Monday, January 12, 2009

#10 -- comprende

"If you cannot speak Spanish, you will never live in Mexico. You may reside in Mexico, but you will never live there."

That is how I started a post (
key to culture) last July following my visit to Melaque. On the list of most-commented posts for 2008, it came in fifth.

But this is undoubtedly the most important thing I need to do before I head south (and to continue after I am there) -- I must learn to speak Spanish for two very good reasons.

First, I need to learn Spanish to survive in Melaque. Melaque is not Puerto Vallarta or Cancun. Even though it is a beach resort town; it is a Mexican resort -- for Mexicans. This is one of the beaches people from Guadalajara come when they need to soak their toes in the briny Pacific. Shopkeepers do not need to know English to survive. Customers need to know Spanish to eat.

Is it possible to get by without learning Spanish? Of course. There are bilingual folks willing to be blessed with our dollars as a tax on our own ignorance. But that approach strikes me as the height of intellectual sloth. Why pay for something that not only can be learned, but can also be fun to learn?

Second, every society communicates with language. Until a visitor can speak that language, he will miss out on everything that people say. Until the visitor can think in that language, he will miss what people really mean.

I doubt that a person raised in one culture can ever truly understand another culture. However, there is no possibility of learning basic Mexican culture without the ability to think in Spanish.

I am not yet there. I have bought some of the best language programs. I have listened to movies in Spanish. I have tried conversing in Spanish with my Mexican friends at church.

The result? I swear I know less now than I did six months ago. But I am going to persevere by sticking to my schedule of reviewing my Spanish lessons. And, of course, I will continue to read
Mexico Bob.

It is impossible to pick up a language merely by being around it. I laugh when I hear people say "I'll just pick it up" -- as if Spanish were a quart of milk or the flu, rather than a language.

Three months is not enough time, but I can also continue to study in Melaque.


Michael Dickson said...

1. Of course it´s possible to learn a language simply by being around it. It´s how almost all people do it.

2. Learning Spanish is not fun. It is work. But it´s important work.

Steve Cotton said...

Michael -- I think most people who use the "I'll pick it up method" are not willing to live by your second observation. Once they realize that learning is still heavy lifting, they stop picking up anything but a light noun here and there. But I agree with you; the best method of learning is how children learn: watching and listening as others speak the language, then applying it without fear. It is that last step where adults mess up -- and it is the area that is tripping me up right now.

Calypso said...

I agree with Michael - there is no better way to learn Spanish than to immerse yourself in the culture.

I am encouraged by reports from my ONLY Spanish speaking friends and neighbors that I am improving by a large measure over the last four years.

I have several Spanish lesson programs - they help - but there is nothing like putting those into action ;-)


ken kushnir said...

Yep it's hard work, but you will have some undisturbed time hopefully and a pretty good motivator. Or you might meet someone who will give you private lessons.
Everyone needs a goal in life, you have found another one.
Good Luck!

Bob Mrotek said...

Thanks for the shout-out but if you or anyone else out there is looking for an excellent way to begin then I suggest that you check out the following free resource:

This young man is a High School Spanish teacher who makes the best U-Tube like videos of Spanish lessons that I have ever seen. If you go through a couple of his videos every day and memorize the related vocabulary you should be well on your way to a good start in Spanish by the time you move to Mexico. I heartily applaud your intention to learn the language. It will make life in your new home all that much more interesting and rewarding. Some people think I am "pushy" about learning the language. Yup, they are right :)

On Mexican Time said...

You will learn it as soon as you are surrounded by it 24/7... You have no choice, believe me!

Somedays, you will want to rip your hair out, and one day you wake up and realize " I speak spanish"!!!!

Steve Cotton said...

Calypso -- You and Michael are correct, of course. And that is one of the problems I am experiencing. What I learn, I am not currently able to use. It is frustrating. But I am also being lazy about the whole thing.

