We moved to Mexico and we don’t know how to speak Spanish. I studied Spanish in high school but didn’t learn much beyond nouns and basic verbs. I know how to ask where the bathroom is and tell people I don’t speak Spanish (which, based on my accent, they probably already know). I recently told a woman I don’t speak English in broken Spanish. She seemed to get a good laugh out of that one. My high school Spanish teacher, Señor Guzik, was enthusiastic and devoted to his students, but I was immature and spent my time passing intricately folded notes to my friends and daydreaming. I learned all kinds of exciting things in Spanish class, except Spanish. Scott was probably a more attentive language student in those years but he studied French. To add to my confusion, I studied Italian in college, so my mind immediately defaults to Italian in that moment of pressure when the waiter says “todo bien?” And while they’re similar, they’re not the same. I’ve said “va bene” about 14 times since we arrived.
Our three boys took Spanish in school, and Chief, in particular, seems to know quite a few verbs and has plenty of confidence when trying his Spanish out, but they are all basically beginners.
One of our main goals is to learn Spanish during our time in Mexico. It’s the second most common language spoken in the world (behind Chinese) with 400 million native speakers. Learning Spanish will really help us embrace and enjoy our time in Mexico, plus, speaking a foreign language is an indispensable skill that opens doors.
Travel with ease. It is more fun and easier to travel internationally when you don’t have to play Google translate audio from your phone to the lady at the DHL office because you don’t know how to ask for international mailing instructions. For example. You’re also less likely to pay a “gringo tax” (a higher price for the same food or services) if you speak the language.
Job opportunities. Job opportunities increase exponentially when you are multilingual, both within the U.S. and internationally. In the U.S. alone, there is a high demand for bilingual Spanish/English professionals in healthcare, law enforcement, education, communications, and finance (according to CNN and CareerBuilder.com). Multinational companies have offices all over the world and language skills are often a basic requirement. Want to be a Greek shipping magnate? It’s hard to do whatever Greek shipping magnates do without knowing Greek.
It’s good for your brain. Learning a language opens up new neural pathways, which is apparently akin to clearing out the junk and debris next to your dilapidated and crumbling driveway, hauling away the 1991 Ford Bronco that’s up on blocks, laying down some beautiful new pavers and driving away in a sleek self-driving sports car (I do not represent Tesla nor get paid for this advertisement). According to people who spend their lives studying this stuff, being bilingual delays dementia symptoms (including Alzheimer’s) by four years, on average, in older adults.
Bilingualism is good for kids too. Every kid wants to make lots of friends. And while I’ve heard things like “soccer is a universal language among children” you can only play soccer for so long before you’re hot and tired and want to chat with your teammates. Studies also unequivocally show that kids who are bilingual are smarter, cuter, have better teeth, rarely whine, and grow up to be astronauts.
With all this in mind, we are getting geared up to take Spanish lessons and are making plans for the kids to attend a bilingual school for language immersion. For these first few weeks, though, while we get the lay of the land and figure out where we will settle for the next year or so, we are flying by the seat of our communication pants. We’re basically wandering around town, asking for food in nouns and un-conjugated verbs like giant toddlers. We smile and apologize a lot too.
We’ve had some interesting “conversations” (in quotes, because reading from a Spanish/English phrasebook while the other person stands quietly, simultaneously confused and amused, is not much of a conversation) since we arrived in Mexico. Luckily, the people we have encountered have mostly been patient and kind with our language limitations. Chief is always willing to try out his Spanish and orders quickly and enthusiastically at restaurants, with confidence and gusto. This has resulted in him almost always getting something different than what he actually meant to order. Like a beautiful, and expensive, classic French sole meunière with steamed vegetables instead of the kid’s menu fish sticks.
Scott, in an attempt to get us a SIM card for our new Mexican cell phone, managed to buy the card and tell the clerk he did not want it activated. It wasn’t until he got home with a brand new, and useless, SIM card that he realized why she seemed so confused about his purchase. Scott went back a little later, communicated his mistake, and had the card activated.
Learning Spanish is a daily commitment and we are looking forward to embarrassing ourselves less in the months to come. It’s a bit like learning to surf. You have to be willing to look like a fool when you first start. Soon enough, though, you’re riding the waves, still looking like a beginner, but riding them nonetheless. (Photos of me and Scott attempting to surf withheld. We reserve the right to some dignity.)