Home / Various and Sundry / Living in Mexico / I’ll just pick it up, while I’m there.

I’ll just pick it up, while I’m there.

“I’ll just pick it up while I’m there” sounds like you didn’t pack a beach towel and plan on getting one when you arrive at the beach,not learning an entire new language.
Maybe I should have ridden the short bus, (not that we had buses,we walked to school, but I digress), cuz, I just don’t get it. How do people manage to just pick up a new language? I understand that kids can, and do. Kids are sponges. I am enchanted by our little Canadian friend, she is 8 years old and in a year is as fluent in her use of the Spanish language as any other 8 year old. I find her Yucatecan accent charming, in fact, it cracks me up to hear her say “pam” instead of “pan” (Yucatecans are notorious for saying m instead of n, so you hear Yucatam not Yucatan all the time, pam not pan when they want bread). She of course, is surrounded by Yucatecos, her best friend is a Yucateca and so are all her schoolmates. Her parents invested in additional tutoring for her so she would be at grade level in her reading and writing too. She is totally immersed, in fact, I think besides her parents we are the only native English speakers she knows, though she speaks Spanish to us too, it doesn’t occur to her to speak English.
How do people live here who don’t speak Spanish? What does it feel like? To constantly be surrounded by words that you don’t understand, writing that you can’t read? Why do people chose to do that? I understand if you are coming for a vacation, but to live your life here?
I wonder if it’s because as Americans we are surrounded by English, unlike Europeans who sometimes live in countries who have more than one language or are within driving distance of a couple of different countries. We don’t understand the mechanics of learning a new language.
While, I haven’t done a survey, or any real research, I think the number one question people ask is “Do I have to speak Spanish to live in Mérida?”. The answer is no, but it will be frustrating. If you want to preview what living in a foreign country without speaking the language is like;
spend the day not talking, only communicating by using pantomime and pointing. If you are really brave try grocery shopping without reading any signs or labels , buy canned goods and packaged by what you think the graphics represent. If you don’t have kids, go down the baby food aisle and see what you might have bought if you couldn’t read. That is what l think living in Mexico without speaking Spanish must be like.
I was shopping with a girlfriend, we stopped to look at the refrigerators. I commented that I wanted a larger one but all them had unacceptable efficiency ratings. I commented that we paid extra for our little Sanyo refrigerator because it is supposed to be in the 30% efficiency rating (70% of all similar frigs are more efficient).It was the most efficient model available. While we were talking, it dawned on my poor friend that she had just bought the least efficient model available!
I asked her what it was like not speaking Spanish, she said “Sometimes it’s just hell.”

About Theresa Diaz Gray

Born in New York City, I grew up in California, and have lived in 3 countries and 6 states. I'm a first generation Cuban-American who lives in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. I'm committed to living an abundant and creative life and helping others do so too through DIY!


  1. Laurie, by speaking Spanish you are doing the best thing to improve your language skills.

  2. Oddly enough, my Spanish is improving as I teach a basic English class as a volunteer in the mts of Honduras. We discuss the lessons in English, but usually we spend a great deal of time after the lessons just talking as friends in Spanish. It also helps that their textbook has quite a bit of Spanish, which they read aloud. It’s not my favorite book, but they like it. I confess I am not very good at Spanish, but I keep working on it.

  3. Melissa, when you get good enough to tell where someone is from that is pretty good indeed. It cracks me up to watch a movie or TV show in English with a Spanish speaking character who obviously is not a native speaker or is from a whole different country than his character is. I have seen Antonio Banderas play a Mexican and Cuban more than once and he still sounds like a Spaniard to me.

  4. I think I would have gone absolutely, flippin’ insane in Mexico without speaking Spanish. A big part of me thinks: “What the heck is the point of moving to Latin America if you don’t want to learn the language?”

    It would have been much harder for me to have learned if I moved directly to Cancun, and I don’t know if I’d be as fluent as I am now. I think the number 1 problem people have when learning Spanish in Mexico is that they have English speaking partners and friends and therefore don’t have to strike out and make do.

    Thing is that now I feel that I’ve been at a plateau for several years and my Spanish hasn’t improved. One thing that has made me a more versatile Spanish speaker is getting used to the accents and slang of Spanish speakers from other countries. It’s been fun to have my husband ask me, “Oye, que quiere decir chavo para los de Puerto Rico?” and watch his amazement when I actually know!

  5. Nancy, how wonderful that you found a way to make it fun for yourself. No one wants to do something that they dread. Husband struggles but part of his problem is that he seldom leaves home without his trans-la-tor 2000, namely me. I am trying not to rescue him so fast anymore. I so admire people who take classes and keep them up even if they get hard. La Maestra says most of her students run when presented with the subjunctive, isn’t that a great video game image?

