After going to Buenos Aires last January I was inspired to learn some Spanish, as I had entirely enjoyed my holiday, but felt restricted to staying in the urban centres of South America in general due to my lack of language skills. 

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I also heard a fellow hostel guest tell a story which made it feel all the more important: he had planned to get a bus to another city, had found the bus station, but once there, found it hard to understand the directions people gave him to his bus, with his intermediate Spanish. Somehow he had found what he thought was the correct bus and shown his ticket and boarded the bus. After approximately an hour of traveling, somehow a mistake was discovered, he was on the wrong bus, and was dropped off, unceremoniously, where he was. This was, from what I remember, in some sketchy outer suburbs of Buenos Aires. He found his way back to the hostel, to stay another night and regroup.

I remember thinking that if this could happen to someone who spoke some Spanish, then what could happen to me if I tried travelling alone with no Spanish? I’ve never really had any problems in Europe, where I’ve mostly traveled by train and plane, but I think I’d like the option for South America. I’ve previously traveled in Peru with a Portuguese-speaking friend (who can generally understand and be understood in Spanish) and drivers meeting us at airports among other luxuries, which is still a nice option for a short trip.

I already had the free language app “Duolingo” installed on my phone from previous attempts to revise my French, and learn Portuguese after a visit to Brazil, but upon getting back to NYC in January I started Spanish more seriously, and due to not working full-time, was actually able to stick with it really well. I did about an hour after I woke up, and after breakfast in bed each day. I also had the motivation of hearing Spanish around me every day in NYC, and knowing how many countries nearby are Spanish-speaking. I also find it becoming more common on US TV, for example the multiple bilingual characters on Jane the Virgin.

I actually went to Santiago, Chile during this time, and felt like it helped me quite a lot, but it was still fairly early days, I’d started learning in January and I went there in August. Again, it was an urban center where English is fairly widely understood, and I didn’t do many things which required Spanish. I did meet a Spanish man in my dorm but he spoke perfect English. Santiago, Chile

Duolingo works by asking you to read, listen and speak, and by repetition. If you haven’t refreshed your learning by doing a level in a certain topic, your ‘health’ on that topic declines. If, like me, you’ve ever played computer games, you’ll find it quite satisfying to progress through the levels and topics.

Around December I eventually reached the end of the app on my phone, with a nice picture of a trophy. Apparently this is equivalent to a vocabulary of around 2,500 words. I believe you can keep going on the Duolingo website but I haven’t tried.  I should still be refreshing my knowledge regularly but I find it hard to repeat without also making new progress so I’ve expanded into other areas. Duolingo Spanish trophy

I installed another app called Memrise, which is effectively a sort of flashcard based learning. It has many user-created topics to memorise, not just languages. I am going through the A2 Spanish – Beyond Beginner, and find it a little repetitive, but also nicely complementary to Duolingo, as it uses some longer sentences, often in a more conversational style. I’m also seeing words I don’t know, or possibly just don’t remember. It has more attempts to get me to pay money, unlike Duolingo which felt truly free, but I’m able to skip all of the paid options. I often just skip the speed tests as well, as they wear out my nerves.

The other tool I’ve been using is Netflix. I Googled a list of the best Spanish films on netflix and have been working my way through them, and have also now begun watching a Columbian telenovela called Los hombres también lloran (I’ve been roughly translating it as Men Also Cry or Men Cry Too) which is quite fun, and really helpful with my listening on casual conversation. In conjunction with this, I have Google Translate ready to translate words I’m not sure of, either from hearing the Spanish, or from the English subtitles.

Obviously the biggest problem with learning alone and for free is that I’m not gaining the confidence you get from a class, where you are forced to converse with teachers and fellow students, but it’s been a great start, and hopefully on my next trip to South America I will find a lot more chances to practice in real life.