If you’re American or Canadian, chances are you recognize the utility of learning Spanish. Perhaps you’ve even taken classes in high school. But if you were like me, trying to hold a halfway intelligent conversation in Spanish is next to impossible, even after all that training.
The problem is simple: not enough sustained practice with the language. And the solution is not only effective, but a great travel adventure: complete Spanish immersion in a Spanish-speaking country! In this article, I’ll focus on how to best learn Spanish in Mexico. But there are many great countries to explore if your goal is become fluent in Spanish.
If you haven’t already, be sure to also check out our Ultimate Guide to Evaluating a Language School.
Why Learn Spanish in Mexico?
There are three big advantages of Spanish immersion in Mexico in particular. One is that Mexico is so close to America that flights are quick and cheap. A quick snapshot of Google Flights revealed that a direct, one-way, 5.5 hour flight from New York City to Mexico City costs just $134 USD! Flights from Europe are more expensive, but still reasonable.
Second, the cost of living in Mexico is incredibly low. This of course includes food and lodging, but also the cost of professional lessons as well. At the excellent Escuela Mexicana school in Guanajuato, we paid just over $600 USD each for 12 weeks of lessons (15 hours per week). This works out to only $3.33 USD per hour for top-notch classes! Granted, these weren’t private lessons – but the average class size was just two people while we were there.
Finally, Mexican locals generally don’t speak English. This is a blessing in disguise because it forces you to speak Spanish in your daily life while living there. And there’s always something interesting happening in Mexico, whether it’s a parade, religious holiday, or simply a weekend fiesta. Mexican culture is incredibly rich, and there’s no shortage of opportunities to practice outside of class.
Where in Mexico Should You Study?
Mexico is a huge country, and most cities of any size offer Spanish language programs or tutoring. There are several things to consider when choosing your “base.”
First of all, be sure to pick somewhere you’ll find interesting outside of the classroom. If you’re a big city person, Mexico City or Guadalajara are probably your best bets. These megalopolises have an abundance of night life and culture, though lessons will probably be more expensive here than in the smaller towns.
We had a great experience living and studying in Guanajuato City (the capital of Guanajuato State). By itself, it is our pick for #1 best value city for long-term travel in 2020. Being an excellent place to learn Spanish is just the cherry on top of a great place to live by any metric.
Others have raved about Puebla City, Oaxaca City, and Cuernavaca as places to learn Spanish in Mexico. These are all mid-large sized cities full of history and the capitals of their respective states.
One final note: don’t worry too much about finding somewhere with a “neutral” accent. Whether such a thing even exists at all is a question I’ll leave to scholars, but for all practical purposes, it really doesn’t matter. Chances are you’re going to sound extremely “gringo” anyway. Perhaps once you’ve achieved near-perfect fluency you can fine-tune your accent how you want. But when starting out, it’s better to focus your mental energy on understanding and being understood. Besides, respectable schools will hire teachers who speak clearly and with more of a neutral tone anyway.
Unique Aspects of Studying Spanish in Mexico
Mexican culture is incredibly rich. Many if not most of the schools offer extracurricular activities such as exploring ancient ruins, cooking tamales, or salsa dancing lessons. These are a huge value add and a tremendous opportunity to speak Spanish outside of the classroom. In Guanajuato, we helped construct an amazing ofrenda for Día de Muertos at our school. Our school really went above and beyond, offering multiple such events every week. Usually there is a separate fee for these activities, but not always.
In addition, Mexico is a very popular place for Canadian and American expats and retirees. This is due primarily to its proximity to the U.S./Canada as well as its affordability. However, certain areas are more overrun with gringos than others. You might want to avoid these areas if your goal is learning through immersion, since more locals will default to English and you’ll bump into more native English speakers. The top expat epicenters are Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, and San Miguel de Allende.
Finally, I know how trying to speak to a local in their native language can induce anxiety. Luckily, Mexicans on the whole I’ve found to be very patient and kind when listening to you speak. They are usually happy just to see that you’re trying to speak their language. Mexican Spanish is typically spoken quite fast, but if they see you struggling, they are likely to slow down for you. And on their own, they probably won’t correct you if you make a mistake – so let them know this is something you want if that’s the case!