How’s Spanish? My Journey So Far

TLDR: I Have Solid “Survival Spanish.”

I’ve been traveling for over 4 months now, and there’s one question that I’ve been getting frequently from my friends back home in the US: “How’s your Spanish?

Well, the TL;DR answer is that I currently have pretty functional survival Spanish. I can ask for what I need at a restaurant, a bus station, or a store. I can talk about what I’m doing, what I like, the weather, and the places I’ve been. My vocabulary is smallish, but it’s big enough that when I’m missing a word, I can typically find alternate ways to get my point across. If my conversation partner speaks slowly, clearly, and uses mostly words that I understand, I can actually have a pretty deep discussion about the things that truly interest me.

Where I Started

If you’d told me all this a year ago, I think I would’ve been surprised. I spent four years living in a neighborhood in Longmont, Colorado, where probably 40% of my neighbors spoke Spanish, but besides some smiles and waves, we never really communicated. Before arriving in Guatemala in July, I could count on one hand the number of Spanish interactions I’d had. And those were all limited to a sentence or two.

In school, I studied Japanese for 7 years. I even went to an intensive 8-week summer Japanese program before my senior year of high school. I learned a tiny bit of Spanish in elementary school, but all I remembered from that time were the names of colors and how to tell someone that I want a cookie. But after four months in Latin America, I think my Spanish is already way better than my Japanese. Though I learned a lot of Japanese vocabulary and grammar, I never really put it to work in the real world, so my ability to converse was always limited.

When I was 19, I finished my 7th year of studying Japanese and the last required year of language class for my degree. At that point, I finally gave it some deeper thought, and realized that I didn’t really want to live in Japan, nor did I want to work in tourism in Hawaii, and I couldn’t really picture another use for learning Japanese, so I stopped. Between 19 and 30 I had no formal language schooling.

With my classmates from the summer 2008 Japanese course.

My Goals and My Why

Nonetheless, for a long time, I’ve had this idea that my ideal future self is bilingual. And if it wasn’t going to be Japanese, I had to choose something else. Spanish seemed logical because so many countries use it. Being able to speak Spanish would open up a lot of the world, including my own neighborhood.

Right now, my big goal is to reach fluency. But I’ve realized that fluency is too vague a target. During my travels, I’ve met a lot of people who speak English as a second (or third) language. Though I’d consider many of them to be fluent, even within that group, there’s a wide spread of skill levels. So, to make my goal a little more tangible: I’d like to be fluent enough in Spanish to eavesdrop. I want my skills to be solid enough so I can overhear and understand a conversation that wasn’t intended for me. I.e. one in which the people involved are not making any allowances for my limited capabilities.

Starting with Apps

As I take stock of my Spanish-learning journey, I feel really lucky to be living in the 21st century. The amount of knowledge that I can access with my iPhone is pretty shocking. At its best, my smartphone is a portal to a whole wide world of education, information, and tools. By using a few free or inexpensive apps, I was able to start learning Spanish on my own a couple of years ago. Each of the apps I’ve used has been helpful in different ways. Based on my experience, I think this method of combining a few apps in a multi-pronged approach can be really effective. A few people have asked me what I think of learning on apps, and I have some thoughts on the pros, cons, and best uses of the ones I use.


During the early days of COVID, when I was working from home and not leaving the house much, I got really into Duolingo. For anyone who is unfamiliar, Duolingo is the most popular application for language learning globally. I’d used the app before for Japanese, but never very consistently. But during the summer of 2020, I was spending about an hour a day using the gamified program to practice Spanish and Hawaiian.

I remember the first time I felt like I was actually making progress. My roommates and I had a garage sale in 2019 and another one in 2020. At the 2019 garage sale, several Spanish speakers came by and we had to use translation apps to talk to them. A year later, after spending a few months on Duolingo, I was able to tell a woman, “Cinco dólares por todas las cosas,” which means, “Five dollars for all the things.” And it was a super simple exchange, but I was really excited that I’d been able to communicate in a context where I completely could not a year earlier.

