The Spanish Challenge: Don’t Speak English in Bolivia

by learn a language journalist

Hola mis amores!

Hola mis amores! El artículo de hoy es un poco diferente, porque ahora estoy en Bolivia – y mientras yo estoy aquí, he decidido que no voy a hablar nada de inglés. Sólo en español. Buena suerte para mí, no?

… Just kidding. To those who don’t understand the above, hopefully the title will have given you a clue.

I arrived in Bolivia three weeks ago – my fifth country in South America so far – and with that arrival came a change of travelling tactic. My Spanish has been improving steadily over the last eight months, but what with constant moving from place to place (plus a tendency to go out drinking quite a bit) I haven’t been giving the language quite as much attention as I could.

But Bolivia is one of the most renowned places in the continent to learn Spanish, so I thought I’d better buckle down and do just that. And because I like a challenge, I’ve taken it one step further.

It’s not just that I’m speaking a great deal of Spanish in Bolivia – I’ve decided that I’m not speaking any English.

This could be a journey of some magnitude…

…but of course, this is a slight exaggeration. Being a native English speaker, and someone who talks a LOT, the English language is somewhat unavoidable (although Benny at Fluent in Three Months would disagree). But as much as I can, I’ve been trying to stick to speaking Spanish in everyday life as much as possible.

So how does one go about a Spanish challenge like this?

(Because believe me, it’s a challenge and a half!)

Well. Taking Spanish classes and speaking to locals is an obvious starting point, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

1. Have a desire to speak Spanish

This is rather key – and also pretty self-explanatory, right? But you’d be surprised how common it is for people to think they have this desire. Until it gets to crunch time, and they realise they don’t.

“Oh yeah, I definitely want to be fluent; of course I’ll do all my homework and be proactive about practicing Spanish all the time!” said I, happily, before leaving England – only to discover that when I reached Ecuador, it was simply easier to lapse into English.

As we travelled through Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia, I thankfully became more interested in improving my language skills – and living with my Colombian friend Felipe for a week in Bogotá helped no end, as we agreed to only speak to each other in Spanish.

But then alcohol got involved, and it was suddenly a lot harder to remember how to conjugate verbs at 3am when making small-talk with strangers in the middle of a Colombian club.

Our mistake was starting the night with eight kinds of beer. I probably lost one tense for each bottle.

Sadly, I’ve come to the conclusion – for me, at least – learning Spanish has to be a burning desire; something that overshadows everything else.

Lucky, then, that I eventually went to Brazil and had the linguistic rug pulled out from underneath me. Suddenly being unable to communicate was a huge shock to my system.

I hadn’t realised quite how different Portuguese was going to be from my intermediate Spanish. I ached to speak with a semblance of ease; to be understood when I asked directions or what the price of toothpaste was. I couldn’t bear this new and unwelcome sinking feeling in my stomach when I approached a cash desk to pay for something, knowing I wouldn’t understand the numerical amount I owed.

For god’s sake – I didn’t even know my numbers in Portuguese!

That poor guy doesn’t seem to know his numbers either…

I’m not sure whether this was through sheer idiocy, or if I stubbornly refused to absorb a single iota of the Brazilian language. Instead of attempting to subtly change the Spanish words I knew to fit the Portuguese, I spent a vast amount of time exclaiming how similar a Portuguese word sounded to the Spanish.

I actually missed the Spanish language like it was a person, and became its most stalwart defender.

So when the time came to head across the border to Bolivia, I was raring to go. Chomping at the bit. “Let me at those lovely Spanish-speaking people!” I kept saying to myself. Or something like that, anyway.

And the relief I felt as soon as I crossed the border was exactly as I’d hoped. Fluent or not, I was mentally prepared to throw myself back into the Spanish-speaking arena.

2. Pick a Spanish-friendly location to stay in

Being in Bolivia helps my challenge significantly, because people really don’t speak much English here. Unlike other countries in South America, it’s pretty difficult to get around without at least a smattering of Spanish, which means I’m less likely to lapse into English with Bolivian strangers. Temptation averted!

Then there’s the accent. Bolivia is recommended as a great place to improve your Spanish because Bolivians speak relatively slowly, don’t have many affectations, and pronounce their words with enough clarity for foreigners to understand.

But the Bolivian accent alone isn’t going to improve your Spanish skills. You’ve got to put some effort of your own in, too.

With this effort in mind, I decided to stay in a hotel for my first couple of weeks in La Paz.

More theoretical effort than physical, though.

Despite normally opting for hostels when I travel, I wanted my own space for a little bit – like the ability to sleep when I wanted, and the luxury of actually unpacking all my belongings for a bit. I do love the hostel life, but when you’re travelling long term it’s nice to get a bit of quiet time.

Ok, so the fact that a private room with an en suite bathroom was only £7 a night may have had something to do with it too.

But the biggest benefit to this decision? There was simply no need to speak English, to anyone. Where I’d normally be chatting away in English to fellow travellers in a hostel, I instead interacted solely with Bolivians.

A typical day at the hotel would involve thanking the woman who serves me breakfast in Spanish, and handing my key to the receptionist and have a quick chat, in Spanish. Talking to shop owners on my way to Spanish class in, you’ve guessed it, Spanish. And three hours of intensive classes later, when I eventually sit down in one of the many local restaurants for dinner, there’s no way I’m accidentally going to speak in English.

And calling this road ‘home’ could certainly have been worse!

3.Take many, many Spanish classes

Taking two weeks of Spanish classes in Colombia were hugely helpful, but learning in a group sometimes made things tricky. While speaking with other learners really aided my ability to feel comfortable when speaking Spanish, it nonetheless was a slight hindrance when I didn’t completely understand something, but we moved onto something else anyway.

In La Paz however, I’ve opted for one-on-one lessons – and it’s a totally different ball game.

