How can I learn Spanish by immersion inexpensively?
October 11, 2012 10:41 AM   Subscribe

Year off between undergrad and dental school. Optimally, I would like to go to South or Central America for the purpose of learning Spanish. Best way to do this?

I graduated in May 2012 with a BA in biochemistry. I have been accepted into dental school beginning August 2013. I have wanted to go overseas to work on spanish for the last 4-5 years. Originally, I intended to have a year off (now) for that purpose. However, as the time approached, those plans were put on the back burner because my girlfriend and I became serious, got engaged, and were planning to get married in the spring, which also made sense to do during the year off. Now, we broke up almost a month ago, and I'd like to resurrect those plans. However, my financial state took a hit throughout the relationship with wedding things to pay for and rings, and just overall spending more money since I wasn't saving for going overseas.

Ideally, I want to go for probably 4-6 months, hopefully January or February - June or July. I can't afford the language learning programs. Those are waaaaay too expensive. Also, I have two requests:

live with a host family so I am immersed in the language
have something (ANYTHING) to do so I'm not bored because I like being busy. this may include working outside, picking up trash, cleaning bathrooms, whatever. I am willing to do anything.

Does anyone have any suggestions or experiences for doing this? Like I said, the language programs are too expensive. You can pay to volunteer but I can't really afford that either. I have medical expenses and I'll have to start repaying loans for a few months as well beginning in November, so I really can't afford to pay much, if anything, for living arrangements down there. I guess I'm not even sure what I'm looking for. Perhaps finding an agency that could give me room and board in exchange for physical labor or something of that nature?

Another remote possibility would be to work down there for pay. But this probably requires a work visa which seems difficult to obtain if you don't have a job before you go out of the country. Which I don't think I will have. Plus, my spanish right now is not conversational.

Any suggestions are appreciated. Any location in south or central america is fine, as long as spanish is the main language.
posted by mellosphere to Travel & Transportation around Corvallis, OR (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Look into language schools in either Antigua, Guatemala, or Arequipa, Peru. Both cities (and possibly others in other parts of Latin America) are well-known for language schools, which means there are a zillion fly by night language learning operations.

The expensive way to do this is to be placed through an American company which completely sets up all your travel and offers visa support and finds you a host family who will put you up to western standards and provide three meals a day. It includes every possible incidental, and since this is all done through the US and with several layers of middlemen, you pay out the nose.

The cheap way is to just show up in town and ask around. Look for a backpacker cafe or the local expat hangout. Also the bulletin boards in hostels. You'll have to do everything yourself aside from the actual lessons and possibly host family placement. But it'll be a hell of a lot cheaper. I've heard about rates as low as $6 per lesson (not counting host family stays, which obviously you would pay for above lessons).

I spent a month in Peru (including the whole insane Macchu Pichu experience) for about $1000, including flight and traveling around and everything down to the cuy pizza I ate in the trendy part of Cusco. I'm not sure how that compares to Guatemala, though flights might be cheaper depending on where you're coming from.

You could probably do the whole thing for ~$5000, if you were careful about money and willing to travel close to the ground.
posted by Sara C. at 10:55 AM on October 11, 2012

Another remote possibility would be to work down there for pay.

Legally, no.

However, when I was in Peru, the hostel I stayed in had flyers up all over the place about working for them in return for room and board. This obviously wouldn't be an option if you ended up staying with a host family, but hostels generally are not terrible places to look for under the table or in-kind work.
posted by Sara C. at 10:59 AM on October 11, 2012

I'd contact an aid organization like Doctors Without Borders or Habitat for Humanity International and see if I could volunteer for a project in an area where folks speak Spanish.

I mean, this would be so awesome and think of all the stuff you could learn!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:04 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Find out what kind of volunteer work you could do in a dental clinic, perhaps one with a University/Dental School affiliation.

That will give you the chance to hear a lot of Spanish, as well as vocabulary which is extremely relevant to your chosen career, and possibly give you the chance to make professional connections with international colleagues before you even start dental school.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 11:11 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't afford the language learning programs

You can't afford free? I have previously recommended free language learning on Ask MeFi. I commend those links and their recommended programs, such as FSI, Mango, and the like, to your attention.

Is your interest in learning Spanish or in living abroad? Merely living abroad will not cause you to absorb the target language by osmosis. Studying will still be hard work; the only advantage to being abroad is that it is easier to receive input in the target language. IF language learning is your goal, you are likely better off staying put and learning through any number of free or very-low-cost resources.

A home-stay will not be free. Just about every home-stay program I have heard of costs a considerable sum that is paid to the host family to cover the cost of the student's food and lodging.

Please forgive me for saying so, but I wonder how much of this is about the recent break-off of your engagement. This doesn't seem very well planned at all, with your idea essentially being, "I will show up in a country and start picking up trash or working in a field." This does not strike me as a rational thought. Please think this through carefully.

On preview, if you are determined to do so, I think something like Habitat for Humanity International Volunteer Program (as recommended by RB) would be best because it is run by a respectable organization. However, keep in mind that as the assignments get longer, your skills are going to become more relevant. Anyone who can swing a hammer is good enough for a day-job in your hometown, but skills are much more relevant when a volunteer is to be stationed abroad long-term.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:11 AM on October 11, 2012

One of my friends did WWOOFING (worldwide organic farm something..) in Argentina. You live on a farm, you work on a farm, you eat the food you help grow. Super low cost of living once you get down there. WWOOFING has a huge international community.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:28 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've traveled extensively in South America, and to several countries in Central America. I'm in Buenos Aires until March, actually, so if you decide to come this way I can help you out. Disagree with those saying it's difficult or not doable, TONS of people do this.

