As a single person living in Mexico, I hear people toss the ball around on whether knowing how to speak Spanish is necessary to live here.
The fact is that I know people who live in Mexico quite successfully without speaking Spanish. It's also irrefutable that anyone will have a richer expat experience with some fluency in the language. It may even change how you see your world.
Meet up for Spanish exchange in Mexico
I wish I could find the article. A German woman reported that when her husband was learning Italian, he changed from his normal grumpy self to someone outgoing and loquacious. But really, if you've ever heard the Italian language (especially against German), you can totally believe it.
Maybe that is what Charlemagne was referring to in his quote “to speak two languages is to have two souls." The option to find a different self is open to all of us. I for one am bored enough with myself by now to love the idea of new, more lyrical me.
Where do you start?
When the thought of moving to Mexico was just a speck in my subconscious, I had the good fortune of finding a terrific beginners’ Spanish Meetup group.
For the uninitiated, thousands of MeetUps take place in cities all over the country reflecting every imaginable interest. My group met 9:30 a.m on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Gypsy House Cafe, a fabulously funky hookah bar in Denver.
The Turkish woman who owned the place only took cash and we waited with gleeful anticipation to see if our coffee would arrive in a chalice or an onion soup bowl. Prices on the chalk board were estimations.
Native speakers were usually sprinkled into these groups. We treated them like rock stars, especially the Spaniards, and hung on to their every theta.
We hung out for hours in our own little Parisian cafe, pontificating in Spanish from a mix of over-stuffed sofas on politics, environmentalism or existentialism as well as debating for half an hour on whether the subjunctive tense always followed the Spanish word for "if."
Sometimes there were 20 people, sometimes a companionable six, but always a good practice.
Side conversations in French, Italian, German and Portuguese invariably broke out, as these group tend to attract polyglots as well as those who travel to Spanish-speaking countries, have fallen in love with the countries and people and seek to maintain a tenuous love affair through their language practice.
Language practice groups offer a number of benefits. For one, you are able to start practicing initially with other non-native speakers.
I was grateful to find one that met on weekdays mornings because it attracted older and retired people There wasn't as much posturing as there was in younger groups I'd visited. When you meet at least once a week for years, you can develop close friendships.
While purists may disagree with the methodology of practicing with largely non-native speakers, practicing with native speakers from the onset is very intimidating for most people. Learning a second language is fun but mentally exhausting and a more empathetic group reinforces your efforts.
Beginner speakers tend translate from English to Spanish word for word. You can understand them more easily than native speakers when you are starting out.
It’s surprising how many people say they don’t want to practice the language publicly until they "get better at it," that is to say have studied more. The flaw in that thinking is obvious. You don't learn it to speak it, you speak it to learn it.
One of the biggest advantages to practice groups is that you get used to the discomfort of your imperfection, and with time the discomfort will be replaced with pride that you have come as far as you have. By then you will know the true meaning of your accomplishment.
For our group, the new language sometimes became a veil, a way to try out opinions, insights and even jokes we’d never try at home. The laughter we shared trying to remember the correct verb or just making things up (aka giving it our best shot) made the mundane entertaining.
Guessing incorrectly led to some memorable moments. Once I unknowingly asked the patriarch of the group, a multilingual man in his seventies with Parkinson's and the hippest person among us, if he liked to dress in leather, causing us both to laugh ourselves sloppy.
These practices were invaluable prep before moving to Mexico. You learn to take a deep breath, go forth and conquer.
Related Link: The daily cab ride offers a way to practice frequently. Get the most out of the 20-minute ride with a few minutes of preparation.
Next up: Finding a decent gym is always a first stop in a new city. I was so stupid the first month in Mexico, I tried finding them in Google searches under "gyms in Mazatlán." Do you see the problem with that?
Hola - I am a partner with Ventanas Mexico and author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best Spanish language tools on the web, linked and organized into lesson plans. Recently I released, "If Only I Had a Place" a guide to renting luxuriously in Mexico, written specifically for the aspiring expat.