Want to Expat? Don’t (part 3)Language Skills…

Here in part 3 of the expat series we discuss language in ones adopted country, and the difficulty of assimilating without it. If you’re fluent, or even conversant in the language of your chosen expat locale, that will help quite a bit in the process of settling in. For those (of us) who are still working on language skills, the deficiency affects everything. For purposes of this piece I’ll cite Spanish as the language to be acquired, since Spanish-speaking countries make up so many potential expat locations.

Why learn the language with so many English-speakers around? This question is tossed around a fair amount within expat communities. Indeed, some folks seek an expat locale based on the prevalence of English speakers there. It depends on what you want, of course. But if your intention is to learn the culture, the people, their values, history, and the disposition of the country, then conversing with local people is priceless.

Phrases heard around this issue include: ‘I don’t need Spanish because I know bilingual people,’ or ‘I can’t learn Spanish at my age,’ or ‘I’d rather not spend the time/effort/money.’

Here’s one reason expats should make the effort: It’s impossible to separate language from culture. Like all languages, Spanish contains expressions, idioms, nuances, and assorted localisms that can enrich our understanding of the people. When in Antioquia Colombia, for example, using the expression of mild alarm, ‘Ave Maria pues!’ will guarantee the delight of nearby Colombianos who will immediately brand the speaker an ‘honorary paisa.’ Another example, this one involving a bit of fun, could be easily duplicated by others: A friend recently misused a common expression, giving a few local folks a chuckle: In éspanol, one way to apologize is to say, ‘que pena,’ Our friend got it wrong and said, ‘que peni.’ So instead of ‘what a pain,’ they said, ‘what a penis.’ Ah, those pesky vowels!

It works both ways: Spanish speakers return the favor by producing their own cringe worthy artifacts. The featured photo says it all to an English speaker. I took it during a Caribbean cruise, when the ocean breeze was a bit high. I’m sure the creator of the sign didn’t realize the nuance involved. Que pena! And thanks for chuckle.

What’s the value in learning Spanish? Even if it’s just Dick & Jane Spanish, trying to speak in public tells local people you’re making the effort. They appreciate it, and they help us in any way they can. Indeed, many people we meet here have a lot of interest in learning English, so the opportunity for reciprocity is always present.

One of the hardest things about becoming expats was the language. But perhaps more than that was acknowledging missed opportunities in the past to learn it, times we could have studied Spanish growing up, or well before the actual move as expats. It’s a shame that Spanish isn’t begun alongside English beginning in grade school. According to Wikipedia: With over 50 million native and second language speakers, the US now has the second largest Spanish-speaking population in the world after Mexico.

Language skills are good for self-esteem, for use in travel, and in learning additional languages. Plus, those skills always look good on a résumé.

An additional value in learning another language is understanding more about your own. If you’re trying to learn Spanish, it’s important to understand grammar, the nuts and bolts of any language. So while learning Spanish, you may finally understand what a noun is, a verb, a participle, an adverb, and a gerund. You’ll find out about verb conjugation, tenses, person, number etc., and thus have a better appreciation for language itself. Is it hard? Is water wet?

Tips on learning a new language. There are many venues out there, some better than others, and many are free. One thing to remember is that everyone learns in a different way, some by reading; some by computerized, interactive methods; some by writing and reading in the language itself. Kris, our friend from Panama has blogged about learning Spanish a number of times in her blog The Panama Adventure: https://tinyurl.com/y5kk3ekv

For me, the best way to learn Spanish has been threefold: I’ve hired a private teacher; I take a lot of taxis; I use openlanguageexchange.com. The last site offers access, for free, to people who want to learn another language, and will Skype with you on a schedule of your choice.

When my wife and I use public transportation we try to engage drivers and other passengers in an impromptu language class. It can be awkward and tiring, especially if the native speaker insists on using their five-alarm, firehouse Spanish. In that case, a simple ‘mas despacio, por favor,’ ‘more slowly please,’ often suffices. Usually. For perhaps eight seconds.

If you think you’re too old to learn a language, take comfort in the body of research showing that such learning benefits brain health. If your learning style is watching TV, or listening to recordings, or going to Spanish language movies, find those video offerings with subtitles. Most YouTube selections offer an audio slowdown feature that retards speech by several percent. I use this feature a lot, especially with speakers addressing technical issues.

I mentioned my private tutor, a guy named Daniel. He’s not only smart; he’s a great Spanish teacher, fully bilingual, and something of a movie and restaurant connoisseur. Daniel’s advice to a friend and fellow student was to avoid putting a burden on yourself, to stop thinking you’ve got to learn the language overnight. That will take all the fun out of it, and it could even be counterproductive. No empujes el río, don’t push the river.

Need some good news? Unlike English with its brain-rattling array of double-use words, nuanced expressions, and many-shades-of-A pronunciation, ALL Spanish vowels are ALWAYS pronounced the same. Always. A is always AH; E is always EY; I is always EE, for example. No exceptions.

Learning Spanish was (is) damn hard work. But it’s been vale la pena! (worth the effort). We’re now able to converse with taxi drivers, to make our way through the checkout and bill pay line, and to navigate the ticket booth at the Metro station. It’s very gratifying, especially when native Spanish speakers actually understand what we’re saying, and respond accordingly.

One last thing: Learning a new language está muy divertido! (is a lot of fun) Si, es verdad! (yes, it’s true!) Hasta luego, y buen suerte. (See you next time, and good luck.)

Byron & Mariah Edgington live in Medellin Colombia. Contact them at medellinretirement.com.