Creative Speaking: How to Get by with Little Spanish


Learning a language is always easier when you have the chance to speak it and hear it spoken every day. This is one of the positives to learning Spanish on location, the immersion process in other words.

For all the benefits of this immersion business, it’s still nerve-racking to be suddenly thrown into an environment where nobody understands you. Realizing how much you still have to learn can be overwhelming and may make you want to give up. But there is good news — your brain is up for the challenge. Your progress in the language is certain given enough time in the country.

More often than not, I handle myself just fine, and it gets easier every day

After arriving in Peru, I quickly realized how steep of a learning curve I had ahead of me. And along the way, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks for getting by on little Spanish. In this article, I’ll share some of the ways I got over my cold feet moving to Peru as well as a few tips for getting through the early stages.

Feet on the Ground, Dictionary in Hand

Depending on your skills when you first arrive, you may have to rely on various methods and tools to accompany your conversations. I used a Spanish Dictionaryto help me communicate on past visits to Chile and Spain, but with apps and online dictionaries nowadays, it’s much easier to jump right into speaking Spanish.

OK, maybe the apps are a better idea

OK, maybe the apps are a better idea

For the early days, the most important tip I can give you is do not resort to speaking English. Instead of falling back on your native language, fall back on translation aids (whether an app or dictionary) or hand signals, body language and emphatic speaking to make yourself understood.

I know this isn’t always easy. In our case, my husband and I were far from advanced speakers and certainly not in the shape to jump into just any conversation. We had about three years of Spanish instruction under our belt – combined, and over the span of several years.

So I know how tempting it can be to resort to English. But you really have to start somewhere, and the locals will appreciate the effort you put into speaking their language.

Talk to anyone who will listen – you’ll be surprised how many people take the time

Making Progress: Understanding More Than You Can Speak

Personally, – keep in mind that learning Spanish was not my number one goal in moving to Peru – this can be a very frustrating stage and may kick in anywhere from one week to several months after arrival. Hearing Spanish on a regular basis beforehand, and even studying from books and online resources, can help you progress much more quickly once you land.

As always, context is key. For example, I was able to understand most of a conversation in Spanish about medical insurance only a few months after arriving in Peru. This is because I was speaking in a context I was familiar with from looking through brochures, and my questions were limited to that context.

Jumping into free-flowing conversation with multiple people takes more time, but the idea behind immersion is that you’re forced to speak and understand the language, and more often than not, I handle myself just fine, and it gets easier every day.

Expressing Yourself Fully: Moving Towards Complete Conversations

This late stage I’m slowly entering takes daily work, but I’m starting to notice the frustrations and nervousness disappear. A few months after I arrived in Peru, a friend asked me which words I was using the most; puedo, tengo and quisiera were getting me by, but I needed to expand my repertoire.

Going out of your way to learn a new word every day accelerates your ability to speak more generally. Whenever I learn a new word I make sure to use it that day, and then the next. You need to keep using these new words if you want to solidify them. The way to do this is talking to anyone who will listen – you’ll be surprised how many people take the time to help you.

Think of them more as ‘spontaneous practice partners’

Think of them more as ‘spontaneous practice partners’

I got plenty of practice when I first arrived in Peru from speaking with taxi drivers and other parents. They were all very curious about where I was from and what I was doing here. Problems with essays, term papers, dissertations will no longer appear on Sure, I told the same story several times over, but it was a great way to work in new words and phrases.

Another way to get by on little Spanish in the early stages is to think laterally with your Spanish. Use workarounds and shortcuts if you can’t think of a word or phrase on the spot. For instance, If you can’t remember the phrase cómo se dice …, people will understand you just fine if you say cuál es la palabra para

In the end, a little bit of practice, a fair amount of effort and a complete abandonment of English guarantees your progress in the language.

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