One of the things that I learned when Julie and I turned our attention internationally to go waterfalling is that travel is all about building bridges between your own perception of the world and what actually happens in the real world.
And so I realized that one of the best ways to build this bridge of understanding is to try to learn the local language as best as I could. This would help me to keep an open mind while also preparing myself to expand my horizons as I went.
Besides, I feel that trying to speak the local language (no matter how awkward or difficult it might be) goes a long way towards being encouraged as well as being respected for the effort. It’s certainly better than the opposite reaction you might get when you expect or even demand that a local speak English on their own soil.
In the case of Spanish, this was really a case of practicing what I had been learning in Junior High and High School as this was my chosen second language. So I ended up taking about four years of formal study in High School with a pair of Summer sessions in Junion High.
However, it really wasn’t until we had to use the language in countries like Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Spain among others, did it become very apparent just how useful this language would be. Of course, it also helped with communicating with people at home as there’s a very large Hispanic population throughout California (especially Southern California).
In this page, I’ll try to introduce you to the language through my learning experiences.
I’ll throw in some expressions that we came across frequently that you might be able to try out as well as some vocabulary that would at least help you get some meaning behind the geographical place names or natural features on a waterfalling excursion.
For more comprehensive learning, I’ll also let you know about how I managed to learn some of the language in addition to the resources that I’ve used.
The Learning Process
Because I had spent at least four of my impressionable adolescent years studying Spanish in school, I was given plenty of exposure to the vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, and some conversational aspects of the language.
I have also had plenty of opportunities to practice (in somewhat of a contrived way) with other classmates. I even watched and tried to follow along some telenovelas (Spanish soap operas) though admittedly, I was probably more motivated by watching las mujeres than trying to use the show to pick up the language.
Yet even given all the years of exposure, it wasn’t until I had to use the language in the field on our handful of trips to Spanish speaking countries did I start to feel a little more comfortable with the language.
And even then, I still don’t have full command of the language (or at least not as good as someone who has managed to live or spend a significant amount of time fully immersed in a Spanish-speaking country).
Currently, what I’ve been doing to maintain my Spanish is to try to speak with co-workers who’ll indulge me exclusively in the language. Admittedly, sometimes they go quite fast and it can be stressful just to keep up. But at least some aspects of the language have become second nature as a result of it.
Before a trip to a Spanish-speaking country, I also use my commute time to review the language through a book and audio CD combination from Teach Yourself.
I probably could drill myself a bit more with a more intense textbook and audio CD series, but I’ll cross that bridge when I know for sure that I’ll be spending weeks abroad in Latin America, the Caribbean, or Spain.
I’ll go into a review of the self-learning resources in the next section.
Reviews of Learning Resources
The following are some of the resources that I’ve used to self-learn or self-reinforce what I’ve learned. This is independent of the learning materials provided in school when I took Spanish classes.
Teach Yourself: Spanish
Overall Rating: 3/5
The Teach Yourself Spanish book and audio CD (I used the 2003 revision with the oranges on the cover) was my primary self-learning resource when I was well out of High School. High School was when I was last exposed to the language in a formal learning environment.
I primarily used this book to read while on the metro during my work commute, and I listened to its CD frequently while driving or playing it back on an mp3 player after ripping it from the CD.
I tended to prefer this method of learning because I could peck away at each lesson during my work commute as a captive audience. I mind as well do this when there’s nothing better to do anyways, and it’s certainly better than road raging it.
So given that, the language lesson was pretty remedial for me at first, but towards the middle of the textbook, it then got into some of the harder stuff I struggled with in the past. Such topics included the command of substitution of words with pronouns, when to use the imperfect tense versus the preterite tense, and how to properly use the subjunctive tense.
Obviously, those tricky parts of the language would become second nature with frequent utilization, but they remain bugaboos for me in a learning environment when I’m not living there and being forced to use it on an everyday basis.
The Spanish used in the audio and book is the formal one used in Spain (also known as Castillian Spanish). So they do teach expressions with vosotros (something I don’t think you hear much throughout Latin America).
