loud Each Morning
A great way to get your Spanish momentum going each day is to read out loud for at least 5 minutes. 10 or 15 minutes is better, but if you can do 5 minutes then that’s pretty good.
I find that reading out loud is one of the best ways to practice Spanish on your own, and it builds your confidence, helps your pronunciation, and warms up the muscles around your mouth and tongue etc. to help you speak more clearly each day.
It seems like a simple thing, but simple things are often the best first step for success.
So try reading out loud for at least 5 minutes each morning, from a newspaper, a book, an online article, or whatever is convenient. I think you’ll be surprised at how much it helps.
6. Go Somewhere with Fewer Gringos
I was recently in Cuenca, Ecuador visiting family. It’s a pretty cool place–a nice place to live as Latin American cities go. I even drank the tap water!
But when it comes to immersion, Cuenca is not the best place. That’s because there are too many gringos.
In other words, there are lots of foreigners, and the city kind of caters to people who don’t speak Spanish.
If you’re dedicated, you can still do some language immersion in a place like this, but it takes more effort. So you’re better off going somewhere where there aren’t so many gringos!
By doing that, you’ll force yourself to use Spanish more often, instead of taking the path of least resistance, as most people do.
7. Travel alone (or with Motivated Friends)
I’ve gone on many vacations with friends and family, and I’ve gone on many vacations by myself.
By far, it’s much more effective for Spanish language immersion when I travel alone.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself, a pretty typical scenario when traveling with friends is that you end up speaking in English most of the time, and occasionally busting out a little Spanish to order food, buy something at a store, or arrange some activity.
But when you travel alone, it’s a completely different experience.
For example, I’m currently in the Dominican Republic, all by my lonesome. So every day I’m out walking around, talking to random people, asking simple questions, and having fun getting to know the people, the culture, and the language.
Of course this is mixed in with some other activities. But all the while I’m using Spanish.
If I were here with even one other friend, that would drastically cut down the amount of opportunities I have to speak Spanish. With the possible exception of if I travel with someone who also wants to improve their Spanish.
In that scenario, we could make a goal to only speak in Spanish for long stretches of time each day, with each other and with other people. And then we could make substantial progress.
But 80% of the time or more, when you travel with other people it’s just not going to be that effective for language immersion.
So if you really want to immerse yourself, consider going somewhere by yourself. Though obviously make sure it’s somewhere reasonably safe, don’t go in dark places at night, etc. All the usual safety precautions.
But there are many many places where you can travel alone perfectly safely and have a great Spanish language immersion experience.
Final Thoughts on Spanish Language Immersion
I have a ton of experience traveling in Spanish-speaking countries, and the 7 tips I’ve shared above are among the most important and most effective for improving your Spanish language immersion experience in a foreign country.
If you apply at least a few of them, you’ll probably get more practice and make more progress with Spanish than you would have otherwise done.
Don’t be one of those people who always takes the easy path, and hence never makes any progress–even when you’re spending time in Mexico!
Instead, get out of your comfort zone just a tiny little itsy bitsy bit, and take advantage so you can improve your Spanish-speaking abilities through immersion.
PS: If you’re interested in doing an immersion trip organized by someone else (medical Spanish or otherwise), check out my interview with Rory Foster from Common Ground International. Or just look at the details of their trips here.