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Traveler Spanish to Real Spanish

Traveler Spanish to Real Spanish — “Bastante,” spoke The Salvadoreno with a smile when a visitor to The Farm asked if I can speak Spanish. Bastante — “enough”– was the correct way to put it. But more accurately, I don’t speak Spanish, I speak traveler Spanish. Which, simply put, is Spanish spoken to be understood, [...]

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Traveler Spanish to Real Spanish —

“Bastante,” spoke The Salvadoreno with a smile when a visitor to The Farm asked if I can speak Spanish.

Bastante — “enough”– was the correct way to put it.

But more accurately, I don’t speak Spanish, I speak traveler Spanish. Which, simply put, is Spanish spoken to be understood, rather than grammatically correct. It is a bastardized form of the language that is meant to communicate simple statements in simplified ways, rather than sound like a local.

When I speak my traveler Spanish everyone knows right off that I am a Gringo . . . but they also understand what I say.

I know and can use the present simple tense with pure fluidity. If something is going on “right now,” I can talk about it; if I want to know something that is currently happening, I can find out what it is; if I wish to express my current sentiments, I can do so A-OK.

Travels in Ecuador, 2000

Travels in Ecuador, 2000

Directions, likes, dislikes, emotions, colors, numbers, food, transportation . . . I have this all down.

I speak traveler Spanish.

But when trying to understand real life conversation between two native speakers my comprehension very often goes blank. Conversation transcends the boundaries of tense, time, and space. Most conversation between friends is wrapped up in the realms of the past and the future.

. . . and I get really confussed.

I know my Spanish tenses on paper. I can recite the endings of the past perfect, preterit, and future tenses like clockwork . . . I have spent many an hour over the years angstfully looking over those damn congregation charts, but I cannot yet use these tenses with much sense of fluidity, much less understand them in conversation.

In this way, my knowledge of the Spanish language is like the spinning lamp on the top of a lighthouse: it comes into light and then out to the dark in rapid succession.

puerto natales 001

Puerto Natales, Chile, 2002

Though I have just about nailed down the usage hatches on the past perfect tense. So now when talking with El Salvadoreno I say “have been” for anything that has to do with the past. This is a little awkward, and I find myself tripping on my words . . . .

“Is it ado or ido, ido, ado?” I think before I speak. I usually get it correct, but I still need to think before speaking. Languages are like music: you just have to sing the song without thinking about the words.

I am trying to sing the song of the Spanish language now, as I prepare to return to Latin America.

Rio Gallegos, Argentina, 2001

Rio Gallegos, Argentina, 2001


When I first began traveling, I spent a lot of time roving around South America. Whenever I returned to the USA people would take it for granted that traveling for so long in Spanish speaking countries would have invaribly taught me Spanish. But it didn’t.

I have never studied Spanish formally, what I know comes from traveling in Latin America and Spain. But traveling does not really teach language, it teaches a particular style of language usage.

Bosque de Piedras, Peru, 2001

Bosque de Piedras, Peru, 2001

People learn what they need to know very quickly. It is almost as if there is a subconcious evaluator of information inside of everyone’s head that checks the pertinence and relevance of each piece of information and decides if it will be made into long-term knowledge or chucked off to the side to be forgotten. Likewise, it is easy to learn all of the words and phrases that you need to know in any given language.

When traveling, you NEED to be able to communicate on a base level. It is simple: if you NEED to learn a set of words and phrases, you will learn them very quickly.

To date, I speak a high level of traveler Spanish, traveler Czech, traveler Arabic, traveler Japanese, and can occassionally understand the English that is spoken in Ireland — but this is far too it and miss to be reliable.

The only foreign language that speak far beyond a travler’s level of comprehension is Mandarian Chinese . . . and I studied this in uniersity for years (and I have no clue how well I can speak it any more, as it has been over two years since I last muttered any of it).

Atacama Desert, Chile, 2001

Atacama Desert, Chile, 2001

Traveling teaches traveler language. You learn how to get to where you want to go, numbers, statements to express your basic likes and dislikes, how to say what you have and don’t have, and words related to food, drink, transport, directions. Just being in a foreign country will not increase your propensity to learn its language — you probably will not just absorb it mystically like some sort of sponge.

Learning a foreign language well is hard work and takes a massive investment of time. I lost a lot of traveler points earlier this year in Istanbul when the tourist I was having a beer with realized that I cared very little for learning Turkish. I knew then that I was not going to be in Turkey long term — I think I stayed for under two months — and I did not think it a viable use of time to try to learn a language that I would quickly forget as soon as I crosed the border. But the tourist seemed to think it a badge of honor for a traveler to learn the language of every land that they travel to.

I suppose I am not a very honorable traveler.

Though I am now working hard studying and pushing myself myself to learn Spanish well.  It is not difficult to climb a mountain up to the treeline — it is easy to learn traveler Spanish — but getting to the mountain’s summit — learning real Spanish — takes a lot of time and effort.

Volcan Quilatoa, Ecuador, 2001

Volcan Quilatoa, Ecuador, 2001

I have traveled to Central and South America five times over the past ten years of travel. I have probably spent years between these two regions, and my lack of absolute fluency in the Spanish language is a huge black mark on my traveler’s resume. This bothers me. It always had.

It is my solumn goal and intention to have this black mark completely expunged by spring ’10.

During this next bout of travel in Latin America, I will learn to speak real Spanish. Until then, I will study, practice, and ask El Salvadoreno dozens of stupid questions in very contorted ways. It is a good deal for me that Spanish is the official language of The Farm, and El Salvadoreno is the main teacher.

I will make mistakes and sound very stupid.

For this is the only way I know of to learn a foreign language.

Guatemala - I will learn good Spanish before I leave Latin America this time around

Guatemala - I will learn good Spanish before I leave Latin America this time around

This travelogue entry is a part of the project, How to Prepare for Travel


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Filed under: Language, Travel Preparation

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3716 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

7 comments… add one

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  • Spanish School Chiapas August 15, 2009, 1:32 pm

    Enjoying reading your blog. Hard work always pays off.

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  • Queretaro Mexico September 1, 2009, 1:06 am

    Hmmmm that’s cool.

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  • ejacio October 28, 2010, 1:40 am

    it’s true, we (spanish native speakers) speak too fast to the english native speakers can understand every word said, but , is not the same situation for we…???? saludos desde colombia

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 28, 2010, 6:21 pm

      This is true for any language, but this one in particular is about English speakers learning Spanish.



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  • JSkarv April 2, 2011, 11:12 pm

    Any chance you solidified your Spanish to the point of fluency? Just curious.
    Also, have you ever come across the phrase ‘Plata o Plomo”?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 3, 2011, 8:16 am

      It is decent for a traveler. Real fluency takes years of living and speaking a language at least 80% of the time. It is just a matter of vocabulary at this point — which means that it is just a matter of time: the more time you spend in a place the more vocabulary you will learn naturally.

      As far as your phrase, nope, I never heard anyone actually say it, but it means “silver or metal.” Suppose it means something to the effect of “good or bad,” or “beautiful or plain,” or even “valuable or junk.”

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