For three hours, I sit opposite Adriana in a little classroom, and we hash out my issues with her native language. It’s almost like a therapy session; there’s been laughter, tears and most certainly anger, as I’ve agonised over seemingly simple things that suddenly prove elusive, or new tenses that I simply cannot get my head around.

For at least fifteen minutes, I’ll ramble on about a ‘thema’ – in a particular topic, chosen by Adriana – and she’ll pick up on every word I get wrong. We’ll go through some new element of the language that appears totally overwhelming, and read a piece of text (usually a children’s story, even though we started off with Edgar Allen Poe), and I’ll repeatedly ask for the English definitions.

Eventually I’ll be set homework, tasked to write sentences using the vocabulary I’ve learned that class and the tenses I find most difficult.

And, more often than not, I leave a class feeling like my Spanish is worse than when I arrived.

It’s exhausting, and sometimes all I can do not to fall asleep!

But there’s a silver lining to all this.

Learning in such a proactive environment gives no room for error. Literally – because we won’t move on until I understand. Her constant repetition of my mistakes, while sometimes a knock to my confidence, means I eventually stop making them.

Moreover, I think I’d got complacent. I’d hit that language sweet spot where I thought I knew a lot, but in fact I was having the same conversations over and over again, and simply improving those specific sets of vocabulary in identical patterns.

It’s making my brain hurt – but I actually think I’m learning.

4. Force yourself to speak to every local possible

Apart from Spanish classes, I’ve settled into my version of Paceña life. La Paz is a common stop on the backpacker trail; known for its party hostels, some very traveller-friendly activities (like cycling down Death Road – which I have absolutely no desire to try!) and a rather infamous prison.

There aren’t as many long term travellers in La Paz though, unless they’re involved in volunteer work, or they’re improving their Spanish. It means that adopting the slow travel mentality in somewhere like La Paz is wonderfully simple. You’re not jostling for space amongst a myriad of foreigners; we’re few and far between, once you get out of the city centre’s tourist hub.

For my Spanish challenge, it also throws down the gauntlet for a lot of language practice, with vocabulary I most definitely don’t yet know.

Bargaining with the cholita women at the market; speak English and end up with nothing. Except a stare of death (this one was the last shot I took before my camera broke! Cursed?…)

At the opposite end of the spectrum to the normal “I am travelling in South America” phrases, I’ve asked directions from countless locals in order to search out beauty salons that offer eyebrow threading in La Paz (FYI? There is ONE. In the entire city), discussed the intricacies of my second broken camera with three different repair men, and talked to the local butcher about what he thought I should cook for dinner while he weighed out my sausages.

5. Think outside the usual Spanish box

These kind of interchanges are gold dust in the language learning process, as they make you realise just how redundant your lessons at school were.

Not for grammar and tenses (because those are like diamonds if you actually learnt them properly) – but in terms of conversation? You’re never going to chat to a Bolivian about what you do with your friends at the weekend or what your house looks like; you’re going to discuss the latest change to the law system, or why that group of teenagers were protesting in the street yesterday.

You start to realise, once you’re living a Spanish-focused lifestyle, that the clues to improving your grasp on the language are all around you.

And so you think outside the box.

Don’t know a word? Take a photo and look it up later!

Reading the local newspapers, mentally translating the adverts on the sides of buses and plastered to trees – even the telenovelas on TV are insanely useful! Although they’re also quite insane…

And that Kindle you’ve been travelling with for months? Why not download some books in Spanish to have a go at? Or, better yet, get something you already know and love on there – like Harry Potter, which I’ve read so often I know the plot backwards, so the Spanish isn’t half as difficult as it could be. Plus I’m adding a whole new collection of magic themed words to my vocabulary!

Reading books in Spanish: difficult but certainly interesting!

6. The peak of Spanish immersion: pretending you’re actually spanish

Of course, there are certain affectations of your own that you’ll adopt when learning Spanish in South America. Little things that make you feel more comfortable when trying to speak the language – like shortening ‘por favor’ to the common-in-Colombia ‘porfa’, or absorbing the local slang from places you visit and saying it at every opportunity.

Or the habit I adopted in Brazil, designed to allay my fears about not speaking a single word of Portuguese – which was pretending to be a Spanish speaker from somewhere else in South America.

Attempting to blend into the jungle background. Not doing a wonderful job.

This wasn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds. More often than not, when I spoke Spanish at hostel receptions and ticket windows, people thought I was Argentinian. So after a few of these misconceptions were revealed to me, I thought, “why the hell shouldn’t I be from Argentina?!”

It was more than just pretending to be from a Spanish speaking country, though. I felt like being mistaken for Argentinian was akin to me passing a particular level in the Spanish game; I could apparently speak Spanish well enough that, even lthough I didn’t sound local, I could still pass for South American. And that was enough of a boost to keep me going.

If you want to speak Spanish, don’t stop!

The most important thing I’ve learned in this Spanish challenge, though, is the necessity to keep pushing through. I’m hell-bent on this idea that I’m going to be fluent before I leave South America. But it’s not enough to just want it to happen; I have to need to be fluent.

So I’ll keep spending my evenings with a mountain of Spanish homework in front of me (often accompanied by a glass of Chilean red to help things along). I’ll continue to talk nonsense to strangers on the bus, in restaurants and at street stalls, and I’ll even make the semi-terrifying vow to read the entire Harry Potter series in Spanish.

Because I’ve got such an opportunity to perfect my Spanish out here in Bolivia; in amongst the mountains and the teetering houses and the stunning photo-worthy scenes waiting around every corner.

And sitting above the city of La Paz, it felt like I had the whole of South America’s Spanish skill right in front of me. Ready for the taking.

Now I’ve just got to grab it.

This content was originally published here.

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