The Space for Expatriates
Something that really makes me mad is when people say that children learn so much faster than adults. In fact, we adults (I use that term loosely for me) often use this as an excuse to avoid trying something all together.
It just seems like they learn faster because we don’t hold them to the same level of accountability that we hold ourselves. If a child is just starting to speak and says “I runned to the store.”--we don’t hit his desk with a pointer, or scream that he was wrong. We just let him continue talking, because we knew what he meant, and he’ll learn in time that the word is actually “ran”.
That isn’t to say, we should never correct kids (or adults). We should. It’s just... there’s a time and a place. If we stopped them every time they made a little mistake, it would really kill their momentum (probably causing more mistakes), hurt their confidence, stunt their growth, and be completely unnecessary because we understood perfectly what they said.
So when you’re in Mexico, act like a child. Get things wrong. Speak incorrectly. The important thing is: you speak.
I read a quote recently, I don’t remember the specifics or who said it, but this was the gist:
Studying a language is unique because when you know just fifty percent, you can still get the job done. If you half-know how to type, you can’t type. If you half-know how to do addition, you can’t do addition. But if you can half-speak Spanish, you can still get a taco. (I totally changed the ending there!)
This is the most important tip I’m going to share with you. If you only follow one tip, please make it this one. Not following this tip is the most common error I see when I travel--and the number one reason that most people who start to learn Spanish never end up speaking it.
You’re never going to be able to learn Spanish in it’s entirety, it’s much better to break it into the smallest chunks possible. If you want to buy a SIM card for your phone, you don’t need to know how to conjugate verbs and speak in complete sentences. You just need the words you’ll need at the phone store to buy your prepaid SIM card.
Right before you go to the phone store, sit down and imagine how the scene will go, using the fewest words possible.
You can walk in and say “I’m looking for a prepaid phone card for my mobile phone.” or you could just ask “Prepaid phone card?”
Notice this was a yes/no question? Ask yes/no questions as often as you can--or questions that result in a number. That way, it’s much easier to understand their answers.
After you ask “Prepaid phone card?” they’ll answer with yes or no. If it’s “no”, just go to the next phone store. If it’s “yes”, the next logical question is “How much does it cost?” Now, they’ll answer with a number.
SIM cards usually come with credit, that’s nice to know. Just ask, “With credit?” Again, they’ll answer with a yes or a no. Then you can ask again, “How much does it cost?” Now, they’ll answer with a number.
See how this works? If that’s enough information for you, great. But if it were me, I’d want to know more. How much does a minute cost? How much does internet cost? For how many megabytes? And after that?
If they start talking a bunch of gibberish that you don’t understand, just politely interrupt them and ask one of your questions again. That’ll remind them that you don’t understand well, and to keep their answers simple--yes, no or a number.
Pretty easy, right? Here’s the cool part. To ask all those questions, you just need to know 14 simple words and the numbers (which can be written down for clarity).
prepaid = prepago
card = tarjeta
How much does it cost? = Cuánto cuesta?
with credit = con crédito
minute = minuto
megabyte = mega
gigabyte = giga
And after that? = Y después de eso?
for = por
With just 14 words, you can ask all the questions you’d need to ask at the phone store. Now, this description was for me. If something else is important to you, learn the words for that. If internet isn’t important to you, don’t worry about those words.
For the next situation, just do the same thing. Sit down and imagine how the scenario will play out. What do you want? What do you need? What would you say or ask in English to get that? Look up those words and go use them right away.
This tip is also very important and is, in many ways, intertwined with the first tip. You don’t have to get anything perfect for it to work.
Let’s start with conjugation. Most grammar books start hammering you with different conjugations right from the start. Conjugation is when you take a verb like “to want” and put it in different forms based on the subject: I want, you want, he wants, etc.
In Spanish, there are many different forms, with tons of rules, and just as many exceptions. It’s not easy. But don’t worry about that at first--it usually doesn’t matter.
To prove this point, I recently video recorded myself ordering a hamburger at five different McDonalds--it was just me every time.
The first time, I said “I want one hamburger, please.” The second time, I said “He wants one hamburger.” The third time, “We want one hamburger please.” The fourth time, “We will want one hamburger.” Then the final time, “She wanted one hamburger.”
You can check out the videos here: http://gringoespanol.com/mexico-myspace/ (it’s video #1)
I conjugated the verb five different ways (only the first one was correct) but I got my hamburger every single time. They might have thought I was weird, but I still got my hamburger--and that’s all that matters.
