What it’s Like to Know Spanish in Latin America

montanita

When I went to China I had to communicate mostly with my hands, pointing, pictures, and carrying around the business cards of my hostel so I can take a taxi back. In Latin America, I can just hop into a taxi cab and tell him or her to take me where the party is at. Two completely different experiences.

I can speak spanish because half of my family is from Argentina so I was raised bilingual. I went to Argentina several times as a child and in the last few years traveled extensively around South America. It’s an amazing continent and luckily for me, knowing spanish in South America can drastically change ones experience of this place.

What makes things so different is the fact that I can talk to the locals.

I feel confident traveling in Latin America. I’m very rarely in uncomfortable situations where I don’t know what’s going on and I can easily go wherever I need to go.

I was in Bolivia once on a train ride to Oruro. I sat in the dining car with a beer and behind me was a guy by himself. I don’t remember how it happened but we ended up talking for hours. Conversations about Bolivian culture, what to eat, what to drink, where to go, and I started talking about the US too. I had a similar experience in Thailand on my train ride but it was so difficult to have a conversation that we stuck to the basics and it was often so tiring to understand and talk to each other that there was sometimes an awkward silence.

The biggest different between traveling here and let’s say Asia is that at least in Asia no one expects me to know the local language. One quick look at me and they won’t even bother trying to have an intense conversation with me. Instead, they slow things down and try to be as helpful as they can be without talking much or use the limited amount of words they know in English. In Latin America however, everyone expects me to know spanish (especially if I don’t shave for a week). This must be tough for those that don’t know spanish.

It’s pretty great for me. I can go to any local restaurant and ask them what they recommend. I can joke around with the locals and get to know them. I’m great at bargaining. I can ask anyone on the street for directions. I’m more aware of my surroundings because I can understand everything happening around me. I can go easily go off the beaten path. And best of all, I’m experiencing everything as local as they can be.

As a child, I didn’t appreciate the fact that I knew spanish and sometimes even avoided it. Now I’m grateful to have been raised bilingual. Huge thank you to my family for that.

20 Comments

  1. Thomas Dembie on May 7, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Great post! I couldn’t agree more. I was raised in a house speaking both French and English. Living in France provided me with opportunities that others, who don’t speak the language, would never get. That said, I also think it’s very important to learn a few words/sentences of the local language wherever you are. I find people open up and definitely appreciate the effort.

    • Michael on May 7, 2013 at 7:28 pm

      Yes, I agree. Knowing just a few words and sentences can go such a long way.

  2. Megan on May 7, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    This is so timely- I’ve been thinking about how I REALLY need to up my Spanish game. I’ve spent time in Costa Rica & Colombia- In Costa Rica, I lived with a local family who didn’t know much English. It definitely made for some funny interactions/experiences, but I can’t help but think how much richer it would have been had my Spanish been better. Thankfully, everyone in the small town was SO nice and helpful toward me, & I picked up bits and pieces. Then, in Colombia, I got mugged…dealing with the police after that debacle was a mess. Huzzah for Google Translator! (Seriously- it saved the day)

    • Michael on May 7, 2013 at 7:27 pm

      I bet you were learning Spanish really fast staying with a local family. That’s a really great idea.
      Sorry to hear about what happened in Colombia though 🙁

  3. Tripologist on May 7, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    Becoming fluent in Spanish is one of my life goals. I used to be able to carry a conversation with locals without having to think about it, though I definitely wouldn’t say I was fluent. I’ve let it slide since I left college. Hoping to spend some time in Mexico and pick it back up again.

    • Michael on May 7, 2013 at 7:26 pm

      That happens to me too. Sometimes if I haven’t spoken Spanish for awhile I lose it a bit but it comes back really fast after a few conversations.

  4. Raul on May 7, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Honestly, so glad to have met you, and so glad you speak the language. It made travelling in Mexico so much easier!

