Tag Archives: Travel Hacks

How to become semi-fluent in Spanish in 5 months

I’m not going to make outrageous statements, like “Learn Spanish in a Month!” But I do think you can get to the level of having simple conversations with a local in 5 months, feel completely comfortable in particular travel situations, such as hotel checkins, renting a car and ordering a meal, and even having some in-depth conversations regarding subjects such as politics, film reviews and other conversational topics.

I caught myself having a conversation with a local in line for Machu Picchu, talking about where we were both from, what was the best thing to do early in Machu Picchu, and what we were going to travel to next. I kind of had this Satori moment where I realized as I was talking that I was able to understand, and was able to be understood while speaking in Spanish. It blew me away, frankly! This type of conversation would have been impossible for me 5 months ago, and I realized that maybe I had a method that worked for me that could work for others.

I am not a natural language learner, in fact I started learning Spanish in my 40’s. I tried Spanish classes – getting lost in tenses and vocabulary, even hired a tutor at one point, but I had a turning point when I got serious about language learning, and figured out a process.

Motivation

I think this video has a point, and that in order to make changes in your life – like learning a language, takes more than motivation.  It comes down to making a decision, even in the moments of hesitation. That being said, I think having a motivation is the spark that makes you continue towards success – and for me that motivation is connected to running away from pain.

I was volunteering in Chile, and if you haven’t already heard, Chilean Spanish is known to be one of the most difficult to understand versions of Spanish that is out there. Much of it is because of the way they speak Spanish. A Chilean friend explained how Chileans “inhale” the “s” sounds, so “Gracias” becomes “Graia”. Chilean Spanish is also full of slang, and the words are also spoken faster with fewer changes in intonation.

For me it sounded as if the person speaking was gargling with marbles.

But working as a volunteer, I had to understand what was being said – especially in the midst of a breakfast rush when the words became commands, and you only had a half-second to understand what was being said, and take action – to fill breakfast bowls, to refill napkins, make coffee, take orders.

The cook in charge, a short stout Chilean woman, grabbed me by the shirt, pulling me down eye to eye saying, “Escuchame! Escuchame!…” then said some other things I didn’t understand.

In that moment, the pain of not understanding, and the pain of not being understood was the singular motivation that pushed me to become more fluent in Spanish.

If you don’t have this sort of motivation, motivation that came for me from actually living and working in a foreign country – it becomes difficult to create the spark that drives the machinery towards fluency.

Find your motivation.

The Material

I had previously casually used an audio program I liked called the Pimsleur Method – I just needed to programatize it in a way that would lead to fluency.

The Pimsleur Spanish Program takes advantage of a method called “Spaced Repetition” or “Graduated-Interval Recall.” Basically, introducing new words, then reintroducing them later in gradually increasing spaced out intervals. It’s a method of memorizing massive amounts of information, and given that complete fluency involves 3,000 words, this type of method is perfect for learning Spanish.

The entire CD series is in 5 parts, with 30 lessons each. 1-5 CD sets can be purchased as CDs, with #5 can also be downloaded using Amazon’s Audible audio program.

The lessons are meant to be listened to one per day, with the next lesson in the series to be listened to the following day. The lessons are only around 30 minutes long, which means you learn and memorize small chunks of the language per day, which is also known as a better method than cramming a bunch of learning in a single go.

In conjunction with Pimsleur, I also knew that fluency is a numbers game, and that casual conversation, or semi-fluency required at least 1,000 words. Apps seemed to be a decent way to learn additional vocabulary in a way that would be fun and interesting. After using apps like Babbel and Lingo Arcade, I winnowed the list down to DuoLingo and Memrise.  Those 2 seemed to be the best of the bunch in terms of an app that could help me learn Spanish.

The Process

Once you have your motivation, or the spark that will drive you to do the things to learn Spanish, and gathered the material you will use to learn the language, the next step is to define a process, or schedule which will automatically give you success.

For me, I was trying to figure out something I could do to help me learn Spanish on a daily basis for 1-2 hours a day.

