9 reasons to learn a language abroad

There has been a lot of talk on Vagablogging lately about the merits of slow travel and taking time to understand local culture when traveling. This was my goal when I came to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, to volunteer at an after-school program for a month, and I quickly discovered an even better, unexpected outlet for cultural immersion – Spanish school.

There are dozens of Spanish schools throughout Guatemala – and hundreds in Latin America overall – aimed at teaching Spanish as a second language. Many programs focus on medical or social work Spanish and partner with schools in other countries to offer an elective course or an “away rotation” for medical students.

I decided to take Spanish classes after arriving in town and realizing that although I could get by with my “basic” Spanish, it wasn’t enough to make a real difference as a volunteer. Plus, I figured it would benefit my upcoming months of travel throughout Latin America. I quickly found even more benefits:

  1. It’s less expensive: In Guatemala, where I am studying, and throughout Central America, prices begin around $115 per week for five hours a day of one-on-one sessions with a Spanish-speaking instructor. In the U.S., I paid $175 for only six hours of group Spanish lessons.
  2. It supports the local community: While the prices are inexpensive by U.S. standards, our funds are important in the Central American communities. Many Spanish schools are nonprofit and affiliated with social service organizations, so your money not only goes toward teacher salaries but often also toward community needs. In addition, the home-stays offered through Spanish schools provide added income for the families.
  3. Volunteer opportunities: Many schools partner with local after-school programs, orphanages, domestic violence shelters and other organizations, and Spanish-language students can volunteer. The schools also tend to know the community’s true needs and organize related projects; for example, last week I went to a Mayan village to help build a fuel-efficient stove for a family. Using these stoves helps reduce the growing problem of deforestation and the high risk of respiratory issues associated with open-fire stoves.
  4. Cultural immersion: Many Spanish schools coordinate home-stays with local families. These usually include meals, so you’re always tasting homemade, authentic fare and conversing in Spanish with the family during meals. In just two weeks I’ve had great insights just by seeing how my Guatemalan family lives. I take the local “chicken bus” (recycled yellow school buses from the U.S.) to school every day and sometimes come home for lunch as is customary here.
  5. Hands-on, on-site learning: During one of my Spanish lessons, my teacher took me to the outdoor market, where he taught me the names of the fruits and vegetables in sight as well as how to order and barter. This is a skill I’ll be able to use for the rest of my trip and sticks with me much more than if I’d learned out of a book.
  6. Gain a useful skill: While I agree with the quote posted recently on Vagablogging about how body language and a few key words can go a long way when communicating, I also believe it never hurts to know more of the language. For those who plan to spend a longer amount of time in an area and become immersed in the culture, knowing how to say things beyond the basics is especially useful. This can also give you a leg-up when you return home and are job-searching.
  7. Attend organized day trips: The people who work at the schools are very familiar with the area’s highlights as well as how to get around. It saves us travelers the time planning and also provides opportunities to visit places that might not be on the typical tourist trail.
  8. Meet travel buddies: Within five minutes of being in my new Spanish school last week, I was invited to go on a weekend trip with a few others. Those who are traveling to study Spanish often have a certain amount of time off work or college and want to travel as much as possible before heading home.
  9. Transition to the travel lifestyle: As a career-breaker embarking on a long-term trip, I’ve found that taking Spanish classes has been a good transition from my previous 9-5 work routine and my upcoming complete-lack-of-routine. The daily class schedule mixed with free time provides a good middle ground.

Aside from Spanish lessons in Latin America, do you know of other locations that are popular for learning other languages?

Have you learned a language in another country? What did you think were the benefits?

Posted by | Comments (6)  | March 7, 2012
Category: Central America, General, Languages and Culture, Volunteering Abroad

6 Responses to “9 reasons to learn a language abroad”

  1. Adam Costa Says:

    Well said.

    I’m here in Antigua, Guatemala enrolled in nine weeks of Spanish school.

    Antigua is incredible on its own… but… factor in the multitude of excellent – and as you point out, cheap – language schools, it’s a fantastic place to learn more about Guatemala.

    On a personal note Rolf, I’m glad you decided to come to Guatemala. I know you were hesitant after speaking with others… but it sounds like it’s paying off.

    As I’ve offered via Twitter, if you find yourself in Antigua this month, I’d love to buy you a beer. Or Quito next month.

    Feliz viaje,


    PS: The school I’m studying at is excellent: http://www.sanjoseelviejo.com/

    What does everyone else think? Any other great language schools out there?

  2. Matthew Thomas Says:

    I think this article was written by Angela Fornelli.

    One of my professors once told me to be wary of some home-stays with local families if you are trying to learn their language. He said sometimes they can be motivated by their desire for you to teach their kids english, and they will not want to speak their language with you. This is not to say that teaching a families children english is a bad thing, but if that’s not the reason you’re travelling then it could be a problem.

    Have you experienced this? Is this something we should be wary of when organizing home stays or is it so unlikely that we should not take it into consideration?