    • Michael on May 7, 2013 at 7:25 pm

      Glad to have meet you too! We had a great time in Puebla, Mexico. I really want to make a massive trip out of exploring as much of Mexico as possible.

  5. Maximuz on May 8, 2013 at 10:39 am

    I have had similar experiences in Mexico. Do you think that if you looked clearly foreign, they wouldn’t expect it? I have always wondered what Mexico would be like without knowing Spanish.

    • Michael on May 11, 2013 at 7:49 am

      I’d imagine the experience would be very different.

  6. Luke Hartung on May 10, 2013 at 3:41 am

    Spanish is such a useful language to know, I wish I’d picked up more of it myself

  7. Ceizeley on May 10, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    I took some Spanish lessons back home but had to drop from my class because company was sending me to Texas. I thought I would learn more since there are many Latinos here. Still I speak English everywhere and I am about to forget everything that I have learned in Spanish. Anyways, lots of our Tagalog words have rooted from Spanish words. Most of the times, the pronunciation just makes the difference..

    But I still prefer a native Spanish, especially my Spanish friend, pronouncing my name “The-thee-lia”. I love it!

    • Michael on May 11, 2013 at 7:38 am

      You should look into Spanish lessons where you are in Texas. I’m sure they have it. Or a community that just gets together for a few drinks and talks spanish.

  8. Katie Baxter on May 15, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Learning Swahili in Kenya was funny because no one expected me to understand them…. I overheard the funniest comments in Swahili and one of my favourite moments was when one woman was watching me chop up a fresh mango and said to her friend ‘that girl has no clue what she is doing, do you think we should ask if she needs help?’ then laughed so much. I just laughed along and said in Swahili ‘no thank you I’m ok haha’ and the look on their faces was classic!

  9. Bonnie on May 28, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Thanks for the post. I hardly ever use my Spanish, but I’ll need it in Spain during a monthly long walking trip. I’m used to Mexican Spanish, so I’ll have to get used to the Castilian accent. And then there’s Gallego, which I don’t know at all. Any tips on picking up some basic Gallego?

    • Alek on October 6, 2013 at 11:24 am

      Just learn Portuguese. It’s the most spoken language in South America (by a small margin, which will eventually shift to Spanish), it’s beautiful to listen to, fun to speak, and less people speak it as a second language. That makes it a more valuable tool. Everyone learns Spanish as a second language, but few learn Portuguese.

  10. Kevin Thomas on June 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    I took my first solo trip to Mexico back in the early 90’s not able to speak or understand any Spanish. I loved Oaxaca and Chiapas so much I returned home to settle my responsibilities and returned to Chiapas to live off and on for over 9 years.

    Imagine the surprise on the faces of people when they see a 6’4″ black guy from Detroit speaking and writing fluent Spanish?? LOL.

    I’ve been saved many a hassle by speaking the language and not being the typical tourist. I have had many a great conversation, but there were and are times when I act like I don’t know the language, mostly when someone is asking me a million and one questions about the USA or asking me to translate some horrible song from the USA.

    I’m returning to Mexico in August for the rest of the year.

    • Michael on June 14, 2013 at 1:11 pm

      Steph and I are thinking of going to Mexico by the end of the year too. It’s really great having the freedom to talk to anyone without any language barrier.

  11. Nirel on June 10, 2013 at 1:10 am

    No one in my family speaks Spanish, but I have diligently studied the language throughout high school and in my first year of university. After paying attention in class, joining a conversational club on-campus and making an effort to practice often with Spanish-speaking friends and strangers, I can happily say I speak it fairly well. I’ve never travelled to a Spanish-speaking country (which will change ASAP), but I’m super excited to immerse myself even further in the language and Latin American / Spanish culture once I do — and blog about it!

    -Nirel

    • Michael on June 14, 2013 at 12:53 pm

      That’s great! I don’t think I know anyone that remembered much of Spanish from what they learned in high school. It’s great that you kept up with it.

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