The method I used is:

  • Go to a cafe, order a cup of coffee, and listen to a Pimsleur lesson.
  • Allow myself to stop and start, rewind and replay the first time around.
  • I would take a break – walk around, order breakfast – whatever.
  • I would listen to the lesson a second time – this time at regular speed, with no pauses, rewinds or replays.
  • Follow up with doing the daily Duolingo and Memrise lesson.

All-in-all this took me around 2 hrs/day.

Why This Worked for Me

The initial motivation was enough to drive me to study 2 hours/day for 6 months. Without a solid reason you may not have enough of a push to make the effort to learn a language. For me it was the pain of not being understood.

Having proven learning materials at hand gave me a blueprint towards fluency.

And setting up a schedule (and working the plan) automates the process that leads to fluency (or semi-fluency).

I think it also works because using an audio program is similar to the experience of actually having a conversation – looking at the other person, and conjuring the words in your head – in real time!

What didn’t work for me

Frankly, I hated Rosetta Stone. Sitting in front of a computer while trying to learn Spanish was just maddening to me. Maybe because my profession involves computers, adding another task on top just seemed like work for me. I also felt they stressed rote repetition, which I didn’t like. That being said, Rosetta also has a track record of success, and it might work for you – I just knew it wouldn’t work for me.

Language classes also were not very good for me. I think mainly because of the breaks between classes where I would subsequently lose most of what I had learned from the previous class. Also, teachers methods and abilities changed – some I responded to, while others I found just horrible. I knew I needed a consistent method that I responded to applied consistently over time. Pimsleur, plus a couple of language apps were the ticket for me!

Other Ways to Improve Language Learning

The above method of studying 2 hrs a day using the Pimsleur CDs, and the two apps Memrise and Duolingo is the main things I did consistently to improve my Spanish. Some other things I did also helped:

  • Listening and trying to understand Spanish lyrics in popular songs (Despocito, Bailando, Deja Vu, etc)
  • Watching Popular Movies in Spanish with Spanish subtitles turned on (Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Pt II, etc)
  • Watching 5 minutes of Spanish language television/day. This was a tip given to me by a Spanish teacher. You get to hear different pronunciations of words in conversations at real speeds. Just 5 minutes – be it news, or telenovellas – or whatever is on!
  • Being in a country that speaks Spanish.

This last was a great boon to my learning, and admittedly not one available to everyone. But actually having to use the language everyday in everyday situations really cements the usage in a way nothing else can compare with. Traveling through Chile, and then Peru expanded my vocabulary, and made me more comfortable in using the language daily.

But, if you can’t get to a foreign country, you can create your own immersive environment by always listening to Spanish music, only watching Spanish language movies, and trying to interact with native speakers in restaurants, Meetups and other situations where you get to practice with a native.

Conclusion

This is the exact way I learned to be semi-fluent: using the Pimsleur CDs, and mobile apps of DuoLingo and Memrise, then working my plan of studying 2 hours a day. Of course this leads to semi-fluency, why wouldn’t it!

I also had the advantage of traveling through South America, but that is kind of beside the point. I met several folks who didn’t know a lick of Spanish while traveling through South America, and exited with only the barest understanding of a few words of tourist Spanish. Travel by itself is not the key to learning another language.

Programatized effort over time is the way to learn to be semi-fluent.

If you are interested in becoming at least semi-fluent, know that it takes time and dedication – and a plan of action. If you decide to give my method a try, let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Why I’m staying at a 7 star Hostal…and you should too!

I do what every other backpacker who stays at a hostel does: I go to either Booking.com, or Hostelworld.com (or TripAdvisor, etc) and filter on 8.5 stars and above, and then sort on  price.

The problem is that everyone does that, and suddenly you’re faced with a completely full dorm room, and companions the like of which you may neither approve nor deny.

The last 8.8 hostel I stayed at had all 4 beds full, one of which had a very loud snorer. The second was next to a busy street with honking taxis cruising by till 2 in the morning.

So, despite their many amenities: “free” breakfast, luggage storage, pool table, foosball, laundry service, etc, all I really want is a clean, quiet, secure place with nice front desk people – all at an affordable price.