Ken -- There is an American in my Sunday school class. He speaks great Spanish. When I asked how he learned so quickly, he pointed to his girl friend from Oxaca. He needed to learn to get a date. The two of them are now married and expecting their first child. Women can get us to do just about anything.

Bob -- I am using Jordan's site. He is a very good teacher. Unfortunately, as good as YouTube is, I cannot have a real conversation with him. But I am going to keep plodding through.

On Mexican Time -- Thanks for the encouraging word. At the rate I am going, I think I will wake up one morning not being able to remember how to speak any language. I will hanng in there.

Larry Prater said...

Steve, you will not need to go to LA to get your account at Citibank (Banamex USA). Everything can be done by mail and telephone except after you get your Banamex account, you have to sign a form to link your two accounts, and this has to be done by mail or fax, as they require your signature.

Theresa in Mèrida said...

Steve, if you have to learn Spanish you will learn Spanish. Most people only learn enough Spanish to get by. What that means is different for everyone. If English is rare in Melaque you will find yourself using more and more Spanish.
By the way, Husband says that sometimes when he is trying to remember a Spanish word, the German word comes to him. It's like his brain is offering up foreign words asking "is it this?".
I also think that going through that stage where you feel like you know less means that you know realize how little you knew. For example if you only knew how to say things in the present tense, and for the future said "voy ha" (I am going to), and now you can use future tense, wow, you have to make choices where before you only had to know the verb.
See this is very confusing, and I think I am not getting my point across at all.

Anonymous said...

Don't be discouraged if it takes a while. I personally learn languages fairly easily, took Spanish in high school (many years back), but it took me a few years of intensive study beginning again in 2004 before I felt comfortable talking on the phone, etc, in Spanish.

But they key is persistence, and practice, practice, practice. And I'd include regular reading in Spanish to that "practice" bit. Reading is critical.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where a cursory knowledge of Portuguese would also be handy.

CancunCanuck said...

Steve- Do what you can before you come, having some background will help you but as others have said, you need to be immersed to really "get" it. You may be able to write "Mi perro tiene pulgas", but being able to have a conversation is a whole other "bola de cera". ;-)

The best "school" I attended for Spanish was in the seat of the taxis I used to take everyday. Number one, how to give directions in Spanish, you must know how to say where you live and where you want to go. Number two, "Where are you from, why are you here, what do you do" small talk that always happens in taxis is applicable everywhere! Number three, "I'm happily married, please leave me alone and get your hands off my leg". Er, perhaps you won't need that one. Not that you are not attractive, ahem, but you know what I'm saying. :)

Steve Cotton said...

Larry -- You are correct. I just got confirmation that the trip to LA can come off my list. I am going to finish up that process in just a bit.

Theresa -- You got your point across perfectly. And I understand what your husband is experiencing. I came up with a sentence containig Spanish, German, Greek, and Russian not too long ago. I wanted a foreign word; my brain complied.

Kim -- I have been reading the Psalms in Spanish. It helps. But poetic constructions are not as helpful as newspaper Spanish. Living alone may also help. Most of my contacts are going to be Spanish-speakers. The danger is turning into a computer hermit.

CancunCanuck -- Loved your "bola de cera." I have taken several American idioms and translated them directly -- much to the amusement of Mexican friends. I will remember your third example -- just in case I hear it uttered as the purse busts my nose.

Paul and Robyn said...

I too am trying to learn spanish before moving there full time. I have been reading your blog and look forward to more post. You can check us out at

Steve Cotton said...

Robyn -- I enjoyed my quick view of your blog. I will go back and look at it in more depth.

Laurie said...

Learn your Spanish! Of course, living in Mexico will force you to learn a lot. I agree with another commentator that spoke about becoming a computer hermit. That's a danger for me, too. That's one reasons why I am on a break from blogging. Get out and enjoy Mexico as much as you can.

Steve Cotton said...

Laurie -- Good points all.