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Living like a local to improve your Spanish

Travel Tips for Full Immersion Language Learning

Editor’s Note: Adventure and exploration can mean many things like learning a new language; and, learning the basics of a new language is an essential tool for any world traveler. I can testify that the best way to learn a language is the full immersion method. But it can be daunting. Daniel breaks it down for us. He gives some great tips to learn Spanish or any language and how to get an insider’s view into the local culture. I’ve learned a lot of words just by eating random things off a menu — it’s an adventure. And keep in mind one of the best travel tips I’ve been ever given: always eat at the restaurant with the longest line of locals! You’ll be guaranteed the best food and a lower risk of getting sick.

This past August, I had the unique opportunity to travel almost anywhere in the world for a few days. Summer’s end was quickly approaching and my wife, a flight attendant with the benefit of unlimited global flights, said it was time to get away.

It was at that point that I freaked her out by doing this nuts back-flip/somersault-combo thing, threw on my best pair of leather pants, and proceeded to strut through the streets of Cincinnati like John Travolta singing Greased Lightning

Ok, so that last part didn’t actually happen, but you can imagine the eagerness with which I began studying maps, blogs, and Wikipedia pages, vehemently ignoring any article that included fear-mongering words like “ZIKA!!!”

We ultimately decided on Puerto Rico.

How to speak Spanish with the locals

Now, we’d had the privilege of traveling quite extensively over the several years prior, but having done so, we’d grown quite tired of the usual tourist traps like cathedrals, art museums, and every city’s equivalent of the Eiffel Tower. When we travel, we like to settle in and look as much like the locals as we can. This can be hard, especially since neither of us looks very Puerto Rican, but our goal is typically to live, eat, drink, and have fun in the way that a local does.

And with the territory of living like a local comes speaking like a local and avoiding the trap of speaking English with crafty locals who are far too used to interacting with touring Americans. “How exactly does one do that, though?” you ask.

  • Rule 1. Beat them to the punch.
  • Rule 2. Remain steadfast, even when they continue speaking English or you forget a word.
  • Rule 3. The Denmark Card. If all else fails, act as if you’ve never heard a word of English in your life. Learning to say, “I don’t speak English. I’m from Denmark” in Spanish (No hablo inglés. Soy de Dinamarca.) is a good way to get around this. Just make sure whoever you’re speaking with is not from Denmark.

So, after our arrival at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and a life-altering rental/prompt return of a rental car (see: engine fire), we rolled into Old San Juan with a kind local woman who’d offered us a ride – one of our first chances at speaking Spanish. This might have been the toughest time we had getting a person to speak Spanish, however, because we kind of lost our cool when the car engine caught fire (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) and may or may not have spoken English in front of her with the Enterprise counter help. We followed rule #2, however, remaining steadfast in our goal to speak nothing but Spanish for the five days we were there.

Now, as a quick aside, just to paint the proverbial picture of Old San Juan, it’s a historic neighborhood of no more than a few dozen streets within the confines of the larger, more metropolitan San Juan. This is where we spent nearly every minute of our five days. Above its narrow, cobblestone roads sit the centuries-old buildings of Old San Juan that look to be straight out of a Hemingway novel. The old town is completely surrounded by a city wall that served to protect it at various points during its 500+ year history, as the Dutch and British continually attempted to rob the Spanish of their serene island town.

Anyhow, back to our somewhat forced immersion experience.

One rule of thumb I like to follow to fit in like a local is to live in the actual homes of the locals. This is where Airbnb comes into the picture. We wound up staying in a centuries-old home that, although recently renovated, had kept its character with hand-carved wooden beams and an old stone floor throughout the living space. It even had a view of the ocean. Nightly cost? Around $50.

Puerto Rico Fish Dinner
Puerto Rican fish dinner. Food with a Caribbean flair.

We made it a point to leave the apartment an hour before lunch and dinner each day to wander around until we found the most inconspicuous, local-looking restaurants possible. How did we identify them? We’d find the ones with the fewest Americans inside and an atmosphere that didn’t necessarily feel like something you’d find in the parking lot next door to your average American shopping mall. Once going inside, we’d test the host/hostess with Spanish (Rule #1). If they responded back in Spanish, we knew we’d found a good place. A few times, once seated, we’d get an English-language menu. At this point, we would abide by rule #3 (the “Denmark” card) and ask for the Spanish menu. This was a great way to learn words like “mofongo” (an AMAZING dish) and stay brushed up on our ordering skills.

The biggest challenge in our “forced” immersion experience was taking Uber and Lyft around town. These drivers were probably the best at speaking English on the island and you can probably guess why. And if you can’t, it’s because they drive tourists around ALL. DAY. LONG. My wife would typically grab the proverbial bull by the proverbial horns in these scenarios, however, and make sure that the driver knew it was Spanish time. (Rule #2, again). They always conceded.

So, looking for a quick way to improve your Spanish in just a few days’ time? Does a trip to the Caribbean sound less-than-awful? Can you save up $500 or so in the next couple months to make it happen? If so, get online now and begin researching those tickets. Use the tactics my wife and I did on our trip to San Juan and you will not fail.

What do you do to live like a local when you travel? Please tell me in the comments!

Note: Daniel’s website, has been archived.

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