Some of the conversations used in the audio CDs seem to be a little contrived and something I certainly didn’t find useful in the real world.
Personally, I would have liked to have seen something a little more relevant to what you’d encounter in a real world situation as a foreigner as well as having more conversations to further train my ears towards the speed at which native speakers would go.
Overall, I gave it an average score because it was a decent refresher for me, but I felt there could have been a lot better integration of the lessons with real-life situations. That said, it did a good job considering its price (in the less-than $40 range) compared to much more expensive college courses that are out there.
Learn in Your Car Spanish Levels 1, 2, 3
Overall Rating: 1.5/5
The Learn in Your Car Spanish series was three different lessons all of which I bought (it might have costed me in the neighborhood of $30 a pop around the 2006 time frame).
Even though I had formal schooling in the language, I thought the CDs might be a quick-and-dirty way to refresh myself in the language.
The CDs each were basically a laundry list of vocabulary and expressions or sentences that I would repeat over and over again. Perhaps they were trying to follow the Pimsleur method of just listening to something repeatedly in order to learn the language.
While this might be useful for the beginner lessons in the first of the CDs, its usefulness diminished the further on I progressed in the lessons. In fact, that was when they started using really weird expressions that I don’t think I would ever use in real life.
Plus, each of the sentences or expressions were completely out of context as each phrase had no relation to the previous phrase. In fact, they seemed to be totally random – no rhyme or reason.
It’s for these reasons that I didn’t give this resource a very high score. While the convenience of learning in the car helped me utilize my commute time more productively, I ultimately found out that lessons like these really didn’t have long term value and really didn’t help with grammar or other key things that I knew I needed to be at least competent in during a real-life situation.
Just memorization (which seemed to be the emphasis of these lessons) wasn’t enough.
The mini-booklets that came with the CDs were pretty much transcripts of what’s said in the CDs, but again, given the lack of usefulness of the content, all the booklets did was perhaps help decipher some of what I thought I had heard in the CDs.
Living Language: Spanish
Overall Rating: 3/5
I wound up buying the complete edition of this book, which took the more traditional approach of drilling you on the grammar with some vocabulary that progressively gets more difficult the further along the lessons you go.
Like with the other lessons I’ve used, I used my commute on the metro employing a combination of reading the book and the audio parts being ripped and played through my mp3 player.
I’ve found that this book covers the bases of Castillian Spanish (much like how I was formally taught in school), and I primarily used it as a refresher.
Personally, I didn’t find these lessons to be anything extraordinary, but they do bring you up through all the language concepts that traditional courses would do. I would have liked to have seen a more contiguous storyline or some way to link each of the lessons in a continuous narrative so you’re more invested in the language learning.
Without it, you just get a random series of phrases, words, and conversations that aren’t memorable. And thus, they’re easily forgotten.
That said, no matter how well you’ve memorized the conversations and lessons, there’s no substitute for actually using the Spanish in the field, especially if you have to come up with expressions on-the-fly to respond to what you’ve just heard. There’s no language lesson that can predict those kinds of things (because humans are generally unpredictable to begin with), and that’s why book learning can only take you so far.
Nonetheless, for what it’s worth, it was adequate and reliable. While not the cheapest (certainly more than Teach Yourself), it will improve your Spanish as long as you’re invested in your own learning and put effort into it.
Some Useful Expressions
Here’s a list of some very basic expressions that I have come across in my travels. Hopefully, you’ll find these to be useful.
To learn more expressions or go through a much more comprehensive list than this, I’d recommend checking out more authoritative resources than this, however.
- Buenos días / Buenas tardes / Buenas noches – Good morning or Good day / Good afternoon / Good evening
- ¡Hola! – Hi!
- ¿Cómo está (usted)? – How are you? (note: this is the formal way of saying it)
- ¿Cuánto cuesta? – How much does it cost?
- Gracias – Thanks
- De nada – You’re welcome (literally, “it’s nothing”)
- ¿Dónde está el baño? – Where’s the restroom?