  6. Wow, what a great post, and the comments are amazing.

    We are working hard at our Spanish, have taken classes twice a week for eight months etc., but I still struggle.

    A few weeks ago I had a breakthrough, though, for those who play video games. I used to play DOOM a long time ago, and in order to advance you need to do certain things in certain order…I guess you have to play them to understand what I mean – but then I realized learning a language can be a game, too. Things have to be done a certain way to achieve communication. So hook the pronoun like that, conjugate the verb like this and PRESTO! you are at the next level. And just like a game, if you don’t play it for a while you’ll be terrible when you pick it up again until you practice a bit.

    And I would never say a game is “too much trouble to learn” because it will be fun! So that’s how I am approaching Spanish now.

    Weird, huh? But it does make it much more fun and no stress!

  7. Joanna you must have been commenting at the same time I was. It’s true that you may not have someone to practice with NOB, but at least when you get here, you have some idea. You are making so much more of an effort than the average “gringo” does. I bet you didn’t expect to just pick it up either! You knew you would have to take classes etc. I know you will do well.

  8. Islagringo, I just checked out the “word from Yelapa” that’s nice I am not sure that I really use Spanish in my blog much, but I will think about it for when I do. The problem is if someone opens a “Spanish School” on Isla for tourists (like they have in Oaxaca and Guatemala) it would probably be out of the reach $$ wise for those of us who live here. YOu care stuck with CDs and correspondence classses which isn’t that bad since you can find conversation and practice easily enough.
    Fned, I love it! Great answer!
    Minshap, my original point really was that no one over the age of 10 just “picks up Spanish” you have to work at it and want to learn it. I just think it’s leading people on, when someone tells them, you will just pick it up. Most people only learn as much as they need to. Very few go on to speak as well in their second language as their first.

  9. Part of the deal we made with each other was that we decided to move to a non-touristy part of Mexico so we could live among the locals and speak their language. It seems incredibly arrogant to go to any other country and not learn the language. (If we insist that newcomers to Canada or America learn our language, why shouldn’t we learn the language here?) But learning Spanish ahead of time? We had CD’s and books, but there aren’t too many Spanish speakers in Canada (at least not my part) to practice with. So it didn’t get too far. Now we take lessons twice a week and have to speak Spanish with the construction guys (a little Mayan might help too, but one thing at a time!), our muchacha, at the mercado, etc. Our comprehension has sky-rocketed. Finding the right words, conjugating those verbs properly, that’s a lot harder. But it’s coming. We buy the newspaper and are surprised by how much of it we can read, and read the subtitles when we watch a movie in English. It all helps. Poco a poco….


  10. Theresa: I liked your mom’s response! I have one too. When people say that I don’t look Mexican I reply “*sigh* Yeah, well, not all of us mexicans gals can be glorified beauties like Eva Longoria”. LOL

    I agree with minshap. Chances are the expats that aren’t interested in learning the language and don’t need to, Don’t. And those that aren’t interested and do need to, End up leaving (like someone’s friends in the comments I read above).

    There’s very few that don’t really need it but still want it…. and go get it. 😉


  11. You gotta do what you gotta do… that’s how that works. When you need the language, that’s when you learn it. How much can you learn? How fast? Well, how great is your need? Classes are nice, but you can learn without them too! You might say, it’s a question of “ganas”.
    ¿Cuantas ganas tienes – pocas, muchas o muchísmas?

  12. Theresa, you always know how to get a good thread going! I wish more expats would leave their comments. Have you ever read the blog A Word From Yelapa? She starts each post with a vocabulary lesson, defining the Spanish words she will be placing in her text. Great idea.

    There are no Spanish language classes offered here on the island. There used to be a school but the main teacher was German and nobody could understand her Spanish! No thanks. So I am dependent upon the kindness of friends to teach and bear with me as I stumble along!

  13. Fned, because you don’t look like they think a Mexican should it confuses them more. My mom who has undeniable Cuban accent has ivory skin with freckles, but dark hair and eyes always confuses people. If you just listen with your eyes closed you know she’s Cuban. One time she got asked if she had an Irish accent (rofl)! She’s really quick and replied “wrong island”.
    Jonna, you are in the better than beginning Spanish category, your fluency probably is according to your need to communicate. Maybe we need to start a Spanish bookclub,the mother of a friend of mine is retired professor of Spanish literature (she is Cuban) and I know that they would love to do it. I’m tempted to go to the Spanish classes given by the University of Mexico just to take the placement test.

  14. ahaha! it’s funny you mention this because that’s exactly the case! People can tell I have an accent but they can’t place it. Sometimes they ask if I’m from an eastern country or from The South but they’re always surprised when I say I’m mexican. They immediately go: “wha— Mexican!!! But you don’t have a spanish accent!! or look Indian!!!”… *rolling eyes*


  15. Oh, this is a good topic! I have so many excuses but the main one is that I’m not in one place long enough to take more classes. The real one is that I don’t have the discipline to study on my own every day.

