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How To Learn Spanish While Studying Abroad

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Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world, and fluency in a second language can make your CV stand out from the crowd, but what’s the secret to picking up a new one quickly and effectively?

For starters, language immersion combined with good language acquisition habits like changing your devices to Spanish or attending a language class several times a week can be really effective, but they aren’t the only techniques. If you’re looking to study abroad for a semester or a full degree in a Spanish-speaking country like Argentina, here are our top tips to arrive back home completely fluent in Spanish.

Drill the 100 most commonly used words before you leave

A good way of building up your confidence and vocabulary is to learn cognates, words that sound or look the same or similar in different languages - for example vocabulary vs vocabulario in Spanish. You’ll be shocked by how much you already know.

In addition to these more straightforward words, drill the 100 most commonly used words in Spanish until you can remember each one without effort. You could print out a list of words and try to recite each one, or test yourself using flashcards. By learning these, you’ll be able to form basic sentences.

It’s worth noting before you go that not all Spanish speaking countries speak the same dialect. In Buenos Aires for instance, people speak  ''español rioplatense'', which sounds very rhythmic, a bit like Italian. Speakers of this dialect would say ''vos'' instead of “tu”, and the ‘z’ sound common in other Spanish dialects is more of an ‘s’ sound.

Live with Spanish speakers rather than expats

One of the language-learning pitfalls of the study abroad experience is not spending enough time with native speakers.

It can be tempting to hang out exclusively with other exchange students abroad, but the danger is that your lingua franca might end up being English.

If you can, living with Spanish-speakers in a flatshare or with a host family is a great way to form close bonds and become fully immersed in the language even while at home.

So, whether it’s debriefing the latest Star Wars sequel in Spanish (i.e. La guerra de las galaxias) or sampling local specialties at the dinner table, living with native speakers can be a great way of learning about the culture and become fluent more quickly.

Take a Spanish language class while living abroad

Language immersion isn’t enough - you also need to understand the complexities and nuances of Spanish grammar to speak it fluently.

The good news is that there are 28 Spanish-language institutes in Buenos Aires that offer language classes to speakers of all abilities.

Many universities in Spanish-speaking countries also offer help with this. In Buenos Aires, for example, the best Spanish-speaking city in the QS Best Student Cities 2018 ranking, most universities will offer some kind of language learning program to international students, either for free or a small fee.

For example, the Universidad de San Andres offers a four-week intensive language learning course, which consists of four hours of Spanish classes every day.

Similarly, the Universidad Torcuato di Tella offers a 15-week Spanish language course for international students that’s also supplemented by lectures conducted in English on Argentine history and culture.

Practice your Spanish outside the classroom

Learning Spanish in bars is now a thing in Buenos Aires. If you’d like to explore the nightlife while practicing your Spanish, conversation clubs are a great way to make friends and grow out of your comfort zone. There’s usually one every evening of the week.

Mate Conversation Club, for example, involves meeting up with native speakers and learners, while drinking mate (an Argentine infusion). Having an asado (a barbecue) is an option too, or even a few drinks!

Mundolingo, another conversation club in Argentina’s capital, has a similar concept, and is hosted at various bars in the city depending on the day. Just so you know, Buenos Aires is city home to 7,000 bars and restaurants.

Spanglish, meanwhile, is speed dating but for language learning. You are paired with a native Spanish speaker and take turns speaking in Spanish and English, then swap conversation partners.  

Here are a few words to get you started: bajón (drunk snacks), boliche (nightclub), bondi o colectivo (bus), morfi (food).

Ditch your Netflix binges for art, film, books and TV in Spanish

It can be tempting to turn your bedroom into an all-English, all the time bunker, with episodes of Friends streaming constantly while you eat your favorite snacks from home, but a little Spanish after-hours never hurt anybody.

There’s a vast range of series and telenovelas available to stream on YouTube in Spanish for free, but you could also just watch TV in Spanish and see how much you pick up.

If you’re interested, Argentine cinema has been in the spotlight a lot recently, with a few actors and directors snapping up awards and prizes for their work. The Official Story (1985) and the Secret In Their Eyes (2009) were the first Latin American films to win Academy Awards and are both worth checking out. The black comedy Wild Tales (2014), composed of six standalone films about violence and revenge, was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Don’t forget to read in Spanish either. Depending on your level, you could start with a children’s picture book or BBC Mundo. If you’re feeling particularly confident, why not have a go at reading the stream of consciousness novel Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar or the book of short stories Ficciones by the writer Jorge Luis Borges?

Use technology and your electronic devices wisely

There’s no point in living with a host family or Spanish speakers if your smartphone and laptop are in English.

Changing the language on social media sites and your devices can be such a useful language learning tool - its good practice and will get you in the habit of using common words every day.

If you’ve changed your Smartphone to Spanish, you should download Readlang, an excellent language learning app which lets you turn any words you are unfamiliar with while browsing the web into flashcards so you can practice them later.

So what are you waiting for?

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