Sites such as Tripadvisor, and Yelp attempt to fulfill the Dream of Social Media, (no more crappy products) – the truth of the matter is that once a person exits a reviewable locale, the burning of the bridges commences.

Just don’t go there! Everything is a mess!! (etcetera)…

Here’s the thing: you kind of have to read between the lines and figure out what you can and can’t live with. Also, after a place has had a few bad reviews, many attempt to salvage whatever stars they have by fixing their place up. The gift in that is you may, like myself, have a 4 bed dorm room all to yourself.

This place is quieter than my last hostel, and except for 2 nights where I had to share the room, I’ve had the place entirely to myself. It’s like having a private room without paying the private room price (about 3 times as much as a dorm).

At the moment, I’m paying less than $7 USD/night (gotta love Peru!), and while I could afford the private room – like the proverb says: why buy the cow when I get the milk for free? So what that there’s no lock on the bathroom door – I’m the only one here! And so what there’s a drip from the shower – I just close the bathroom door, and I don’t notice it.

Because of the price I felt able to stay longer in Arequipa. I find myself exploring, and spending more at new restaurants because of the money I’m saving by staying at a cheap hostel. And hey, I only go to my hostel to sleep – only occasionally to socialize.

But what I like is a bit of quiet. Access to a kitchen to boil water for my tea. A comfortable bed – and an empty room is icing on the cake.

I did a bit of hostel-visitations, just to see what I was possibly missing out on for that extra star or two. What I found were nicely appointed rooms, cool common areas with ping pong table, shuffle board, etc – and invariably full dorm rooms. Everyone comes for the 8.8 starred cheap hostels, and I mean everyone. So, if that’s what you are looking for – be prepared.

Oftentimes a highly rated place is full, when down the street there may be a 7 star up-and-comer – that is clean, quiet, nice staff, with no pool table, nor foosball – and completely empty!

Read between the lines

Now, you do have to read the reviews carefully. One key is to see if bad reviews were in the past, and newer reviews are more positive. Look at what the people complaining are complaining about – if it has to do with either bedbugs or loud honking in the wee hours of the night – maybe you should look elsewhere. But maybe it’s because the place doesn’t have a kitchen, or church bells rang on Sunday, or no laundry service – or whatever. Consider whether those are things you actually need. If not – why not check it out and see what it’s like.

Tips and Tricks

What I like to do is only book a room for my first 2 nights in a city. In those first couple of days, I go visit a few other hostals that look interesting on Booking.com, or one of the other review sites, but I don’t limit it to just the 8.5 starred and above – I throw in a couple 7 star hostels as well. Some I find to deserve their lower stars, but once in awhile I’ll find a gem in the rough that fits my criteria with the added bonus of not breaking the bank. I’ll book it for a couple night just to see if the reality meets my expectations – and if it does then I will likely complete my stay there. The bonus is that for longer stays, you get to know the staff, and you tend to get treated a bit better – free luggage storage, cheaper laundry service – or something.

Anyway, give it a try and let me know in the comments if this worked for you.

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How I use Maps.me and Kindle Travel Guide books together

Maps.me could have made my life easier when I found myself lost in a bad part of Santiago. Ahh well, that experience is far behind me now, like 2 months ago, if you can believe it (I hardly can). And, I have also been using maps.me to help me get around parts unknown for awhile now.

Maps.me, if you don’t already know, is a mapping app, much like Google maps, but unlike Google Maps, it has a great offline feature. Using some unexplainable magic, the app pings nearby cell towers to establish your position and provide you with maps of the area. You do have to download an area map prior to use, which requires a wifi connection, so if you are planning a future trip, then I suggest searching for the new location, such as a city, where you will be prompted to download an area map if you do not already have it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once downloaded, I use Maps.me in conjunction with one of my online Travel Guides to make the map more interactive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I do is find a site I am interested in, a museum, or restaurant, or other local attraction, and once I find that location I bookmark that location by placing a colored star on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I then click “Edit this bookmark” and copy relevant details from the travel book for that location. This way I don’t have to flip back and forth from the travel guide to the location, the starred location already has the detail in one place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On those long bus rides from city to city this is what I do to prepare and preplan what I want to visit once I arrive.

