Everyone knows that immersion is the golden standard of language learning. In 2015, we know better than to think that uprooting and moving to a new country is the only way to learn a language effectively, but it’s been proven time and again to be among the best ways.
It’s also often the most expensive way, but it doesn’t have to be. You can immerse yourself in Spanish without paying a peso. Gratis.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of Spanish immersion programs out there, with varied costs, from a couple hundred dollars a week to several thousand a month. These programs are perfect for people who 1) have the financial means to afford them, and 2) don’t want to be bothered with any of the details of planning their immersion experience.
But for those of us who don’t have a couple thousand dollars lying around or who want to take their linguistic destiny in their own hands (or, like me, both), there are many better options. The globalized world means that a small village in Andalusia or a language school in Argentina are only a flight and a couple buses away.
Image from Cliff via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)
If you want to immerse yourself and learn or improve your Spanish while learning a new culture, here are just five of the countless options for you. None of them will cost you more than transportation to get there, and many of them will actually save you money due to drastically lower living costs.
#1: Do a work exchange on Workaway, HelpX, or WWOOF
Work exchanges are the cream of the language immersion crop. Sites like Workaway and HelpX are full of random jobs abroad, from working in hostels, to animal rescue centers, to just living in a family’s house and sharing your language with them. The normal arrangement is between 25-30 hours a week of work in exchange for a free room, and many hosts on these sites offer one to three meals a day included.
WWOOF — Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms — is similar to these sites, but focuses specifically on sustainable organic farming. It’s especially popular in higher-cost countries like Costa Rica and Argentina, and the farms are almost always in rural areas where few people speak English. This is a classic case of learning by doing, and there are few more efficient or economical ways to learn a language.
#2: Couchsurf your way to fluency
If you’d rather not commit yourself to a rigid work schedule, but still want to travel and talk to locals, Couchsurfing might be for you. Couchsurfing is a community of travelers: Couchsurfers host other members in their homes, and ‘surf’ with other members when they travel. Remember that it’s a community, not a free hostel, and it’s generally only intended for stays of a few days at a time, but there are a couple of different ways to use it for language learning.
The first would be to take a long-term trip through a Spanish-speaking country, staying with Couchsurfers for a few days at a time before bouncing on to the next host. This is effective because you’ll find yourself practicing a lot of similar ‘hello, tell me about yourself’ conversations until you’re more comfortable with that basic vocabulary. The majority of Couchsurfers are bi- or multilingual, so don’t worry about communication barriers, but do make an effort not to fall into speaking your native language with your host!
Another method is to use the larger Couchsurfing community’s language exchanges and other social events. Madrid has its Friday Friends Language Exchange, Lima the Wednesday Multilingual Exchange, and Mexico City has five or six recurring weekly language exchanges. You don’t have to be hosting or staying with a Couchsurfer to attend: just show up with a smile!
#3: Volunteer in a language center
It’s surprisingly easy to find work, formal or informal, in language centers and schools in Latin America. Some will offer you a working visa and a paycheck, but others will take you on in a more informal volunteer-esque position in which you teach English or another language in exchange for lodging or Spanish classes.
The Felix Language School in Sucre, Bolivia, for example, offers free lodging and language courses to all who stay there and teach their own language. Or the innovative Colombia Immersion language school in Medellín, which also runs a hostel and partners with a coworking space and microbrewery, offers free room and board for help around the house.
#4: Get a job
Did you think that your employment opportunities are limited to the borders of your passport country? If you’ve got just a bit of education or any kind of skill, I promise you someone needs it somewhere beyond your borders.
Schools and language centers, like the teaching jobs found on Dave’s ESL Cafe, are the go-to for many, but your options don’t end there. If you’re already in country, it’s surprisingly easy in some places to get a job as a bilingual customer service representative, a communications manager, a waiter, or a bartender.
#5: Just move.
This is my personal favorite. You don’t have to have a year’s pay saved up or an agency to relocate you. I’ve moved abroad with as little as $200 USD in my pocket, and while at times the going has been rough, I’ve never regretted it, and I’ve learned a couple languages along the way.
Look into what kinds of jobs you can do remotely and try to work from your computer. Check out local classifieds sites like Craig’s List to see what kind of services are in demand that you could offer. Use sites like Numbeo or Nomad List to investigate the cost of living in various countries and cities. You might be surprised to find that in countries like Nicaragua, Colombia, or Ecuador, a couple hundred dollars will get you a one-bedroom apartment in a nice downtown neighborhood of a big city. Make sure to avoid the expat neighborhoods and live where you’ll be forced to speak Spanish!
I can’t emphasize enough that there’s no one golden solution to language learning: you’ll always be best served by a combined approach. In my personal and professional opinion, immersion plus formal training is the best recipe for success. If you move somewhere in Latin America, you can often find private Spanish teachers for around $10-15 USD per hour. You could also use an affordable online program like Transparent Spanish to better structure and understand everything you’re learning.
The options are unlimited, but just remember you don’t need to break the bank to learn Spanish!
Have you gone abroad to learn or improve your Spanish? Are you looking for an affordable way to travel and immerse yourself in Spanish? Share your thoughts in the comments below!