- ¿Qué significa…? – What does … mean?
- ¿Cómo se dice … en español? – How do you say … in Spanish?
- ¡Que tenga un buen viaje! (in response: ¡Igualmente!) – Have a good trip! (“same to you” as a response)
- La cuenta, por favor – The check, please
- ¿Qué tiempo hace? – What’s the weather like?
- Hace buen/mal tiempo – The weather’s good/bad
- llueve – It’s raining
- nublado – Cloudy
- Hace calor / frío – It’s hot / cold
- ¿Qué hora es? – What time is it?
- Es la una / Son las dos. – It’s 1 o’clock / It’s 2 o’clock.
- peligro/peligroso – danger / dangerous
- aviso – warning
- los impuestos / las multas – taxes / fines
- Vamos / Vámonos – Let’s go
Some Useful Vocabulary
I’m sure there can be any number of words that would be helpful to know, but I’m going to do things a little differently and try to bias this vocabulary list with things more related to waterfalls or other geographical features.
I figure that might at least help you read some maps or at least have a better understanding of what some of the local place names mean.
- la catarata – the waterfall (cataract). Example: La Catarata Gocta is Gocta Falls
- la cascada – the cascade or waterfall. Example Me gustan las cascadas means I like waterfalls (literally waterfalls are pleasing to me).
- el salto – the leap; typically used in waterfall names. Example: El Salto Angel is Angel Falls.
- el chorrillo – said to mean “steady trickle.” Example: Chorrillo del Salto is the name of a particular waterfall in the Argentina side of Patagonia.
- la montaña – the mountain
- la selva – the jungle
- el bosque – the forest
- el río – the river. Example: el río grande means the big river
- el arroyo – the creek. Example: el arroyo seco means the dry creek
- el mar – the sea
- el lago – the lake
- el valle – the valley. Example: el valle sagrado means the sacred valley
- el parco nacional – the national park
- el agua – the water
- el sol – the sun
- el cielo – the sky
- la calle – the street
- la ciudad – the city
- el país – the country
- aviso – warning
- el sendero / el camino – both mean the path or the way
Because Spanish is spoken in almost all of Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, in much of the United States, even parts of Northern Africa, and of course Spain, I don’t think I can understate the fact that a large part of the world can certainly communicate in this language without the need of learning English.
In other words, it’s very useful to learn Spanish and you can’t be surprised to go to Spanish-speaking places where English may not be spoken at all!
Yet even if you’re determined to learn the language, there’s really no substitute for practice and full immersion in a Spanish-speaking country or region. I can personally vouch for the fact that even though I’ve had four years of schooling, my Spanish is still not as good as someone who has lived in say Mexico for just a year.
The reason why is because structured language may get you familiar with the grammatical rules and some vocabulary, but it can only get you to a point where you can have enough confidence to try the language in a real life situation.
But to really have command of the language, you really need the full immersion so you’re forced to adapt and think like Spanish speakers think as far as the language goes.
After all, in real life situations, you can’t predict how people will react to you. I think it’s that spontaneity that is missing from structured learning, and it’s the very reason why immersive learning easily trumps academic learning.
Anyways, even if you don’t have full command of the language but you took the learning seriously enough to at least have the confidence to try you’ll find that just having acquired this basic skill will empower you to go off the beaten path and have a richer and more unique experience in a foreign country.
It’s also a bridge-building exercise where you can connect with locals and with the country in ways that are far more profound and lasting than a typical cookie-cutter tourist tour where the experiences aren’t as unique and the connections made aren’t as lasting.
Don’t be discouraged by awkward exchanges or struggles to communicate. That said, I guarantee you that just by trying, you’re in a far more hopeful situation than not being able to communicate at all.
I’ve observed more often than not that people are genuinely pleased and more encouraging when you try to speak their language. It almost puts them at ease.
This happens far more often than the few instances where you might have run into someone who might be condescending. Besides, you’ll never know if you don’t try, and who knows where you learning will take you next?
So what have you got to lose?
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