Learning Spanish: in Spain or at home?

Plaza Mayor

Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Photo by Marc

Learning a language is difficult at the best of times, but the difficulties start way before the learning process begins. First of all, you need to decide how you want to learn it which, with so many options, is no mean feat. Do you self-teach with the help of textbooks and audiotapes? Do you join an intensive class, an evening class, or get a tutor?

Do you want to learn in the native speaking country or from the comfort of your own home?

No matter what language you are learning, the questions are the same. I recently had the chance to try experience both approaches while learning Spanish.

Time frame and budget obviously have a huge part to play in this but, with so many language learning opportunities abroad, many Spanish learners are heading to Spain and Latin America to immerse themselves first hand in the language and the culture that surrounds it.

So, what are the differences between learning a language in its native country and learning it from home?

Learning a Language in its Native Speaking Country

Last year I landed for a month-long stay in Madrid without knowing a single word of Spanish (bar the obvious ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, and ‘guapa’). I had two weeks of morning lessons planned but found that the most successful environments for learning Spanish in Spain were shops, restaurants, and out on the street amongst the locals. Madrid is notorious for being particularly harsh to English speakers so, on one level, it was necessary for me to practice at every conceivable opportunity in order to get myself heard. Plus, it’s difficult not to pick up any of the language when you are surrounded by it all day, every day.

Speaking foreign languages

Illustration by Zinjixmaggir

My Spanish teacher didn’t speak much English at all, so the lessons were often confusing, especially the first couple in which I don’t think I understood a single word. I left feeling disheartened and frustrated. It got better, though. The daily interaction of speaking with native Spanish speakers was hugely beneficial and it made learning it all the more worthwhile.

Think about it this way. Textbooks, or even lessons in your home country, offer a very robotic way of saying something in another language; usually the most polite way, or a way that would not typically be used by locals. It’s easy to memorise a sentence from a book or by repeating after your teacher, but it’s putting it into practice that’s the difficult (and rewarding) part. What the textbook won’t tell you is all the different responses that your robotic question could conjure up, leaving you flummoxed and unable to engage in an authentic conversation when a response you haven’t yet encountered crops up. The best way to overcome this is to interact with as many native speakers as possible. Of course, you will make mistakes, that’s part of the process. But once you realise that no one is going to laugh at you for trying, your confidence begins to grow and you feel more comfortable speaking to native speakers.

Verdict: Great for full-on immersion. Actively encourages you to practice every day and you pick up localisms and casual words and phrases. You don’t even need to book lessons in the native speaking country, just try and interact with as many locals as possible. I would, however, recommend learning a few words before you go – if not just so you can get directions to the metro station.

Learning Spanish from Home

By this, I don’t mean hiding behind a pile of textbooks on your own in a darkened room. I simply mean learning a language somewhere where it is not natively spoken. When I returned from Madrid, I booked an evening class to continue the learning process. Whilst it’s good to keep up with lessons (or the learning process) once you return, you may have to adapt your techniques and methods slightly to fit in with the new environment. I know I had to.

One of the biggest issues of learning a language from home is motivation. When you are in the native speaking country there is ample opportunity to practice every day, whereas at home, there just isn’t. This means you are going to have to have some serious motivational talks with yourself. If you are determined, this shouldn’t be a problem, but we all find ourselves getting a bit lazy sometimes.

Learning at home doesn’t have to be boring though. Text-books and evening classes aside; there are loads of ways you can enhance the process in your own time. Where taking part in an evening class may feel like being back at school where you might feel yourself rebelling and doing the minimal amount of work possible, learning in a native country surrounds you in the language so it almost feels like a part of everyday life and fun, too.

You can always try and emulate this ‘everyday’ feeling at home by watching films, listening to the radio, and reading books in the language you are learning. Carry on doing the things you enjoy doing, but do them in a different language; I’m a huge travel fan and read a lot of travel blogs, so I have found a community of Spanish travel blogs that I read regularly. It doesn’t seem like such hard work if you enjoy what you’re doing.

Verdict: Definitely do-able, but requires a lot of motivation. Practicing everyday is essential to keep things fresh, so try out a few different methods to see which one fits best into your daily routine. Requires more effort on the learners’ part than learning in a native speaking country, but is certainly not a worse way of doing things.

Remember, there is no set way to learn a language and to begin with you should try a number of different methods to see which ones work best for you. Learning a language should be fun – you should have a passion for it and enjoy immersing yourself in everything surrounding it otherwise you’re going to find it difficult and it will become an unwanted chore.

About Lizzie Davey

Lizzie writes for Languages Abroad and Teenagers Abroad , which have dozens of language schools all over the world. She is in the process of learning Spanish and loves finding fun and accessible ways to learn a language. In her spare time you can find her exploring Europe and further afield, watching nature documentaries, and drinking an obscene amount of tea.