But progress isn’t always linear. After losing my hard-won 286-day Duolingo “streak” during a 3-day camping trip with no cell signal in 2021 (iykyk), I took a long break (several months). Early in 2022, when my upcoming travel was feeling more real, I started up again. Right now I have a 250-day streak.

What I love about Duolingo: The gamified design of the Duolingo application makes it easy to stay engaged and to build up your learning habit. The app developers use psychological principles of reward to keep you coming back for more. Of the apps I’ve used, Duolingo is the best at this. People who are serious about Duolingo are addicted, in a way.

The English-to-Spanish program is particularly well developed (whereas the English-to-Hawaiian one is smaller), so you could be using the app for an hour a day and probably still have a few years of course content. They present material in a very intuitive way, based on a lot of education science. I have been able to learn a lot just through hearing, reading, and practicing Spanish words and phrases. But there is also a “Tips” section for each lesson, where you can read a more explicit description of the concept you’re learning.

I also have realized that my dedication to the Duolingo Spanish course has given me a pretty solid vocabulary. Even though I described my vocabulary as limited earlier in this post, I do actually know hundreds of Spanish words, and even after months of travel, I think I learned the majority of my words from Duolingo.

Where Duolingo is lacking: You can play on Duolingo for an hour a day for a year and still completely freeze up when it comes time to have a conversation. Though there are speaking and listening components in the app, you don’t really have to generate novel speech. Also, if you don’t want to pay for the premium version, it can be kind of inefficient. You spend a lot of time watching ads. You lose “hearts” for making mistakes, and you need these hearts to play, like lives in a video game. You also can’t test out of a lesson that you already understand. And if you “lose your streak” by skipping a couple of days, it sort of feels like you fell off the wagon. I think that kind of all-or-nothing thinking isn’t super productive. If you didn’t practice for a couple of days, but you still did 25 of the last 31, I think you should still feel great about the work you did. But I think the heavy emphasis on the streak can be demotivating as soon as you lose it.

Finally, someone using the app for 15 minutes a day is not going to progress very quickly. I guess you can say that about any skill, but Duolingo kind of pushes this narrative that you can learn a language with just 15 minutes of daily Duolingo use, which I think is not realistic. But I want to be clear that I still think Duolingo is awesome. You can learn so much, and it was the perfect place for me to build up a practice habit. If your goal is to become fluent in another language, you’ll eventually need to supplement with other resources and methods.


There are a ton of other language learning tools that you can get on your smartphone. In the spring of 2022, as my departure drew closer, I decided to step up my Spanish practice by incorporating some new apps into my routine. The two that I’ve used and enjoyed a lot were Pimsleur and Language Transfer. Pimsleur is a long-running company that I think started with cassette tapes back in the day. But now they have an app, which primarily focuses on 30-minute recordings, but also includes some flashcards and vocabulary games in the Duolingo style. In the recordings, you first listen to a conversation and then the recording will riff on that theme, prompting you to generate speech as though you were participating in a conversation of your own.

With my Duolingo background, I was able to jump straight into Pimsleur Spanish Level 2. I already had a lot of the vocabulary and grammar that Level 2 started with, but I was surprised by how challenging it was to speak and comprehend. Looking back, I think this was especially helpful for me in bridging the gap between Duolingo and the real world. I got used to creating sentences on my own rather than parroting the things I’d already heard. And even though I was just talking to myself with my headphones in, this helped me to build up my confidence in speaking in general.

After Pimsleur’s free trial, the app costs $20 per month, but for that you can have unlimited access to all of their language programs. I ended up only paying for it for a few months because once I left Hawaii, I wanted to cut down my recurring costs. But I found it really effective, and if you’re serious about learning to converse in another language, I think it’s a good option.

Language Transfer

I spent a lot of time on Reddit while I was researching my trip, and I saw several different people recommend Language Transfer for learning Spanish. It’s similar to Pimsleur’s model of recordings, where you listen and then you generate speech on your own. There are a few different languages available, and the recordings are also available for free on Soundcloud. There’s also a free app with the same recordings. The experience is a little different from Pimsleur because the recordings feature a Spanish instructor working with a first-time student, so you’re basically learning alongside her.

