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Everyone Speaks Some English—Not!

Everyone Speaks Some English—Not!

Not everyonce speaks your language.  So enjoy the difference!

Not everyonce speaks your language. So enjoy the difference!

It’s just not true that everyone you meet in Latin America will speak some English.  What if you don’t speak Spanish–will that put a kybosh on your trip?  Absolutely not.  Many, many folks will be willing to help, and communication will be easier than you think.  Here are some tips.

June 13, 2007

I often get the question “I don’t speak much (or any!) Spanish.  Will I be able to get around in Mexico?”

The answer is “Yes, yes yes.”

But don’t believe the guidebooks when they say there will always be someone in the hotel or restaurant that speaks English—it just isn’t true, especially in budget hotels, on buses, or in the market.  And while many people may speak or understand some English, they often are very shy about using it, for fear of making a mistake and looking foolish.  I have friends I’ve known for years who only speak Spanish with me, even though I know they speak English.

So how will you communicate?

It is amazing the communication that can be accomplished with patience, hand signals, and a smile.  If you know a little Spanish, so much the better.  Don’t be afraid to use it.  Mexicans and people throughout Latin America are truly friendly and interested in folk from other lands—it is considered an honor for them that you are visiting.

The secret to communication is a foreign country is twofold—a sense of humor, and respect.  Don’t get flustered, red in the face, or speak louder in an attempt to make the “natives” understand.  You are in their country, after all!  It is up to you to make your best attempt at communication and do it in a pleasant, polite manner.  If you really appreciate that someone is trying to understand and help you, folks in Latin America will go miles out of their way to see that you catch your bus, find a hotel, or avoid ordering the goat head with limes in its eyes (very tasty, actually…).

In my early days of travel, before I spoke any Spanish, I was amazed how often someone would say “Come on” and run me around a corner to a waiting bus to exactly the destination I wanted.  How did they know I was standing on the wrong corner, or where I wanted to go?  They were guardian angels—it’s the only explanation.  And before I found a job and couldn’t afford a hotel, how many families offered me a room in their home?  Thinking back, and remembering how little Spanish I spoke, it is amazing the depth of communication I experienced.

That doesn’t mean that you should always expect a guardian angel to swoop down and scoop you into a choice seat on the Puerto Vallarta bus.  Even if you have only a few days before your visit, you should make an effort to learn at least some basic phrases in Spanish—How much does it cost?  Where is the bathroom?  Is there a cheaper hotel?—and the numbers.  Even if you don’t understand the answers, at least it will show you are interested and trying, and will give your hosts an idea of what you need.

If you are really in need of an English speaker, look for a Junior High or High School age student.  All young people seem to be studying English and computers these days.  Construction workers are also good bets—many have worked in the states and speak some English.

Above all, don’t be intimidated if you don’t know the language!  Go bravely forward, speak slowly and clearly, and you will be amazed at the number of people who want to talk with you!

Dan and Omar

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