One option is WWOOFing. You exchange room and board for labor on an organic farm. I, personally, had pretty bad luck with this, but most people report that it works out well. If you check out farms carefully beforehand, this can work. The main problem for me was that I did this in Costa Rica for some US expats who were.. kind of crazy. They didn't know anything about farming, at all, and were horrible and racist and scary.

Another common option is teaching English. The details of how to get a job teaching English vary from country to country. Here in B.A., if you are a warm body that speaks native English, you're good to go. Other places want you to have TEFL certificates.

I'm not sure how much you think language schools cost. Around here, and BA is probably second behind Rio as the most expensive city in South America, you can get a month's worth of lessons for US$200. Ones that are fancy enough to advertise online will be on the high end of pricing, but if you show up and ask around you can often do much better.

Cost of living varies very wildly depending on where you go. Asuncion, for example, is the cheapest city in the world. I was in the Peace Corps in Paraguay, and I lived very comfortably on $200 US/month in 2006. Buenos Aires, on the other hand, is close to US cost of living.

I could offer a ton more options, but this is getting rambling, so PM me if you have questions.
posted by zug at 12:30 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of my friends did WWOOFING (worldwide organic farm something..) in Argentina.

WWOOFing is a great idea, but Argentina may not be the ideal location for you. Argeninian Spanish is pretty different from "standard" Latin-American Spanish, especially if your goal is to eventually use Spanish in your dental practice in the US.

This is why so many Americans go to Peru and Colombia to study -- it's supposedly a more "pure" (or at least easier on Anglophone ears and closer to what you'll have studied in Spanish class back home and heard in North American Spanish-language media).
posted by Sara C. at 1:21 PM on October 11, 2012

check out

I've never done anything through them neither do i know anyone who has, but it is a way to find a bunch of people to pay for your room and board while you stay and help them with any number of things, from planting stuff or teaching english to helping with their baby or painting their fence. if you're adventurous and smart about it, sounds right up your alley!
posted by saraindc at 3:29 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Look at which has a ton of potential volunteer opportunities that don't cost much. Some of these opportunities will give you very affordable room and board, but I don't know that all of them would give you an immersion experience.

I'm thinking of doing something very similar (similar goal, amount of time, budget) and have been looking into homestay/classes packages in places like Xela. Looks like some of them are pretty affordable (as far as I can tell some are as little $500/month-ish for lessons and room and board which does not seem bad to me).

Was going to ask almost exactly the same question this coming week-- I'll be bookmarking this and reading the answers with interest!
posted by geegollygosh at 6:29 PM on October 11, 2012

I think we need to know how much money you'd consider reasonable before we can offer any advice.

Unless you are the most extroverted person in the world, and a language whiz to boot, I agree with Tanizaki that you aren't going to just pick up the language by osmosis. It really is essential to have a teacher, or at least a regular conversation partner who is smart and dedicated to helping you improve.

You seem to have your eye on doing manual labor in exchange for room, board and lessons. This doesn't seem like a plausible option to me. Even if you're an experienced laborer, and able to keep up with the local labor force who have been doing that sort of work their whole adult life, you wouldn't earn enough to pay for lessons and a comfortable homestay. WWOOFING will get you food and a place to stay, but again won't pay for a language teacher, or leave you with much free time to study.

If you really insist on going for free, I think your best bet would be to aim for a town with a lot of backpackers, get a job working at a hostel (which will likely give you free room and board and a small amount of spending cash on top of that) and try to set up a conversation exchange with some local students who want to learn English — you help them with their English for an hour, they'll help you with your Spanish for an hour, repeat. It'll be a lot of work for not much study time — on an average day you might work eight-ish hours in the hostel, spend an hour teaching English, and get to work on your Spanish for an hour. And it'll be slower going since you won't have the benefit of a real planned-out curriculum or a teacher who knows what they're doing or anything. But it won't cost you anything out of pocket.

On the other hand, if you're willing to spend some money, you can do better than that.

So, what's your budget?
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:24 PM on October 11, 2012

Response by poster: Hey guys, thanks for the responses! You have given me some great pointers. My budget would be a max of $400 a month. The prices I have seen online range anywhere from $800-1600 a month for a homestay during language classes, and I can't afford that. Given my budget, does that open any more doors for me?

I understand my question may not seem very well thought out, but hey, that's why I came here to ask the question.
posted by mellosphere at 6:43 AM on October 15, 2012

Best answer: So in Xela — the city I'm most familiar with, and one of the cheaper places to live or travel in Central America — $400 a month would be doable if you were willing to hustle a bit. I can think of two or three ways to approach it.

1) Set up a homestay through one of the Spanish schools, but don't take their classes. Instead, contact college students who are studying English, and offer to exchange English tutoring for Spanish tutoring. (Xela is a college town. The biggest school is San Carlos University, which is within walking distance from the neighborhood in Zone 1 where most backpackers and Spanish students stay.) You could easily find a homestay in Xela for $250 a month, and you can probably do better than that if you hunt around.

2) If you're willing to commit to a few months in Xela, you could do the same thing in a more official way. Several of the language schools there also teach English classes, and at least some of them will pay their English teachers in free Spanish classes rather than in cash. So you could pay for a homestay, teach English, and get Spanish classes in exchange.

3) If you can somehow arrange to earn money in US dollars while you're out of the country, you've got a third option: take a full-time Spanish class with homestay — which will run you $700 or $800 a month — and just earn back the difference by working. I met a decent number of people in Xela who were doing this as e.g. freelance web designers or copyeditors. But if you don't already have a reliable source of freelance work, this would be pretty risky. It might also be less fun and less educational, since it will mean spending a good amount of time ignoring the Spanish-speaking city around you and doing business with Americans in English.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:33 AM on October 15, 2012

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