The thing that I found most innovative about Language Transfer is that they jump right into the more advanced stuff. But they do it in a way that’s totally approachable. The premise is that as English speakers, we already have a solid foundation in Spanish because of the shared Latin roots. There are a lot of words that we already know, or can easily figure out based on some straightforward rules and patterns. For example, any word in English that ends in “-tion” is of Latin origin, and the Spanish equivalent is going to basically be the same, but end in “-ción,” which is feminine. Learning these patterns has helped me to feel more capable of searching for words that I don’t yet know. I have some intuition now, and I can sometimes just guess what a word might be in Spanish, and end up close enough to be understood and corrected.

I think Language Transfer is probably the best app for the explicit teaching of over-arching concepts. The vocabulary building isn’t as robust as Duolingo, but I think someone who spent a month using Language Transfer every day would know more about conversing in Spanish than someone who did the same with Duolingo.

Spanish Schools in Guatemala

At the start of my trip, I made plans to spend a few weeks learning in an intensive Spanish school. Guatemala has some of the most inexpensive Spanish language schools in Latin America. When I compared prices, I found that schools in Guatemala cost about half as much as schools in Colombia, which was another country I was considering. Furthermore, in Guatemala, one-on-one lessons are the standard. It’s actually difficult to find schools that offer group classes there. I initially thought that I would prefer to have group classes because I wanted to have opportunities to make friends, but I ended up being quite happy with the private lessons, and I made friends in other ways.

Spanish Academy Antigueña

My first stop was one of the largest and longest-running Spanish schools in the small city of Antigua, Guatemala. Antigua is known as a hub for Spanish schools, and Academia Antigueña is operated by a father-son team, and lessons take place in an open-air, two-story building that surrounds a picturesque plant-filled courtyard (a standard feature in Antigua’s colonial Spanish architecture). Each student-teacher pair has their own table and chairs, set a bit apart from others. In the weeks I was there, it seemed like there were between 20 and 40 students at a time, mostly people in their 20s and 30s, but there were also some young kids and older adults. You can choose how long you want to study each day, but it seems like most people go for 4 hours (which is really 3.5 because there’s a mid-morning break with loaded tostadas for sale). In my first week I did 5 hours daily, but after that, I switched to 4. At my level, there is a point of diminishing returns, and I realized that I wasn’t getting that much out of the extra hour.

I volunteered to be the wife in a Mayan wedding demonstration during one of our weekly cultural activities.

My favorite things about this school: Because it’s such a big school, it’s really easy to make friends. After just a week in Antigua, I was always running into people I knew walking around town. There are some weekly activities built into the price of tuition, including a cultural education event, a partnership with a local salsa school for a free class, and optional field trips on Fridays. I had a good rapport with my instructor, and a lot of our time was spent in conversation. I think this helped my speaking skills immensely, particularly my confidence. Furthermore, I was really excited to find that (with my teacher’s patience and assistance) I was talking about complex things like racial injustice and the meaning of my tattoos. Before arriving in Guatemala, I had the preconception that it would be a really long time before I could express ideas like that in Spanish.

One thing I think could’ve been better: They have a pretty rigid curriculum. Beginner students start with the Week 1 workbook, and instructors are not supposed to teach anything beyond that. I already had a solid grasp on the contents of the Week 1 workbook when I arrived, thanks to the apps I’d used. Luckily for me, my instructor was willing to go off-script and teach me some slightly more advanced content when nobody else could hear. But it felt a little silly that something like that would be so subversive, and I think I would’ve benefited from being able to learn the slightly more advanced stuff within the normal structure. If I hadn’t had a slightly rebellious teacher, I think I would’ve ended up paying for a week of lessons where I wasn’t learning much.

I had planned to take 3 weeks of classes at Academia Antigueña, but I caught COVID and had to pull out of school and my homestay. I spent my last week in Antigua isolating in a hotel and eating takeout.

