Ten Days, Five Scenarios of Life In Mexico with Spanish Vs. Without It
Life in Mexico is in many ways of course, like life anywhere, with its errands and processes. Imagine yourself living in Mexico or another Spanish-speaking country and the following occurs.
Scenario One: Once again, you neglected to shop for food. (You're single and hate it, or you're married,on your own for the week-end and still hate it.)
A hotel with a good oceanfront restaurant is next door. It's late. You sure don't feel like driving anywhere. Maybe you'll get it to go.
You walk in and the servers tell you they only take credit cards now. New policy. You aren't carrying one. The servers beg you to complain to management.
Scenario Two: You need run an errand and your car is in the shop. You could call a taxi, but frankly, you'd rather Uber. Uber drivers arrive faster, and have consistently spotless, air-conditioned cars. You use the app. As happens with Uber everywhere, the Uber driver calls you to tell you he's arrived but he can't find you.
Scenario Three: You have a bureaucratic process to attend to. You have all your paperwork ready and have a meeting to determine what's next.
Scenario Four: You've come up with a complicated dental problem. You have learned that the vice-president's periodontist lives in your town. You've been told he doesn't speak English.
Scenario Five: You are walking dogs for a friend of yours at night and pass a gang of teenagers. They appear to be regular upper-middle class kids. In spite of that, one of the teenage girls approaches you, and rather aggressively asks you why you are walking the dogs so late at night.
All of these scenarios are true and happened to me within a 10-day period. Yes, you can live happily in Mexico without Spanish. Your life will be transformed for the better by knowing it.
You can learn over 50. Whether you like the "assorted chocolates" concept behind my book or prefer a more conventional approach, if you are moving to Mexico, you need it.
1. The Restaurant - Being a (starving) red-neck from Oklahoma, I was more than willing to complain to management. In Spanish, I told the supervising manager that their policy would drive away foreign tourists (U.S. dollars). Knowing the reason was probably theft, I added that punishing your customers was no way for a chef to learn inventory management.
The supervisor personally escorted me back to a table for dinner. My four servers only lacked fanning me with palm-fronds in demonstrating their appreciation. I felt like a cross between Queen Elizabeth and Che Guevara.
2. Using Uber - With Spanish, you can tell a drive which street corner you'll be waiting on and what you're wearing.
Taking Uber without some Spanish would be uncomfortable if not impossible. For one thing, almost all of them drive itty-bitty fuel-efficient cars, which forces you into the front seat, inches from them. Very few of them speak any English. Awkward.
Uber drivers are generally terrific here (Check their ratings when you connect). I collect phone numbers of the ones I really like to hire them off the books now and then for a morning of errands.
A few hours costs 300 pesos (I tip 50 pesos), or about $18. Sometimes I give them 50 pesos to get a cup of coffee if I'll be more than five minutes inside a store or office. They are happy as clams with this arrangement.
You could hire a taxi driver for this too, at about the same cost. More of them speak some English. The low profile of being ferried around by a Uber driver beats taxis by a mile.
I wouldn't drive a car in an Uber town in Mexico even if I had one. Uber drivers have given me plenty of information I need, whether it's where to get a new phone battery or how many buses serve a certain street I'm considering moving to. One even told where to buy the organic oatmeal cookies he made in his other business.
3. The Bureaucratic Process - Imagine yourself working at a consumer agency in the U.S. A consumer comes in with a complaint and speaks no English at all. The next one comes in, speaks some English, and goes on to mention that he studies every day. Which would you be more predisposed to go out of your way for? I often notice a marked difference in reception, even when I mangle the language totally.
4. The Periodontist - Through other expats, you will probably always be able to get the name of a competent medical professional who speaks English. Many doctors, dentists, and specialists were trained in the U.S.
That being said and knowing the effort it takes to learn and retain a second language, I'm not sure if you will always have "best-specialists-who-speak-English" as a subset of "Best Specialists" in every category, everywhere.
In this case, the doctor didn't speak English, but his assistants and receptionist did. If I didn't speak Spanish, I might not have called to make the appoint at all having heard he didn't.
5. The Teenage Girl - Without Spanish, I'm not sure if I would have known how to reply because I might not have understood her question. With Spanish, I told her I wasn't too afraid of being attacked while I was holding a steaming bag of dog poop in my hand. (I might have said boiling poop but she got my point, laughed and re-joined her group).
I am far from bilingual. When I focus, my Spanish is quite good. When I forget that I have to think and talk at the same time (which no human does consistently), I might as well be speaking Mandarin. Yet, learning Spanish has made a profound difference in my life here.
Do it for your brain
Studies have shown that learning a second language outperforms any "brain-game" program in improving your memory, perception, and decision-making. It staves off Alzheimer's and dementia.
A friend once advised me. "If doing something can help you and has no downside, it's a no-brainer."
If you still don't know if you're moving to a Spanish-speaking country, Learn it to exercise your brain while you decide. You can't lose. The worst that could happen is your brain will thank you.
When you start a physical exercise program, you dread the effort at first, in spite of its manifold benefits. Once you realize some gains - you feel better, you lose some weight, you fit your clothes better, it becomes a habit. Finally, it becomes a habit you enjoy because you've received so much in return.
Learning Spanish is like that. Once you expressed an abstract idea in Spanish the first time, conquered the many uses of "llevar," or made a friend who doesn't speak English, studying becomes more fun.
And when you go the next step and speak it in a Spanish-speaking country to disarm someone with a bag of dog poop, you will realize your how much your investment has contributed to making your days cheaper, safer and easier to control.
Kerry Baker is the author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best free online tools to learn Spanish, with sample lesson plans to help you create a different learning experience every day. Most recently she released "If Only I Had a Place," a guide to renting in Mexico luxuriously for less.