Next is the whole word order thing. Spanish is confusing because usually the adjective comes after the noun. So we say “good boy” and they say “boy good”. It’s confusing and hard to do at first, but no matter what order you put the words, they’re going to understand you.
I went back to McDonalds again to prove this point too. I put my adjectives in exactly the WRONG order. “One burger cheese double.” She didn’t hesitate for a second, she just repeated what I said (but correctly) before I confirmed, again incorrectly, “Yes, one burger cheese double.”
Check out that video, it’s pretty funny: http://gringoespanol.com/mexico-myspace/ (it’s video #2)
Another difficult aspect of Spanish is the whole masculine/feminine thing. In English, our nouns are just nouns. But in Spanish, some nouns are feminine, some nouns are masculine, and some nouns can be both! Where it gets complicated is, you have to match all the words in that sentence to the noun.
For example, “Coca Cola” is feminine, so if you wanted “another Coca Cola” you would say “otra Coca Cola”. There are two ways to say “another” in Spanish, “otro” and “otra”. In this case, “otra” is correct because it’s feminine and so is “Coca Cola”.
But take a look at this third video, I was at a restaurant in Spain and wanted “another Coca Cola”. I should have said “otra Coca Cola” but I messed up and said “otro Coca Cola”: http://gringoespanol.com/mexico-myspace/ (it’s video #3)
I clearly ordered “Otro Coca Cola.” But he didn’t flinch. He didn’t bat an eye. He just confirmed “Coca Cola?” and I got my Coke.
If you follow my first two tips (or don’t) I can guarantee there will come a time when things won’t go perfectly, and you’ll feel like a complete idiot. They won’t understand you, you won’t understand them, or you just won’t be able to get what you need.
When this happens, the most important thing to remember is: DON’T QUIT! This just goes with the territory--and it’s actually a GOOD SIGN.
Seriously, when this happens, it means you’re putting yourself into new, challenging situations. No pain, no gain, right? If you don’t get what you want, identify the reason why (or more specifically, the words), go home, look up those words, and try again! It’s really that simple.
That isn’t to say you should just go home the second things don’t go perfectly--try to salvage the situation. If you’re in the streets asking for directions and things don’t go smoothly, just look for another person and try again.
If you’re in the phone store and they don’t understand you, repeat your words, but try saying them in a different way. Point. Motion. It’s horrible and so much fun--all at the same time! No matter what you do though, please don’t think you’re an idiot and quit. That’s what most people do.
The truth is, a lot of times, it won’t be your fault. Some people just understand foreigners better than others (or they just try harder). I know after I started learning Spanish, I started talking to foreigners differently in English. I spoke slower and more clearly. I used simple words when possible. I had more empathy. I was better at talking with foreigners than before.
The same goes for them. You could ask a question a certain way to one person, and be understood perfectly. Then you go to a second person, ask the same question in exactly the same way, and they look at you like you’re the dumbest person in the world.
It might be your fault, it might not be. Just try to say the same thing a different way, or go to the next person.
Then there are the accents. Obviously, different countries speak with different accents. But even within a country, everybody talks differently. Just like in the States or in Canada, some people talk fast, some slow, some speak clearly, some jumble their words. Youngsters speak with slang. Old people talk slower.
It’s the same in Mexico.
If you ask a question to somebody and understand ZERO of what they say, it doesn’t mean you won’t understand those exact words from the next person. So go to the next person!
As the title of this article says, I failed Spanish in high school. While I did retake it a couple years later and passed, when I showed up in Holland for my final semester of college, I couldn’t speak a word to my 25 new Spanish dorm mates. I talked to the ones who spoke English, but not the others. I didn’t have a choice.
It was a few weeks later that I decided: I have an opportunity here--living with all these awesome Spanish people, who looked like they were always having such a great time--I’m going to learn Spanish. No seriously, I’m going to learn Spanish.
And so I did. I ordered a grammar book and some practice books from Amazon.co.uk. I poured over them. I really dedicated myself 100% for five months to learning Spanish--in Holland!
People always think that’s interesting, that I learned Spanish in Holland. When they ask how I did it, I always answer the same way: I made flashcards to memorize words. Then, when my Spanish friends got home from school, I rushed to their rooms to try out my new words on them.