San Pedro Spanish School

After my strict COVID isolation period was over, I headed to San Pedro La Laguna, where I spent a week attending San Pedro Spanish School. The school is one of a group of three schools in a cluster of towns around Lake Atitlán. The others are in San Marcos and San Juan, and they share some staff between locations, so I think the experience at all three schools is probably similar. San Pedro Spanish School is much smaller than Antigueña, as the town of San Pedro is much smaller than Antigua. My lessons in San Pedro took place in a small, open-air concrete structure with a grass roof and a whiteboard. Each teacher-student pair has their own little classroom hut, and the school property is right along the lake shore, so the views are lovely. The huts are connected by a river stone-paved path, and surrounded by plants. During the week I studied there, I think there might have been 12 total students, and not all of them stayed for a full week.

My favorite thing about this experience: Though I had really liked my teacher in Antigua, after a day or two in San Pedro, I realized that my new teacher was a better fit for me. She was a bit closer to my age, and we have similar interests in terms of social and environmental justice, so it was cool to be able to discuss these things with her in Spanish. She also had the freedom to simply ask me what I wanted to learn, assess where I needed some help, and build her lesson plan around my needs. She was organized and methodical, and that really works with my learning style. The San Pedro school cost a little more than the Antigua one, but it also had more activities built into the tuition price. Pretty much every afternoon, we had the option to attend some kind of activity or field trip. I got to see a demonstration of a woman processing cacao by hand, and another spinning, dyeing, and weaving natural fibers on a backstrap loom. I got to go on a mural tour in nearby San Juan, and attended another salsa class (though admittedly not as good as the classes I took in Antigua).

I don’t have any critiques of the school, but I did feel kind of isolated staying in San Pedro, which is more related to the size of the town and school and the fact that I was still supposed to be staying away from people post-COVID. Where in Antigua, I had a pretty vibrant social life right away, in San Pedro, I found myself spending a lot of time alone in my bedroom.


Many Spanish language schools offer you the option of enrolling in a homestay. For an additional cost, you can live with some locals who will feed you 6 days a week. It’s actually super affordable. In Guatemala you could spend around $1000 for a month of school and homestay, doing 25 hours a week of 1:1 Spanish lessons. Doing a homestay is a good way to ensure that you’ll have opportunities to practice your conversation skills and learn more about the culture and daily life in your host country. From my experience, it’s pretty common for the local families to host multiple students at once.

My Antigua homestay was with a 90-year-old woman named Jilda, who is an OG in the Antigua host family scene. She has been hosting foreign Spanish language students in her home for 40 years. When I first arrived, I was one of 7 students staying with her: one German, two Australians, and three other Americans. She also lives with a long-term renter, an adult grandson, and two domestic workers. It was so nice to immediately have a little community in Jilda’s home, and I’m still in touch with some of the other people who were staying there at the time. There was just one downside. Since almost all of the foreigners were Spanish beginners, we spoke to each other in English almost all the time. We did get some practice with other members of Jilda’s household, but we definitely spent more time with each other.

In San Pedro, my homestay was with a woman named Lupe and her four kids, who ranged in age from 9 to 20. There was also often a small crowd of visiting cousins, because their large extended family all lives in San Pedro, too. When I arrived at Lupe’s house, there were initially three other students, one from Turkey and a couple from Israel. But by the end of the week, it was just me.

The entryway at Lupe’s house.

Lupe, like many people in Guatemala, speaks Spanish as her second language. Her first language is an indigenous Mayan language, one of 22 spoken in Guatemala. In San Pedro and a few of the other nearby towns along the lakeshore, the native language is Tz’utujil. One thing that I found fascinating: Because the lakeside towns remain pretty isolated from one another (the easiest way to travel between them is by lancha, a shared water taxi), there are distinctive variations in the Tz’utujil dialects of different towns. Even though they live 20 minutes apart by lancha, they have completely different words for a few everyday things. So, indigenous people from different areas will generally speak to each other in Spanish. I found that this often meant that it was easier to understand Lupe and her kids because their Spanish is very clear. I remember one night having a really long conversation with Lupe about her kids, their individual strengths and challenges, and her parenting philosophy. I was so surprised that I could even participate in that, and excited that I was doing so with a pretty high level of comprehension.

