Do you really need to learn Spanish to live in Mexico? We hear this question a lot, especially from those who are considering a move to Mexico. The answer is a resounding yes if you want the ability to communicate with local friends, shopkeepers, government, utility companies, colleagues, employees and others around you.
Learning Spanish will make the difference between just residing in your new community and truly living in it. Spanish will help you integrate into the rhythm of day-to-day living, deepen your understanding of the Mexican culture and just make your life a lot easier.
If you live in Los Cabos, Cancún, Puerto Vallarta and other international resort areas that depend on tourism, you know that English is widely spoken and learning Spanish is somewhat less important for daily living. The farther you live from the coasts, though, the harder it is to function day-to-day without Spanish.
According to Robert De Keyser, a professor of second language acquisition at the University of Maryland, “People often have an exaggerated idea of how much English is spoken worldwide. Yes, it is the international language, but it is still only spoken fluently by a small minority in most countries.”
He told us there are many expats in the world who have very limited language skills and seem to get along just fine in their local communities, particularly if they live in expat-dominated neighborhoods. Most often they are not working, employed by a company that uses primarily English for business or work for a company that caters to English-speaking tourists.
But learning and using even a little of the local language, De Keyser said, goes a long way.
“Being able to communicate in the local language even a little bit sends a message of respect. Even in the areas where most people speak English well, if you truly want to integrate, if you want to go beyond communicating and if you want to be part of the social environment, then you should learn the local language because there is a big difference between being able to communicate about practical stuff and being able to participate in all aspects of social life.”
There are many options to help you learn Spanish, from group courses to simply immersing yourself and learning through osmosis, but the amount of work and dedication associated with second language acquisition is often misconstrued, leaving many people to either underestimate the learning process or be intimidated.
“Some people think if you just move to the country the language will sort of grow on you like a suntan or a contagious disease, but languages are not like that,” De Keyser said. On the other hand, he recognizes that the aptitude for learning another language is a crucial factor, especially for adults. “You need to make a lot of effort, but that does not mean that it does not make any sense or that it is impossible to learn a language as an adult.”
Learning a new language requires several abilities, according to De Keyser. “One of course is memory. You cannot learn a language if you cannot remember the words, and some people are just better at this than others. Sensitivity to sound is also important. Some people have a very good accent but do not speak correctly, and others speak correctly without a good accent. Finally, you need to be able to grasp grammar. If this is difficult for you, you will have a hard time learning a new language.”
There are many different language learning approaches and courses available. “I would say a good method is a method that first of all recognizes you are an adult, which means that it realizes that you can explicitly learn some structure and tries to explain that to you rather than bombarding you just with the language,” De Keyser said. “You also need a method that uses real communication to really practice what you have learned, and of course that is very difficult to do without some sort of a classroom context or a native speaker. You cannot learn that from books and tapes.”
De Keyser advised, “Any good course will include some practice of the communicative kind where you actually communicate some content with another speaker. Without that bit of practice, the transition to the native speaking environment is still very difficult.”
An approach used frequently by expats in Mexico is enrolling in a group or individual study program offered by a local language school or tutors.
Tim Hawkins, a 57-year-old former New Yorker who moved to Puerto Vallarta in 2014, decided soon after moving that learning Spanish would improve his quality of life and began asking friends for language instruction recommendations.
“During my first full year in PV I wanted to start learning Spanish,” he said, “but I did not quite get around to it. Finally, last year, I asked friends for the name of a good Spanish teacher that offered private instruction.”
His friends recommended Maria and Fernando Garibay, long-time Spanish teachers who both were expats themselves, Maria in London and Fernando in Vancouver. The couple offered small group and individual Spanish language learning instruction.
“Maria did not have any small groups coming up when I contacted her last year, so I decided to meet with her alone,” Hawkins said. “We met at a Starbucks close to my home on the south side of Puerto Vallarta and also used Skype when I was traveling or when it was more convenient.”
The Garibays base their instruction on the idea that every person possesses three ways to communicate: visual, auditive and kinesthetic. Each person, they believe, has a dominant way to communicate, so they first learn which of these three is most dominant in each student to tailor their instruction to that strength.
“The lessons are geared toward adult learning,” Hawkins said. “Classes are all about verbal repetition: talking and listening to hear the words spoken correctly. Grammar, sentence structure and verb tenses are part of the written homework. We use Español para Extranjeros as our textbook and Easy Spanish Reader for reading.”
After a year of instruction Hawkins can now follow a Spanish language film, although not every word, and can now participate in conversation at a basic level. “I am beginning to follow dinner conversations now but as for active participation, I am still not there yet,” he said.
One of his motivations for learning Spanish was to enable his travel throughout Mexico. “You really need to speak Spanish if you are going travel or move to a city that is not a big tourist destination,” Hawkins said. “It is not about the communication. It really is about respect for the people and their culture.”
The Garibays told us the majority of their students study Spanish three hours a week and pay US$20 per hour for individual instruction, US$16 for a two-student group and US$12 for small groups up to five people.
Self-learning also is a very popular approach, particularly using increasingly sophisticated computer software. De Keyser warned, though, to avoid falling victim to artificial confidence planted by what he called “blatantly deceiving advertisements.”
“I will see that it says something like learn a language in three weeks without effort and so on,” he said. “Well that is about the equivalent of saying take our pill and tomorrow you will be seven feet tall and be able to fly like a bird… there is nobody who can learn a language perfectly in three weeks, not even the best person on earth.”
De Keyser offered good advice to expats who want to learn their local language.
“The single most important lesson to learn is to engage with the local language speakers every single day. Whether you study the language formally or learn the local language through immersion, don’t be afraid to go out and use it every day. I think there are a lot of people who think as soon as they make a mistake they will look like fools, and that is not the case at all. Actually, people expect foreigners to sound like foreigners, and so everybody thinks it is perfectly normal that you do not sound like a native speaker.”