07 January 2020

Do You Need Spanish to Enjoy Your South American Holiday?


Learning a new language can be an incredible professional investment – it gives your organisation the edge against potential competitors, and many languages can often be valuable in more than one country.

Of course, learning a language is useful beyond the world of work too. As well as being good for your brain and even your memory, it can make going on holiday a more engaging experience because you get to connect more deeply with the local people, places and history, wherever you go.

In this article, one of our team shares some of her travelling experiences – ones where, regretfully, she realised too late that improving her Spanish language skills might have been helpful!

Time for a holiday!

When I was thinking about where to go on holiday this year, I decided it was about time I visited South America. It had attracted me for years – the dancing, the food and wine, the achingly beautiful landscapes spanning from tropical rainforests to glaciers… I thought the only problem would be narrowing down which part of this vast continent I wanted to visit first!

South America really is huge, stretching from north of the Equator and nudging down towards Antarctica. Even an extended break required me to select a manageable section to navigate. But then I watched a documentary about Buenos Aires, and the decision was made – central Argentina and nearby Uruguay, located just a hop, skip and a jump away (actually, a short ferry ride).

Even better, I realised I wouldn’t need to get to grips with both Spanish and Portuguese, as both countries speak Spanish. And there were months to go before my trip, so I figured I had plenty of time to learn some essential words and phrases.

Fast-forward six months…

There is a reason why New Year’s resolutions do not always go to plan – commitment. Well, commitment and organisation, I suppose. Despite my very best intentions, I found that, as my holiday approached, I had failed to set aside enough time to do any real language learning – ‘real life’ had taken over in the hazy space I had dedicated to building up my Spanish skills. I had picked up a few words here and there (‘manzana’ means ‘apple’, not banana – who knew!), but I didn’t think that was going to help me all that much.

I am quite an optimistic soul, so I thought I would hope for the best and read the Spanish language section in the back of my guidebook while on the plane. It wasn’t a robust strategy, that’s for sure.

The highs and lows of starting slow

Ah, the shame of travelling without truly being prepared. I usually make it a point to have practised some essential language phrases to help me find my way, but, despite the relative ubiquity of Spanish-speaking countries, I had only visited one once (a package holiday to Spain, many years ago, that definitely didn’t rely on me being fluent in Spanish). Although I thought I knew a few words, maybe even enough to get by, I was completely out of my depth. The language around me sounded so fast and incomprehensible, and I felt ill-equipped to even ask for help. I started to rely heavily on ‘gracias’ (meaning ‘thank you’) – genuinely grateful that anyone was prepared to help me at all. I said it so much that I kept forgetting that ‘por favor’ means ‘please’ – ‘gracias’ became my grovel for forgiveness to the people of South America for appearing so unprepared on their shores.

However, after a couple of days something amazing started to happen. I began to remember things I had learned in my inadequate self-taught study sessions, and I started to recognise the words around me on the street, in cafés and restaurants, museums and shops. I figured out how to ask for the menu and how to pay the bill. A shy and hopeful request of ‘baño?’ became ‘dónde está el baño?’ (or ‘where is the bathroom?’). The words that I had squirrelled away in my brain started to come back to me.

The holiday whizzed quickly by, as holidays often do, and as the days progressed my confidence in my limited Spanish improved. The local language still sounded fast and incomprehensible, but there were scatterings of familiar words. I also found that when I managed to express that I had limited Spanish, people often responded with great kindness, often switching to English if they were able to (slightly shameful for me, but very gratefully received!).

I realised how important a few simple phrases could be, so I Googled some extra words to help me expand my ability to communicate. They gave me the confidence to buy a bus pass without resorting to English (though yes, it took a while). They also helped me make a joke at my own expense when an elderly lady patiently talked me through the values of all Uruguay’s banknotes (it turns out that ‘knowing’ how to say a number is not the same as hearing it correctly when you are in a queue of people in a noisy, busy shop).

What should I have done differently?

Practice is so important when you are learning a language. Knowing how to recite a useful phrase is not the same as trying to use it in an unfamiliar environment, especially when the accent is unfamiliar too. And this is why learning a language is a multi-layered experience. You need to speak, read and listen carefully, learning at every opportunity.

Developing your language skills takes time, practice and persistence – it is not a hobby you can dip in and out of and still expect great results. But it was amazing how much I could draw on from previous attempts to learn over time. And after managing to ‘get by’ on this trip, I feel inspired to keep learning so that I’m ready for next time!

Developing your language skills can make all the difference to your experiences

Whether you are travelling for business or leisure, building your language capacity could be the key to making the most of your experience, as our team member discovered – and in business, it could be the difference between realising a great opportunity or missing out.

Even with a short amount of available time, you can focus your energy on mastering a helpful degree of language dexterity – and this will grow with every minute you spend immersed in the language environment. Contact us today to find out how we can help your business shape up its language skills for your next overseas venture.

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