I'm sitting on a four hour bus on my way to San Carlos Antioquia, Colombia to learn Spanish for the next four weeks at Spanish Adventure. I've spent the last two weeks travelling around Colombia, originally solo and then joining a group of other backpackers to follow the gringo trail. I've had an amazing time but my Spanish has gone to shit... both from being around English speakers all the time and from depending on the stronger Spanish speakers to make all of the complicated requests.
After splitting from the group I'm travelling solo again. I've navigated my way to the bus terminal and now I find myself sat beside a local man from San Carlos. The next four hours of my life involve an attempt at small talk with my good neighbour Ivan (or at least I think that's what he said his name was...). The conversation is pleasant (from what I can understand) although a bit strange when Ivan invites me to stay the night at his casa. However, I throw out my most used phrase in Colombia: “tengo un novio” and decline his offer as politely as possible. It's the longest period of time I've had to speak Spanish and being the only non-Colombian on the bus is a unique experience. Speaking Spanish is no longer an option, it is absolutely necessary now.
After a few days in San Carlos I've improved my spoken Spanish a LOT. Being one of only a handful of foreigners here the locals have a genuine interest in speaking with me and the other Spanish Adventure students and inviting us to hang out with them. I've gone to after parties in random local apartments after nights out in the town and have gone to free dance aerobics classes with some of the local women. I've also been participating in language exchange classes here at Spanish Adventure with some young students who are learning English, which feels very authentic as we both have the desire and need to understand one another.
The necessity of having to speak the language is so much greater in a small town. The likelihood of meeting people who speak English, either foreigners or locals is so tiny that you are forced to speak the local language from the moment you arrive. It's an amazing opportunity to practice and develop confidence in your spoken Spanish. Learning Spanish in the classroom is fine but if it isn't applied daily outside the classroom it can be a real struggle to remember what you've learned and apply it in conversations later on.
Right now I speak Spanish incredibly slowly but the more I speak the easier it is to find the words and get involved in conversation. I couldn't imagine making the same progress so quickly in a major city like Medellin or Cartagena where my primary interactions would be with other tourists rather than locals and language learners. While some may think that learning Spanish in a small town might be boring, Spanish Adventure has proven the exact opposite. My days are filled with language immersion, not only during my classes but during meal times, all of the epic daily adventures and even nights out! For such a small town there is so much going on in San Carlos and every activity is a new opportunity to learn and practice Spanish while making lovely local friends.
What are your thoughts on the most effective way to learn a new language? Leave a comment if you have ever taken immersion programmes before and tell us your experience!