Do I Really Need to Learn Spanish To Live in Mexico?

Before you move to Mexico, you may be asking yourself, “Do I really need to learn Spanish?”

In my opinion, it’s like having a five-course meal and asking yourself, “Do I need silverware and napkins?”

The answer to both is – No, but it will probably get messy!

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “well, that’s easy for you to say these things because you’re fluent in both English and Spanish.” But trust me. I’ve been where you have been. I used to live in Germany from 2005-2008, and during that time, my experience was far better when I finally started trying to learn German.

A language that is not similar to English or Spanish- in any way, shape or form. They even have a different alphabet. I would go from not knowing anything to trying to speak it in my daily interactions with the grocery clerk, the bank teller, my landlord, the lady at my favorite fruit stand, etc.

All of this is to say that- I get it. Learning a new language as an adult is HARD. But the reward is so gratifying. The important thing is to take it one day at a time!

Baby Steps

If you’re from the US or most of Canada, you probably never had to learn a second language.

You may actually start a class, attend online classes, join language groups, or even hire a tutor. But somehow, you might get defeated, and you may not finish. Or you won’t practice and end up not retaining what you learned. You quit for various reasons.

You may feel like you’re too old, you don’t have enough time, and you don’t have “language skills.” And now there is this amazing thing called Google Translate! And because of this technology, you might even attempt to learn Spanish even less.

Now before you get offended or think that this is somehow a shaming article, it isn’t. This isn’t meant to call anyone lazy. In fact, I fully get it. Learning anything new is hard. And languages are one of the hardest new things to learn as an adult. So taking the easy way out is always going to be preferred.

But instead, this article is meant to share with you that perhaps you need a why. What is YOUR reason for making the effort and learning basic Spanish when you move to Mexico?

Let me explain.

What You’re Missing Out on Without Knowing Espanol

Can you get by if you live in an expat enclave without Spanish? Sure. Many people do.

But do you even know what you’re missing out on?

I mean to ask you this question because you could be missing out on

  • Making amazing Mexican friends
  • You already know you can’t ask many questions about the restaurant menu.
  • You can’t tell a shopkeeper about the shirt size or shoes you want.
  • Some details for your haircut?
  • Or telling your doctor just where and how your stomach hurts?
  • Talk to a local landlord who is offering a great deal on a rental, but you can’t negotiate your contract.
  • You can’t do basic legal paperwork alone and will always have to rely on a facilitator.

So you miss out on some good things about living in Mexico.

What About Google Translate?

And lo and behold, there is Google Translate. An amazing product, really. There are many foreigners living in Mexico that use it- frequently. But I don’t think you should rely on it, and here’s why:

  • Cell service – cell coverage may not be available wherever you are going. It just cuts out sometimes. And there are lots of places without public wi-fi.
  • Not all Mexicans have cell phones or know how to use them. And many impoverished Mexicans are illiterate. So, if you are trying to communicate with street vendors, shopkeepers at bakeries, butchers, and housekeepers, you might find that they have not yet learned this technology. Maybe they can read your message, but they can’t type back.
  • There are numerous possible situations where typing is just too slow a process. Trust me, no one wants to be ten spots in line behind you while you are typing away at the checkout lane. Or, have you tried typing in the back of a taxi or while walking on a cobblestone street?

This is fantastic tech, but if this is your only method of communicating in Spanish, you will definitely run into situations where this is just not enough.

So, what to do?

Some Tips to Help You Learn The Basics

You can’t learn without some investment in time and maybe a little bit of expense. Here are some tips for practicing your Spanish

  • Think of your environment and exactly how and where you want to communicate ahead of time. For example- If you are going grocery shopping- write down the words for the vegetables and fruits you would want. Or the cuts of meat in Spanish you would want to ask for.
  • When you’re visiting restaurants, practice ordering your meal. Practice asking for another drink or how to remove something from your plate.
  • If you live at the beach or in the city. Some unique nouns and verbs will be very relevant. Example: Living at the beach, I would want to know the words for beach, sand, waves, beach umbrella, lounge chair, etc. Those won’t help me much in a big city in the mountains.
  • How about verbs for swimming, surfing, and fishing?

While online classes are great, you’ll spend a good amount of time learning things you won’t use daily. That’s why I recommend always carrying a pad and pen with you. And when you learn a new word, write it down. If you’re more comfortable writing it on your cellphone, that’s fine too. But I find that things get buried in our cell phones. So pen and paper are always better.

If you want to be able to communicate at the most basic level, just be patient. More will come with time.

For example, you’ll be exchanging a lot of cash in Mexico. So make it a point to listen to what is being said. And take some time to learn to count from 1 – 20, count by tens, count by hundreds, and thousands.

Learn the days of the week. The basic colors. Pronouns like I, you, he, she, they, and we.
Learn the basic directions for up, down, go the left, to the right, behind, ahead, and stop here.

I promise if you spend at least a few hours a week learning and studying, you’ll be able to master at least these important phrases.

But it does take time. Don’t get discouraged. One day, out of nowhere, you’ll suddenly feel more comfortable, and you’ll be talking almost all in Spanish. And the whole point is to be able to actually speak with the local Mexicans. To really understand Spanish by talking to your neighbors, servers, taxi drivers, and shopkeepers.

And let’s not forget. You also want to know what is being said to you, right? And in real life. Not the slow cadence and speech of your Spanish teacher or fellow students.

A few other terms or phrases you should take some time to learn because they are important to the locals and how you are treated are:
Where are you from? De donde eres?
How is your family? Como esta tu familia?
What time is it? Que hora es?
Where is… ? En donde esta …. ?

Don’t Beat Yourself Up If You’re Not Great Right Away!

And don’t worry! In the beginning, you won’t understand all the answers when you ask these questions. In fact, in some cases, you might not even know how to respond when someone answers. Don’t get discouraged. The goal here is to engage and get a conversation going.

You might think, “ I’m sure, I’ve mispronounced a word or two.” “ Wrong tense?” Doesn’t matter! You have started a conversation, and you’re learning. Don’t let your own thoughts stop you from the desire to be able to communicate.

Because the goal is to not only exist in Mexico but actually to enjoy living in Mexico! And learning the local language will reward you tenfold. Even if you’re not fluent.

Mariana Lange

Mariana Lima-Lange was born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. when she was a child. She spent every summer visiting family throughout Mexico and is very knowledgeable about Mexican culture, lifestyle, and traditions. She is fluent in both Spanish and English.

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