One of my main goals for my time here in Colombia is to become fluent in Spanish.
Before I left home, I was at what I would call an intermediate level, and I worried a lot about how much Spanish I would actually be able to learn while working as an English teacher, and whether my goal of being fluent within the year was reachable. I often see people asking similar questions online.
Having lived here for a few months now, I must report the somewhat unfortunate (though probably obvious) truth, which is that you don’t automatically learn Spanish just by living in a Spanish-speaking country. It still takes work, and the amount you learn will depend directly on how much effort you put into studying and seeking out opportunities to practice.
In fact, it would be pretty easy for me to speak only English at school (I am an English teacher after all!) socialize and live with English speakers, read and watch things in English in my spare time, and generally to never go much past “hola” and “cuanto cuesta?” in my day-to-day life.
On the other hand, every day here I have nearly endless opportunities to practice Spanish and huge incentive to do so.
Making a Plan
A few weeks after I arrived in Colombia, I realized that I wasn’t progressing as fast as I wanted to and that I need to make a formal study plan and stick to it.
There are tons of resources for learning languages online, as well as zillions of articles about the best way to learn a foreign language, and when I first started making my plan I was nearly paralyzed by all the options. I did a lot of research (here and here are some articles I found particularly interesting), but in the end there was no way to read everything or know for sure what was the absolute best way. I decided I just had to pick the elements that I thought would work best for me and get started!
Here is how I am working towards my goal of being fluent within the year:
1. Living with Spanish speakers.
This is, weirdly, a hard one, because finding an apartment with Spanish speakers (at least in Medellín) can be difficult if you have a lot of requirements like I apparently do. (My requirements are things such as: wanting to live at least somewhat near my work, wanting to live with roommates rather than with a family, wanting to have a window in my room, etc.)
I’m currently looking for a new apartment (more on that later) and, I won’t lie, it is really tempting to move in with other foreigners because there are a lot of options available and they mostly seem like pretty friendly and relaxed places. It isn’t super common, from what I’ve seen, for young Colombians to live with roommates – most people live with their families until they get married – so I’m not exactly overwhelmed with other good options.
However, I know that if I lived with English speakers, not only would I not practice Spanish at home, but I would be likely to befriend my roommates and spend my free time with them instead of with Spanish speakers. Because of this, I am currently living with Spanish speakers and continuing my search for a new apartment until I find another suitable place with Spanish speakers.
2. Using a textbook
I know, I know, many people hate learning languages from textbooks, but hear me out.
I dragged this beast all the way from Chicago, and my goal (which I’ve been keeping up with so far!) is to complete one chapter of it per week. While some of my light-packing friends have made fun of me for having brought such a big and heavy item, I’m really glad I did. Even though there are a ton of online resources for learning Spanish, for me having a book is unbeatable for three reasons.
First, the book covers all verb tenses and major grammar points, so I find using it much simpler and less frustrating than learning things piecemeal online.
Second, unlike a laptop, I can pretty much bring it anywhere. I almost never take my laptop out of my apartment for fear of it being stolen, but I can just pop my textbook in my bag and carry it around without worrying much. I often have downtime between classes at school, and it’s great to be able to use that time productively to study, rather than just milling around.
And third, I can take it to a library or coffee shop, away from my computer and the internet, to force myself to get in some distraction-free studying.
One note: I have friends who have looked for a similar book here without success, so if you are coming to Colombia and think a textbook might be helpful, I recommend bringing one with you.
3. Newspaper Articles
My goal is to read at least two articles in El Espectador each week, look up all words I don’t know, and put them on flashcards to memorize.
I also try to stick to Spanish-language news for browsing, but as a news junkie I can’t always stop myself from reading news in English too. Working on it!
I like paper flashcards for the same reason that I like my textbook, which is that I can take them anywhere without any worries. I carry my flashcards all over the place, take them out to practice at any time, and never have to worry about them getting stolen, running out of batteries, or using up my precious cellphone data – all concerns with app-based flashcard programs. (Yes, I realize this is super dorky – whatever!)
Plus, people here, especially my students, get a big kick out of seeing someone studying Spanish. My flashcards are a great conversation starter and way to bond with people about the difficulties of learning a second language.
I use flashcards to memorize vocabulary from my two newspaper articles each week, any new vocabulary I encounter in my textbook, and words and phrases that I find myself needing, or hearing and not understanding, in my everyday life.
As much as possible, I try to make the flashcards 100% in Spanish, with a definition in Spanish on one side and the word and some example sentences on the other.
I have all my study goals mapped out in this handy-dandy spreadsheet, which I use to keep myself on-track.
Besides these set goals, I also do the following:
- Listen to (mostly) music in Spanish and look up the words to songs I like.
- Go to language exchange meetups. (There are tons of these in Medellin. Unfortunately I often find that I end up speaking mostly English, either with the people who went there to learn English or with other gringos who showed up, but still, it’s better than nothing!)
- Change the language settings on my computer, phone, and websites I use a lot (like Gmail, etc.) to Spanish.
- Watch TV in Spanish, with Spanish subtitles (I’m currently watching El Patron del Mal on Netflix, which is basically the Colombian version of Narcos. A lot of it takes place in Envigado, the suburb where I’m currently living, which makes it extra fun to watch!)
- And of course, most importantly, get out there and make friends with Colombians!!!
As I improve, I plan to incorporate reading books in Spanish and maybe trying to find a private tutor or language exchange partner to meet with me once or twice a week. (For those wondering, the price for private Spanish tutoring in Medellín seems to be about 20,000-30,000 pesos, or about 6-10 USD, per hour.)
I hope that’s helpful! I will post an update later on how my study plan is working out. In the meantime, do you have suggestions or ideas about the best way to learn a language while living abroad? Leave a comment or send me a message!