When I first arrived in Mexico, I had two years of college-level Spanish under my belt. While I was an enthusiastic learner, I was also a very self-conscious speaker, terrified of making embarrassing mistakes and generally sounding like a 2-year-old.
I did, in fact, sound like a 2-year-old at first, as there’s simply no way around being a “baby” when one is first learning. Happily, I survived that stage and now speak at least as well as a know-it-all 13-year-old.
Part of my apprehension with the language was the sense that Mexico’s love-hate relationship with the United States would lead to some situations in which I’d be mocked for my accent or mistakes that I would inevitably make.
After all, most people here know very well how Latinos are treated by certain segments of the U.S. population when they’re on the other side of the border, so I’d imagined that the temptation to dish some out to us collectively would be at least a little irresistible.
For the most part, that didn’t happen. It’s also possible that I simply didn’t realize it was happening, but I think most of us humans have a pretty good sense of when others are laughing at us.
Once in a while someone will have a longish conversation with me (in Spanish) and then say something like, “So, you don’t speak Spanish, eh?” or they’ll point out that they “could tell right away that I was American because of my accent” which always makes me bristle, as I’m pretty sure my accent is, while definitely existent, not obviously American.
(My Mexican friends may disagree with me on that one; I’d ask them, but the answer might be too painful for me to hear.)
There’s some sting in it, but I do my best to chalk up any unflattering comments about my Spanish to cosmic justice and not take it too personally.
In the part of Mexico where I live, English is not considered an essential skill the same way it is in the north or in tourist areas. Because of this, most foreigners in my area do their best with the language: they take classes, they practice, they work hard to get better.
They understand, above all, that learning the language of your hosts, if you are able, is a matter of respect.
When I traveled to Los Cabos recently to visit a friend, I saw how different things were in a town that depends on tourism from their English-speaking neighbors: I was addressed in English at all times, and if I answered in Spanish it almost seemed to startle people, as if they’d come into contact with a dog that had learned to produce human sounds.
For the most part, Mexicans are charmed when we non-native speakers at least try. They’re patient and encouraging, and try their best to be helpful. Mexico really is an ideal place to learn Spanish, as I can’t imagine another place in which more impromptu and consistent support among the general population would be given.
That said, I know many of my compatriots are shy about learning — and especially about using — the Spanish that they know already. I completely understand: there’s nothing that makes us feel quite as vulnerable as not being able to “prove” that we are smart, complex, discerning individuals.
There’s no way around sounding like a simpleton when we’re on that long uphill trajectory, and simply put, it can be a humiliating experience.
But again: at least attempting to learn the local language, if one is able, is a matter of respect. “Well then, what about all the people in the U.S. that haven’t bothered to learn English? I bet you don’t go around preaching to them about respect, do you?”
The short answer is that no, indeed I do not. Because here’s the difference: most people who go to the U.S. without already speaking English are in survival mode, just trying to make it from one day to the next, often working a dizzying number of hours both to both survive, and likely to send money back home.
Most Americans and Canadians, however, come to Mexico either in vacation or retirement mode. Some, sadly, come because their spouses or loved ones have been deported and they want to keep the family together.
If one is on vacation, of course, learning the language won’t be expected. But if you settle here, an effort must be made.
Find a school, or find a teacher. Find someone to sit and help you practice. Spend time just listening to people with no intention of adding to the conversation. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received for learning a language is literally to pretend to be a baby: listen to the sounds, watch people, let whole social situations piece themselves together and come into focus slowly.
Babies, after all, spend at least a couple of years listening and observing before they try to string together a sentence with more than four words in it.
On my first plane ride into Mexico, my nervousness increased with each sentence given in Spanish by the flight attendants: the more they spoke, the more I realized I wasn’t catching anything at all that they were saying.
Since then, I’ve made about a million mistakes, linguistically embarrassed myself in every way imaginable, and surely sounded much less sophisticated than I imagine myself to be.
But I’ve gained the ability to talk to most people on this side of the world and have developed some of the closest relationships of my lifetime in this language.
Hands down, totally worth it.
Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.