South America Travel: 5 Ways to Get By without Spanish

December 17, 2013
South America Travel: 5 Ways to Get By without Spanish

foreign-correspondent badge final In high school I nerded it up and took Latin (who takes Latin!?), and in college I studied (and majored in!) Mandarin Chinese. My Spanish skills, unfortunately, consist of a few words learned in middle school: colors, numbers, and the days of the week.

But when my husband and I decided to travel around the world for a year, we knew we had to travel to South America, a continent neither of us had visited. We had talked about going to Machu Picchu in Peru for years, and the idea of visiting the cafes of Buenos Aires, Argentina in addition to the beautiful landscapes of Patagonia, drew us to South America.

I worried about my lack of Spanish skills prior to our trip. Would we get lost and be unable to find help in rural Peru? Would we lack the skills to order dinner in Argentine towns? How would we check into hostels and hotels? And, I really feared getting into taxis and buses and being asked, “Where do you want to go?”

Now that I’ve successfully (and sometimes unsuccessfully) traveled for four months throughout Peru, Argentina, and Chile, I have a few simple rules for how to deal with a lack of language skills both in South America and beyond.

South America Travel: 5 Ways to Get By without Spanish

Learn the basics.

“Thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “can I…,” “how much,” “what is this…?” are all phrases
you’ll use a lot–in any country! I’ve learned that making an effort to speak Spanish with the friendly people of South America goes a long way.

Don’t be afraid to ask if someone speaks English.

When I have found myself very confused in certain situations, I will ask if the person I am speaking to or someone nearby speaks English. Typically someone in the area will know a few words of English, and combined with my rudimentary Spanish, we can communicate back and forth in our new version of Spanglish.

Remember that you are operating on the vocabulary level of a child.

Don’t think of complicated phrases to ask or say. Keep it simple, and you’ll usually find the words you need.

Take your phone.

Okay, so this might be cheating, but I took my cell phone with me to restaurants when we first arrived in Peru and would use Google’s free translator to look up words. After a few months in South America, I now recognize most food words on menus and don’t even need the phone! It’s not a bad way to learn!

Don’t get frustrated and keep trying.

This last rule is the most important. No matter what country you are in and which language you are trying to speak, don’t give up. The benefits you will receive from talking to local people and communicating with shop owners in their own language are immense!

Don’t be afraid to push your own boundaries and travel to that location you’ve always dreamed about, even if you lack the language skills. Chances are you’ll surprise yourself with your own ingenuity and newfound confidence.


About Callie Hammond

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