Typically, the first thing I do will be to locate the bus terminal, and the hostel I will need to travel to. This helps me figure out if I can either walk there, or if it is better to take a taxi.

 

From there, I add museums, restaurants and other local sites.

I use Kindle versions of travel guides such as Lonely Planet, and copy and paste their descriptions onto the starred locations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, what I basically have is a localized map with detailed descriptions. It’s really helpful to have in this format, and I wish there was a service that already does this. Lonely Planet, if you are listening, can you team up with Maps.me – okaygreatthxbye!

Overall Route planning

I also pre-plan my big destinations by starring the major cities I plan on traveling to by bus. If I do not have a map for that portion of the globe I get a prompt to download the location from Maps.me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But once I land, the once empty map starts to take on colored stars as I add places I either want to visit, or have visited:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving certain colors to certain landmarks makes finding them so much easier. You can use Red for major landmarks, for example, green for restaurants, blue for museums – whatever makes sense to you. All of sudden, your map is customized to your travels. You can not only add travel guiedbook information – you can travel notes, memories of the place, what you’ve experienced – whatever comes to mind. All of a sudden the map becomes not just a tool for orientating – it becomes a way to memorialize your travels.

Buen viajes!

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How to Travel Internationally for Free!


 

I often get asked how much money I have saved for traveling around the world. Besides being a very personal question, I can understand the curiosity factor. A better question is: How much is it going to cost to travel the world, and my answer is: zero. It doesn’t take any money at all to travel internationally. That includes airline tickets, hotels  and food.

A common response: I call bullshit.

No really, if you want to travel internationally for free, you can. But you have to pay the price.

Wait a second, I thought you said “free?” I did, but the “price” you pay is to (maybe) be a little inconvenienced. And I say “maybe” because what you get (World Travel) compared to the “price (Tad inconvenienced) is so lopsided, that the inconvenience is barely one at all.

Here’s how I do it: The first stop on my travels is Chile. By using an online service that searches for the cheapest flights, instead of paying the $1,200-$1,300 cost of a one-way ticket to Chile through Expedia, I am only spending a little over $500 by using Skyscanner.

Now, to offset the cost of air travel, I could use a service like Grabr, basically buying goods for people at your destination. You get paid a fee for bringing items over for people in the countries you are visiting, where it may be difficult to get in their own countries. I’ve heard of one person, by filling up his checked luggage with Grabr goods (Inconvenience) he earned $500 (Benefit=Free travel!). And I haven’t even touched the 100,000 points I received for getting the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card!

Free airline travel, check!

Well, how about room and board? Personally, I found a voluntourism opportunity, where in exchange for 20 hours of my time and expertise (Inconvenience) I receive free room and board (Benefit=Free room and board, duh).

I got my volunteer opportunity through Workaway.info. I basically just paid a small fee, filled out an online volunteer profile with my information, the countries I was interested in visiting, and what skills I could provide in exchange. I was actually contacted by someone named Ricardo with the subject line: “Chile needs your skills!” Two months later, May 1st, I will be helping him with the User Interface (UI) of his online accounting software project for farmers in the area.

Free Room and Board: Check!

The amount of time I’ll spend there is open ended. Basically up to me, or until the project is finished. If I like Chile, who knows, maybe I’ll stay. Hosts get reviewed on workaway as well, and Ricardo has a perfect 5 star review with 83 reviewers.

Seems legit.

There, that’s how you travel for free!

And the price: bringing gifts to foreigners and get paid for it, and volunteer on interesting projects with the opportunity of meeting locals who can also help your transition to a new country is the price you pay. But really, is it a “price” at all? Personally, I choose this way of travel. After a lifetime of working, like Liam Neeson says in the movie Taken, “I have a particular set of skills…” 😉

But, even if you think you don’t have any worthwhile skills, you can always help clean, or check guests in, or something – all the while receiving free room and board and a built in support system.

Is that even a “price?” Or is the “cost” really a free benefit for helping a brother out? I believe it’s the latter.

 

 

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