Many people hope that moving to a foreign country will automatically rewire their brain for high-speed language learning. Just a few months in Mexico, and you’ll be chatting casually in Spanish with your next-door neighbor! Unfortunately, learning to speak a foreign language isn’t so easy for most of us. Learning Spanish takes time, patience, and practice. If you are starting from scratch, you’ll probably need to take classes, spend some serious time repeating your verb conjugations and practicing grammar, and tuck away your initial self-consciousness as you practice your halting Spanish on (hopefully) understanding strangers.Yes, it takes some work, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Learning to speak Spanish will offer you a much richer and more fluid experience in Mexico.
Most people come to Mexico with the intention of learning or improving their Spanish. The biggest stumbling block for most well-intentioned foreigners is the prevalence of English spoken in Mexico. Because the country’s gross domestic product (and many local economies) relies heavily on tourism, most people in the service industry speak at least conversational English. Many of Mexico’s primary and secondary schools are bilingual (and those that aren’t usually require English classes), so even those who don’t work in the tourist industry are likely to know a little bit of English. Among the educated classes, speaking English is almost universal, and many people take frequent trips to the United States. Especially in social situations, it’s tempting to simply chat in your native tongue rather than plow slowly through verb conjugations.
For the same reason, learning to speak Spanish isn’t a necessity in Mexico. Plenty of foreign residents live in the country for decades but have never moved beyond the basics required to order food in a restaurant or direct a taxi to their home. Many of these people love Mexico, have Mexican acquaintances, and have taken beginning language classes. However, most of these people would tell you that they’re missing out by not being able to use the language.
Yes, it takes some work, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Learning to speak Spanish will offer you a much richer and more fluid experience in Mexico. To begin with, Spanish is the official language used in all contracts and official documents. Being able to understand and read a bit of Spanish will help you navigate immigration paperwork, housing negotiations, and daily chores without making too many mistakes or hiring someone to help you. Despite the prevalence of English in Mexico, you may still find yourself in a position where you absolutely need to explain something to someone— say, an immigration official at the airport—in Spanish. For anything official, it helps to have some ability with the language.
Socially, speaking Spanish will open up the possibility of creating friendships in the local community without being limited by your language skills. Speaking only English does not preclude the possibility of having Mexican friends, but it certainly limits you to English-speaking people and functions. Finally, learning to speak Spanish is a matter of respect. Anywhere in the world, immigrants are expected to learn the basics they need to communicate with locals. And, just like anywhere else, Mexicans wonder at people who live a long time in their country without learning to speak Spanish.
The good news is, Mexico is an excellent place to learn Spanish. People in Mexico are generally friendly and patient when newcomers are practicing the language. Despite some regional accents, most Mexicans speak clear and easy-to-understand Spanish, with nice phonetic pronunciation. You might also notice that Mexicans often tell stories with animated hand gestures, which can make it all the easier to follow the course of conversation. Best of all, there are many inexpensive and high-quality language schools throughout the country where you can get excellent Spanish instruction at any level.
Language Schools in Mexico
- Centro de Enseñanza Para Extranjeros (Foreign Student Teaching Center): Av. Universidad 3002, Ciudad Universitaria, México D.F., tel. 55/5622-2470, fax 55/5616-2672
- Frida Spanish School: Insurgentes Sur #307, Colonia Hipodromo, México D.F., tel. 55/5264-7018
- Instituto Chac-Mool: Privada de la Pradera #108, Colonia Pradera, Cuernavaca, Morelos, U.S. tel. 530/622-4262 or 866/439-9634, spanish@chac‑mool.com
Guadalajara and Lake Chapala
- Centro de Estudios Para Extranjeros (Foreign Student Study Center): Universidad de Guadalajara, Tomás V. Gómez 125, Colonia Ladrón de Guevara, Guadalajara, Jalisco 44600, tel. 33/3616-4399
- IMAC Spanish Language Programs: Donato Guerra 180, Guadalajara, Jalisco, tel. 33/3613-1080, U.S. and Canada tel. 866/306 5040
San Miguel de Allende
The Yucatán Peninsula
- Playa del Carmen Language Institute: Condominio Hacienda del Cármen Depto. A2, Calle 14 bis, Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo
- Institute of Modern Spanish: Calle 15 #500B X 16A y 18, Col. Maya, Mérida, Yucatán, tel. 999/911-0790, U.S. tel. 877/463-7432
- Habla: Calle 26 #99 B, Col. México, Mérida, Yucatán, tel. 999/948-1872, U.S. tel. 401/374-3237
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Mexico.