I have been frequently asked and I have read questions on other blogs and forums from folks wanting to know if one really needs to speak Spanish to live in a Latin American country? The answer is absolutely NOT! You do not need to speak Spanish to live in a Latin American Country! You only NEED to speak Spanish if you intend to communicate with the residents of that country. Yes…I am being facetious. Of course you need to speak Spanish to live in a Latin American country! There are a couple of exceptions where English is the official language, such as Belize. Aside from the exceptions, Spanish is the official language in most of Latin America and you need to do your best to learn it if you intend to live there.
Now, you certainly don’t need to speak perfect Spanish but you do need to have a working vocabulary and knowledge of sentences and phrase structure to speak, at minimum, a bit of what we call “Tarzan Talk” Spanish. “Me hungry. Need Food;” that sort of thing. Not only will you need to be able to speak Spanish but you will need to be able to understand Spanish as it is spoken to you.
Yes, it is a challenge. Let me rephrase that. It really sucks to learn a new language at this age. I try and I try and I try and I continue to improve but the truth is that there is no easy way to learn a new language as a mature adult. But it can be done!
Those we know who are here in Cancun for only a few months, escaping the cold weather up north, seem quite impressed with my Spanish in the same way that a brand new mother looks in awe upon the mother of 3-year-old twins. Much to my amusement, I have even been called upon to translate when others need to rent a car or conduct other business here. So, I guess I’m improving.
How is the best way to learn Spanish or any other new language? Speak that language every day as much as possible. Make Spanish your primary language in your home. Watch Spanish television programs and movies. Engage others in your practice sessions and ask locals for assistance. There are many, many different learning processes to include books, computer programs, private tutors, group lessons, Internet classes and my personal favorite…immersion! Diane and I have done all of them and I think I’ve learned something from each process. Now after more than 3 years living in Ecuador and now Mexico, I speak only enough to get by in most situations and that’s after really trying!!!! Diane is much better than I.
Living in a community, as we did in Ecuador, where virtually none of the locals spoke English, is a sure-fire way to speed up the learning curve! Our wonderful housekeeper, Fatima (who we miss every day), was a huge help. We know of folks who restrict their social activities to only hanging out with other expats who speak English. Yes, it is quite comfortable but it won’t help you learn Spanish!
While living in Ecuador, we were once attending a party in the home of a friend in Canoa, a great little beach community. A catastrophe emerged when we ran out of ice and the beer was getting warm. As one of the few who had a car, I volunteered to drive to town and buy a few bags. It was only after I was well on my way that I realized I did not know the word for ice. Not surprisingly, my cell phone calls back to the party went unanswered. I was on my own!
I pondered my situation and recognized that while I didn’t know the word for ice, I had the language skills to ask for “water that is very cold and hard”. I found a small tienda, walked right up to the young woman behind the counter and said, “Necesito un poco de agua que es muy frío y duro.”
After a moment of looking at me like I was a complete idiot, she smiled and nodded, saying “Si, hielo.” The word for ice, I learned, was hielo (hee-a’-lo)! One more word added to my vocabulary!
For the first year, I carried an English/Spanish dictionary with me wherever I went…except to parties. That poor book tried to fall apart several times and each time, I brought out a roll of duct tape and made the necessary repairs.
We each have our embarrassing moments with learning a new language. As Diane and I were traveling in Costa Rica some years ago, I once asked for a glass of cold mother’s milk for breakfast and the following day, I asked for a bowl of melted cheese for lunch. I got the melted cheese but no cold mother’s milk.
The words for chicken breast and lettuce sound much the same to a new Spanish speaker. A chicken breast is Pechuga (pay-choo-gah) and a head of lettuce is lechuga (lay-choo-gah). Yes, I went into the market and asked for a breast of lettuce which, much to my surprise was not available.
A friend who had recently moved to Ecuador was feeling particularly social one evening and wanted to offer his evening farewells to the security guards on the property. He approached and with his characteristic warm smile, offered “Mucho Ochos” (many eights) to everyone. They simply smiled and waved, understanding the struggles of a newly arrived gringo into their country.
Know that the journey to learn Spanish is a long one. Some will move more quickly down the path than others. The important thing is to keep moving along the learning path and don’t surrender! Avoid only socializing with fellow gringos and force yourself to try to speak Spanish as often as possible.
Here in Cancun, Diane and I speak Spanish whenever we are outside our house. Although locals want to speak English to us, we respond in Spanish, each of us wanting to practice our language skills.
You don’t have to be an “A” student. Just be a student who learns and tries! That’ll work!