Tips for Learning Spanish Before Your Mission Trip

February 1, 2018 by Amor


When I first came to the USA with the mission to learn English, I only had a booklet with the most important Anglo phrases and an electronic Franklin translator. It took me two whole weeks to even attempt to pronounce a word. Can you imagine, being mute for two whole weeks? If you knew me, you would know that I would much rather have tooth surgery. So believe me when I tell you, I relate with the feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment of trying to communicate in a foreign language.

But when you go on a mission trip, especially one that lasts less than a couple weeks, you don’t have the luxury to clam up. For starters, you’d be missing on some awesome opportunities for relationships and experiencing your mission trip on a deeper level. So here are my tips for breaking that ice, even if you “no hablas español”.

First of all, determine how much time you have before your mission trip.

Six Months or More:

  • Take a class. You are going to a foreign country; no matter how much you learn, you’ll feel more comfortable if you try it.

  • Download a free app (Duolingo, Babble, and Bussu are among my favorites) to help you in your language acquisition endeavors. We’ve come a long way since those electronic translators, although they are still available. Google Translate is a great option (Android and iPhone).

  • You can also find videos on YouTube with tips and even full classes for learning your target language. Or check your local library, I know my local library now carries programs like Rosetta Stone and Muzzy that you can check out for free.

  • Focus on learning the most popular words

  • Speaking of combinations… a lot of words ending on "tions" are “cognates.” Cog…what? Words that have the same origin and are the same with a minimal change in accent in both languages.  Check out, for example, how many words you already know in Spanish:

  • If you are trying to learn Spanish and you live in the USA, you can also try to watch the Evening News in one of the many Spanish channels available through your TV provider. TV News producers use several visual aids to help you follow them and anchors usually have a clearer pronunciation.

  • Practice from day one. Say the Spanish words aloud you know throughout your day and as you hear them. Go for it!

  • Skype with people in foreign countries and afterward imagine yourself replaying those conversations. Repeat what you hear on TV. You don’t need to be immersed in a foreign country. You just need to force yourself to use it; that’s how you learn it.

 Less Than One Month:

  • This is not the time to dust off your old high school textbooks. Your goal is not to master a foreign language. Depending how much effort you put on this, you may be surprised at how much you can understand by the time you get there.

  • Instead, watch your favorite movie/TV shows in the language you are trying to learn over and over… EVERYDAY. Since you are familiar with the plot and you already know several quotes, you’ll know what is going on. Focus on listening to the sentences and repeat them aloud. No one is around to see you, just go for it.

  • And add whatever you can from the first section, skip the class and simply focus on speaking another language.

Less Than a Week:

  • Relax. The great majority of people who go on a short-term mission trip do not speak a foreign language. Have a good predisposition, be yourself and keep your eyes open for opportunities

  • Bring a dictionary.  An absolute must. I don’t understand why anyone going to a foreign country would skip on this.

  • Use what you know.  Here is the list of cognates in Spanish again: My dad came for a visit from Mexico a while back and I swear he carried full conversations with Anglo speakers using only these kinds of words. Of course, some of those were made up, but it pushed him to use what he knew.

  • Be patient with yourself and others. It doesn’t mean that if you say something slower you’ll be understood. Use other clues of your surrounding to help you communicate. Signs and body language can communicate a lot to someone.  But make sure to research the country you are going to for gestures you might want to avoid. Avoid these, for example Hand Gestures you Should Never Use Abroad 

  • Finally, play and work alongside the people of the community. Invite them to join you in the labor, share a meal or organize a game. Soccer is universal, but you can also run, jump and laugh together at being silly. Take a clue from the younger people in your team. Be open, wear a smile, and love people.

"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." - Maya Angelou
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Topics: Mission trip guides and resources

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