I carried a little notebook everywhere I went. When I heard or saw a word I didn’t know, I wrote it down in my notebook. When I wanted to say something but couldn’t, I wrote it down in my notebook. I’m talking about those little, teeny notebooks, that fit in your pocket.
Every morning, I would start by taking all the words in my notebook and making a flashcard for it. Spanish on one side. English on the other. But I didn’t just use the flashcards any old way. Definitely not. I made it a game. I call it The Flashcard Strategy.
The details of The Flashcard Strategy are beyond the scope of this article. If you’re interested in the details, go to http://gringoespanol.com/flashcard-strategy/. There’s a video and a written description of The Flashcard Strategy there.
But in short, The Flashcard Strategy is designed with two things in mind:
Help you learn Spanish words as quickly as possible, but in a way that you can still remember them when you need them.
Make memorizing Spanish words fun.
Let’s talk about the second point real quickly. You might have rolled your eyes when you read that. I probably would have if I hadn’t written it!
But it’s true. I’ve written a Travel Spanish book and created an online Travel Spanish video crash course. In both the book and the course, I teach my students The Flashcard Strategy (among many other things) and tell them to email me anytime with questions, problems, success stories or failure stories.
One of the most common emails I get from my students is them telling me how much they like making and using flashcards--often accompanied by a picture of their table covered with index cards, word lists and pens.
I love this so much. Not because they’re listening to what I say (that’s nice too!) but because I know: people that take the time to make flashcards are ten times more likely to end up using the words when they need them in real life.
There’s more to The Flashcard Strategy than just memorizing the words. By using flashcards, then gamifying it like we do, you’ll be building your confidence immensely--and feeling damn good in the process! I called it The Spanish High.
If you don’t want to go to my website and read all the details, do this at the very minimum:
Start by going from Spanish to English first--it’s much easier than English to Spanish. If you go through your cards Spanish to English first, not only will you be successful faster, thus building your confidence, but when it’s time to go the other way, English to Spanish, it’ll be much easier than it would have been before.
I feel cheesy just writing that, and I know it to be true, so I can’t imagine what you’re thinking right now. But don’t let the cheesiness make you throw it out as garbage or untrue. It is very much true. Let me explain.
I use the word “smile” to mean “smile” literally, but also to symbolize “be confident” and “don’t be all jiggity”.
“Smile” and “confident” you probably understand. Upon seeing the word “jiggity” written down just now, I went over to Google to see if it was a real word or one that I made up.
According to urbandictionary.com (the only dictionary that matters), “jiggity” means “An expression for something ascew, messy, broken, poorly crafted, in dissaray or anything else the way it shouldn't be.”
I’ve spent the majority of the last four years traveling, mainly in Latin America and Spain. I’ve sat at bars, cafes, restaurants, and hotel lobbies and watched tourist after tourist enter and try to speak some Spanish. Some spoke Spanish well, some did not.
But regardless of their Spanish level, the ones that came in and didn’t act all “jiggity” are the ones that had the most success--the smoothest conversations.
When you walk in, obviously all nervous and stressed out (even if you’re speaking English), it makes the other person more nervous too. So if you act all “jiggity” then they’ll act all “jiggity” and your conversation will end up being all “jiggity” (awkward).
To avoid this, just walk in, smile, and be confident. Most people who are all “jiggity” usually laugh when I say that, “be confident”. They think it’s impossible. That they can’t do it. How do you just “be” confident?
Easy. At first, just fake it. When I’m not feeling confident (and trust me, just because I’m writing this article doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen--it happens all the time!) I just fake it.
I walk in, put a smile on my face (as opposed to the deer stuck in headlights look that most tourists/travelers have) and act like a confident person.
How does a confident person act? Confident people smile. Confident people say “hello”. Confident people look other people in the eyes. Confident people ask a question when they have one.
So that’s what I do. When I’m not feeling like King of the World, I just fake it. I make sure I smile, I go over the words I’m about to use, I enter, I give a nice, big “HOLA!” then I either do what I’m going to do or ask what I want to ask.
I know this is easier said than done, but you’ll get better with practice--and practice is the name of the game for everything I talked about today.
Even if it’s just 14 words, you won’t be perfect at the beginning. Don’t expect to be. Practice. Get better every time. Piece by piece. Word by word. Situation by situation.
Master the phone store. Master the bus station. Master the butcher. Master the taquería. Before you know it, when somebody asks you, “Do you speak Spanish?” you just might be able to confidently answer “Yes, I do speak Spanish.”