The Plateau

Despite that first month of wins, my progress hasn’t been linear. Lately I’ve felt like I’m in a plateau. After six weeks in Guatemala, I spent a month visiting friends in the Caribbean, and then six weeks traveling in South America with my family. And in all that time, I was speaking almost always in English, with some Spanish conversations sprinkled in here and there. I’ve realized that to really improve substantially, I am going to need to spend an extended period in a place where I just don’t have that option.

I’ve also realized that frequently changing locations makes it difficult to progress. Every place I’ve been has a slightly different style of Spanish. There are myriad local slang words or even just totally different words for the same thing depending on the region. I’ve learned four different words for passion fruit: parcha in Puerto Rico, chinola in the Dominican Republic, granadilla is a name for a sweeter variety in some places, and everywhere else I’ve been, passion fruit is maracuyá. There are different ways of phrasing things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect or understand based on a direct translation. For example, I just learned that in Colombia, you can use the verb “cancelar” (to cancel) in place of “pagar” (to pay)–i.e. to cancel your debt.

Probably the most challenging thing is that people’s accents are radically different. After being in Guatemala, the longest stay I had anywhere else was three weeks in Puerto Rico. Everywhere has been two weeks or less. So I haven’t had time to really get used to any particular regional style. And with different accents, my confidence waxes and wanes. In Guatemala I’d been feeling pretty good about my skills, but when I arrived in Puerto Rico, I found myself wondering whether I understood Spanish at all. Their speech is notoriously difficult to understand, with a lot of truncated words. I felt good again in Ecuador and Peru, but then went to Uruguay and Argentina, and I was immediately incompetent again due to their style of pronouncing the double-L as a “sh.” Right now, I’m in Colombia, which I chose because the Colombian accent, especially in Medellín, is known for being clear and pleasant.

Where Things Stand

Sometimes I feel a little discouraged, thinking my progress hasn’t been as fast as it could’ve been, and I’m impatient to improve. But I also understand that to accelerate my learning pace, I will need to be serious about making Spanish my main focus. And I don’t regret any of the time I’ve spent enjoying my other priorities. I’ve loved all the time with my family and friends, exploring new places, and meeting new people.

I’ve also realized that when I look back on where I started, not super long ago, I can see that I’ve made a ton of progress. This week I started listening to a podcast called Caso 63, which was recommended by a friend in my Antigua homestay. When I tried listening to the first episode back in July, I sent her a text, “Just started listening, and I think this above my level of listening comprehension, but I will keep at it!” Then the other day, I saw the English language version featured on Spotify. I decided to revisit the Spanish one. I ended up listening to it at 80% speed, and there are definitely words and phrases that I am not understanding. But at the same time, I am absolutely getting the gist of the plot. And I’m happy to see that during the time that has felt like a plateau, I actually have been developing my listening skills.
I have a pretty decent grasp on the most basic grammar structures. I am building my vocabulary every day (even when I ignore the reminders from my flashcard app for weeks at a time). I can carry on a conversation about art or politics or climate change. I obviously phrase things weirdly, make tons of errors, and hesitate a lot, but I am having conversations that matter to me with people who don’t speak any English.
During my first week in Antigua, I started recording myself speaking in Spanish once a week or so, and posting it on my Instagram. I was inspired by a 20-something American YouTuber who moved to Medellín in 2020. More recently, I’ve been really inconsistent with filming them. I think the last one I did was in Uruguay about a month ago. I think part of the reason was the idea of “the Plateau.” I felt like I wasn’t making progress worth filming. But the Caso 63 podcast thing has really changed my mind about that. So, I’m planning to start recording the videos more regularly again.

I’m still pretty far from the kind of fluency I want. I tried to eavesdrop on a conversation today, and I did not understand what was happening. But I’m playing my Duolingo, listening to Language Transfer, chatting with Spanish speakers, and listening to the Caso 63 podcast. I’m also acknowledging that I have other priorities that matter to me, and I’m constructing my days in a way that feels sustainable and fulfilling. I’m done losing sight of the progress I’ve made, and done feeling guilty for not moving faster. In 2019 I couldn’t even say, “Five dollars for all the things.”

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