    I do read gossip mags and the news online most days. I can comprehend most of what I read but do have to look up the occasional word and some of the phrases I know what the words mean but the ‘meaning’ of the phrase will elude me.

    I think the bottom line is you are absolutely correct Theresa and a language will not just jump into your mind because you hear it a lot. On the other hand, I always felt that my spanish would start draining away when I spent 6 months a year NOB. It would take me awhile after we crossed the border to be able to follow any conversations.

    Now, I think I can feel my spanish bleeding out when I’m in Akumal where everyone seems to communicate in english. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to live in Merida, to improve my spanish.

    It is a life goal for me to become more comfortable in spanish, fluency is hard to define and I doubt I’ll get there.

  16. Lisa, you really have to use a language all the time in order to retain it. You just forget words, but if you already knew the language, you can re-learn it really fast. Americans are simply not known as linguists but we really don’t have the opportunities that other nationalities have. Spanish is a good language to learn because it is spoken in so many countries. My suggestion to anyone who is thinking about moving here or that just wants to learn Spanish is to see if there is a community college nearby that offers the language, then you can join the “Spanish Club” for more chances to speak. I think you want to learn Spanish the way I want to learn to paint, I know I would like it, but right now I am too busy and content with what I am doing!
    Jackie, that’s admirable,I originally said that I was going to learn 3 new words a day, but slacked on that goal, hmmm, maybe I will start that today. It’s hard, but if I do it on my blog, I have an audience…yeah! I think I will try that. The thing about conjugating verbs is that Spanish communicates so much through verbs
    you can figure out WHO and WHEN by the tense. comí….I ate, Come, he eats, comieron, they ate, that is one thing I need to practice more on.
    Islagringo, here in Mérida,I never expect anyone to speak English, I was really surprised at how much English is spoken on Isla. They were surprised that we spoke Spanish, but that is the difference between living in a tourist destination versus a big city. Yeah, the Yucatecan accent is a trip, one of my friends wanted me to call on some houses because I speak Spanish, she thought that I would get the Yucatecan price. I explained that while I pride myself on not having an American accent, I don´t have a Yucatecan accent, nor do I want one. I will edit a little to explain about the m and n thing.
    Ah, Fned, you continue to amaze me. I really ought to follow your example, actually, I am going to start working on my Spanish, I can´t complain about other people and then not improve mine! Do you get the ” you aren’t from here?” puzzled look too? They look at me, I certainly look hispanic, I speak Spanish but they just can’t place the accent.
    Thank you all for taking the time to comment, this has been a interesting thread!

  17. I forgot to mention. You didn’t say why your little friend says Pam instead of Pan. It took me awhile to learn that the Yucatecan accent pronounces the last N in a word as an M. I was calling my friend, Ivan, from Veracruz, e-bomb until he finally said he was not from the Yucatan and please pronounce his name correctly!

  18. OMG Theresa, you sure hit the nail with this one.

    I came to France without speaking the langauge. I thought exactly that: “I’ll just pick it up, while I’m there”. At first it was really hard and frustrating – I was working at the mexican embassy so everyone around me spoke spanish but my job consisted of calling up french companies and trying to establish contact, try doing that when you can’t tell a “bonjour” from an “au revoir”!

    Shortly after I arrived, I met Hubby (that’s a whole other story I’ll have to blog about one of these days). For the first few months of dating we spoke entirely in english and things at work started to go better when I could sort of babble out the few sentances I needed to get the job done. But I was nowhere near feeling comfortable with the language.

    One day something in me just clicked. I thought to myself “this is stupid!” From that day on I urged Hubby (then known as Boyfriend)to correct each and every one of my misspellings / misspronounciations / missunderstandings and basically give me hell until I could hold my own in a conversation. I also started watching the French news religiously and began reading tons of books and magazines in French even if I could only understand 5% of what was written. Some of my mexican friends complained that I was constantly snubbing them but they’d reached their comfort zone in the language and contrary to me weren’t interested in perfecting it any further, so progressively we grew apart.

    Little by little I started being able to interact with my community (outside of work I knew no one who wasn’t french) and all of hubby’s friends, family, co-workers.

    When I enrolled in school here, I could understand and speak French although I was no way close to being able to write it. So I decided to take my laptop to class with me everyday and type every lecture phonetically. Then, in the evening I’d go over my “notes” with Word’s spellcheck and hubby by my side until slowly all the babble started to make sense. That is basically how I got by and by the end of the school year I could at least write up the essays required during exams and get a passable grade!

