How to quickly improve your Spanish skills?

This was a serious issue for me last year. As part-time traveller through Spain and Latin America, I needed a development of my knowledge and skills in Spanish. After failing somewhat during Spanish classes in my hometown and due to a lack of opportunities to practise this language, I decided to take an in-depth immersion in the language of Garcia Márquez. For one month, the Colombian town Medellín became my home and after four weeks I literally felt part of the local Paisa community. And… I was even able to think and dream in Spanish!

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The museo Otraparte in Envigado. This was a good place for me to practise my Spanish!

In Brussels I discovered that the traditional way of learning a foreign language, was not my favorite style. So, I searched for hours on Google to avoid the regular language schools and tourist traps and I found a very interesting educational project: Colombia Immersion in Medellín. Their modus operandi is based on conversation, listening, activities and being part of a local community. And that was exactly what I was looking for.

I got classes for four hours a day, one hour of coaching with a local per day, several activities per week, one field trip per week, one language exchange per week and a homestay at a young couple’s apartment in the neighbourhood. All the things I had to do, were in Spanish.

My learning process

As a primary school teacher in Brussels, Belgium, I noticed the next learning proceses in my head:

  • First week: I was able to express myself in Spanish, but only a little bit and it was still hard.
  • Second week: my conversations became more natural.
  • Third week: I started to think in Spanish.
  • Fourth week: I started even to dream in this language. A teacher noticed that I spoke sometimes Paisa, the Medellín dialect, with a Dutch accent. This was really funny to hear.

Later, I observed, I became able to switch between languages in my head. When I think about Spanish speaking friends, I think in Spanish. When I think about my French speaking friends, I think in French. The same with English and my mother tongue Dutch. Is this the famous mental flexibility of multilingual people? I don’t pretend to be multilingual, but now I’m blessed with the knowledge of at least five languages (I speak some German as well).

The following weeks, I stayed in Colombia to further develop my Spanish I tried to avoid the gringo trail and stayed in places were English was more or less impossible to find. You can find such places in the Colombian departments Santander (region Bucaramanga and San Gil), Cauca (region Popayán) and Valle del Cauca (region Cali). It was for me a great pleasure to visit friends in off-the-beaten-track places like Charalá.

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Envigado is next to the nature. After a ten minute bus drive, you’re in ecological park El Salado. Since they’re almost no tourists here, your foreign appearance is reason enough for locals to start talking to you.

My personal secrets

So, what were my personal secrets to go in Spanish from level A2 to B1?

  • Go for two months to a Spanish speaking country where it’s really hard to find English speaking people.
  • Take Spanish classes at a school with an educational project which is good for you. Often you can choose between the more traditional or more modern immersion method.
  • Take a homestay with a family who refuse to speak in English, or can’t speak English.
  • Be part of the community: in countries like Colombia, you can make tons of friends in no-time. Colombians are really open and really interested.
  • Go off the beaten track: leave that famous gringo trail for a while.
  • Ask your Spanish speaking friends to correct you immediately: they’ll show your own errors and you’ll be able to correct yourself.
  • Watch Spanish and Latin American movies and documentaries.
  • Listen Spanish speaking music. The new Colombian music scene is really divers. Look for Bomba Estereo, ChocquibTown, Herencia de Timbiquí, Vicente Garcia, Esteman, Maite Hontelé or many others and try to sing and understand their lyrics. When it’s too difficult, you can find their lyrics online.
  • Talk with strangers. Frequent the same shops, cafes and restaurants and talk with the other clients and workers.
  • Talk with children. Colombian children will often start a conversation, wherever you are.
  • Don’t blame yourself for mistakes. This is part of the learning process.
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When you travel to the comunas, or working class districts, you meet a lot of children who start talking to you. 

How to maintain my higher level?

So, now my Spanish is on a way higher level than it once was. The next question is: how to maintain this? I will try to speak Spanish when I meet my Spanish speaking friends in Brussels (normally we speak in Dutch, French or English). Hopefully, they’ll be patient enough with me and they’ll give me the chance to talk in their mother tongue.

And… I highly recommend the school Colombia Immersion in Medellín. Their bases in Laureles and Envigado. For the real experience, I would recommend staying in Envigado, since Laureles is becoming a real tourist destination.

Finally, just one thing: a lot of thanks to my friends in Medellín, Envigado, Sabaneta, Charalá, Honda and Bogotá for helping me to improve my Spanish.

Hasta luego, que te vaya muy bien!

This article is not an official collaboration with Colombia Immersion, just a personal reflection and hopefully a free service for people who are struggling with Spanish like I did before.

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