Learnin the Lingo
You will encounter some people who speak a little English and a lot of people who don't speak any. While playing Charades is a fun game, doing so when trying to cross a border, get directions, ask for something or satisfy a curiostiy can sometimes generate disappointing results
The more of a foreign language you can learn, the richer your experience will be when visiting a foreign country.
From a language perspective, Latin America is probably easier than most regions of the world as most of the countries in Central and South America speak Spanish. Portugese speaking Brazil is the only large country not speaking Spanish but my understanding is they are able to understand Spanish so, may not be as much of an issue.
In Latin America you can get along with virtually no Spanish, I know travellers who have done that. Some more touristy towns will have a few English speakers that you will run into. However, you will rarely find English speakers outside of those tourist areas.
As you learn some Spanish, these day to day functions become easier and you can start to have conversations, understand tour guides, ask questions and understand the answers and generally become more immersed in the culture. That’s where the experience starts to be enriched.
My Spanish abilities sucked big time. Now that I have had an opportunity to take some instruction they have imroved to the level of just sucking. I can get by with day to day functions and can have a conversation of sorts . . . if the other person is patient.
My objective when talking to a Spanish speaker is to have them talk slowly and with short sentences. I can understand at that level - it's probably the equivalent of the speach of a 2 or 3 year old.
Also, just to make things interesting, each country seems to have it's own dialect and vocabulary. Think of all the different dialects of English we have - Spanish is no different. The most baffling was speed. I find a lot of Spanish speakers talk really fast - until you get to Argentina then it's like Turbo-fast. Constantly asking them to slow down helps.
To learn, I tried some software for awhile then got an online tutor and had a couple of one hour lessons a week for over a year along with some time to study and practice. I am a slow learner with languages (feels like my head is filled with concrete and the damn words just bounce off) and should have spent more time learning before travelling.
Local classes and tutors – Have never used these so don’t know the cost but I’ve seen some local ads at $50 an hour for a tutor. Classes obviously would be less.
Software – Certainly the best known language software is Rosetta Stone. After some research, I decided to buy
(similar in reputation and price as Rosetta Stone) which was ok but didn’t work well for me . . . probably because I’m too lazy to put extra time into it. There are tons of others. You can spend anywhere from $30 for something basic to $500 for a full blown set.
· I use SpanishDict which is free and a great resource. It offers a pretty good dictionary, a bunch of video lessons, forums, translator, verb conjugator and flash cards. You can build your own flashcard sets which I found really handy. The word dictionary is really comprehensive as are the verb conjugator. A great resource website. You can also sign up for the Word of the Day which is a handy way to get you thinking about Spanish at the beginning of every day. The sentence translating function is ok - uses three translators but they don't seem to be any better than Google.
· Google Translate is one of the better translators for sentences and phrases but still sucks. Sometimes it nails a translation and sometimes it makes no sense. A good resource but not a relacement to actually learn the language.
· I used Yabla Spanish a bit – I think it cost about $10 a month and has some pretty good videos using native Spanish speakers, each designed for different levels of ability. They also have a running transcription along the bottom in both Spanish and English which can be toggled on and off. Lots of other learning aids: Lessons and Flash Cards. Another great resource.
· There are tons of Spanish speaking radio stations available as streaming audio on the internet – all the formats: music, talk, news. Tune-In Spanish Talk has a huge variety of radio stations to choose from. I usually would listen to some of the talk radio but you can learn a lot from the music also.
· Also virtually every newspaper has a website and are a great source for written practice material. I accessed the following excellent newspapers periodically:
El Tiempo - Bogotá, Colombia
Últimas Noticias - Quito, Ecuador
El Universal - México City, México
El País International Edition - Spain
My favorite way to learn at home. I really like being able to interact with a person. You can get a one on one Spanish Speaking tutor for $10 to $15 an hour. Lessons are by Skype so it’s almost the same as sitting in the same room with the teacher. Quite a few in Guatemala and some from Colombia and Ecuadaor. I am sure there are many others. I have used the following two sources and have had good experiences with both.
Language School Teachers - Very long list of independant teachers to choose from. Basicly refers you to the teacher of your choice then you and the teacher make arraingements and arrainge payment.
NuLengua - An online school with about 10 teachers in various locations. Booking and payment through the school.
Spanish Schools in Spanish Speaking countries.
I think this is the ultimate way to learn Spanish. You can find schools, tutors and classes in just about any country - particularly in tourist areas. Guatemala is well known for lots of good quality tutors at very reasonable rates. Pick a cool little town like San Pedro la Laguna on Lake Atitlan where you can hang out for a few weeks and pick one of the first class schools there and fly at it. 4 hours of classes for 5 days a week should run you about $100 per week. Even better, do a homestay which you can do for less than an additional $100 per week and includes lodging and meals. Learning Spanish could be the cheapest part of your whole trip.
To summarize, whether you learn Spanish or not is a personal decision. Not necessary but will improve your experience dramaticly. I now wish I had improved my Spanish skills much more before departing on my trips. So, I am continuing with my training and even if I only hang out at the beach in Mexico, it will make my time there richer.