    I guess I simply realized how sad and what a waste of time it’d be if I left France without having taken advantage of this incredible opportunity.

    How sad that some expats actually prefer to not take advantage of such a thing.


  19. I’m with Heather. I am now fluent enough to get through any situation but still have a long way to go to be really comfortable. It helps that we have so many Spanish only speaking friends and must speak Spanish if we want to keep their friendship! Of course, there are plenty of English speaking people, both native and not, here that help us get by.

  20. I have a couple of good friends who have been coordinator for a high school foreign exchange organization and they have hosted many students themselves. I have always been amazed how these teenagers (primarily Europeans) speak 4 or 5 languages fluently. I have tried really hard to learn more Spanish but it is tough. I took private lessons from an ex- Berlitz instructor from Mexico City with a couple of other women for a few months and we finally said “can we do something besides conjugate verbs?” Now my goal is every trip to Mexico I must learn at least three new words. I know that is not really trying hard but it is an easy goal I can accomplish.

  21. I think it a shame to not learn the language of the country you choose to live in. It would be difficult to learn if you didn’t speak to someone in their language. I mean if you are constantly surrounded by English speaking people even in another country it would be so easy to fall back to English.

    I know very little and in about nothing in spanish. We have a friend that is from Puerto Rico and he speaks a little English. I often wish I could speak and read Spanish. I don’t do anything about it. I don’t have anyone here I could talk to. I think you have to use it or lose it so to speak.

    If you find out how to measure fluentsy in language let me know. That even sounds funny.

  22. Mexpat, I read that blog post, I don’t know anyone with that sort of money. They probably don’t associate with people like me.
    You had to make an effort to learn though, didn’t you? You just didn’t wake up speaking Spanish. You didn’t just pick it up, you had to make an effort. That is what I am talking about,when I have been asked for my advice (and sometimes even if I haven’t), I tell people the single most important thing that they can do is study Spanish BEFORE moving here. It’s cheaper and you are under less stress if you do it prior to moving. I have given up because no one wants to hear that, they all seem to think it’s NOB with subtitles…

  23. This kind of reminds me of a post I did called “Rich Expats”: http://mexicoquoteunquoteway.blogspot.com/2008/03/rich-expats.html

    Although I know there are expats that aren’t rich that choose not to learn the language. I don’t know how they do it because in the beginning I hated having to rely on other people for help so just decided to fumble my way through difficult situations. I learned a lot that way.

  24. I worked with a couple who had no Spanish and wanted nothing to do with learning the language. At first they were employees of a club (doing entertainment), but the owners were fluent in English as well, and their business was largely tourist. Fast forward to when they decided to buy their own club – no good. Everything you do is in the language of the country in which you live, but they STILL wanted nothing to do with learning the language. Arrogance? Fear? Maybe just stupidity. I don’t know. But with my limited Spanish (and I always tried) they leaned heavily on me. I really resented that. Even on the home front, when their guard would call to announce a visitor, they would panic because they couldn’t understand them.

    Guess where they moved back to…

  25. Beth, you are the exception, I read somewhere that after you learn the first foreign language the next one is easier because you have more of a base to build on. You are motivated, that is an important ingredient. Someone who thinks that they don’t have to actively learn isn’t going to just pick up a new language. I agree not everyone is able to learn everything as easily. My grandmother was in her 70s when she refuged, she never learned enough English to hold a conversation, of course it wasn’t like she chose to immigrate.

  26. I think everyone has different strengths. Mine is languages. I can’t learn math to save my life, no matter how hard I try, it just doesn’t make any sense. I speak English and French fluently, so Spanish, because it’s so close to French and the grammatical rules are similar, is easier for me to learn. My husband on the other hand can’t retain languages, but he’s got other strengths. When I’m somewhere where I don’t understand the language I find it frustrating, but I also find that it encourages me to learn.

  27. Heather,I think it’s really hard as an adult to get past beginning Spanish.
    There is so much other stuff going on, that unless you are taking a class or living somewhere where you have to speak Spanish,most people don’t even get to the level of baby talk. The fact that you understand most of what’s said and can read Spanish is remarkable, you just need more practice. I came here 4 years ago probably at the level you are now. The big difference between now and then is that my vocabulary is larger and I speak with more fluidity. I am more comfortable with Spanish.
    I’m always being asked if I am fluent. It’s like asking me if I am enlightened, I dunno, who the heck measures those things?

  28. Just yesterday I was thinking how ashamed I am that my Spanish is still so pitiful after 4 years. I came out gung ho and learned TONS in the first year, then once I could be understood I got lazy. I understand just about all Spanish, read it very well, and get around just fine, but I speak like a child. I think it is exactly because I am surrounded by a lot of English speakers that I have been complacent. Shame on me. I am determined to remedy this somehow.

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