Speaking Spanish in Mexico

Pop quiz – This is a:

a) sub

b) hoagie

c) grinder

d) hero

e) all of the above

This is:

a) soda

b) pop

c) both a and b

The correct answers are “e) all of the above” and “c) both a and b.” For English-speakers in the United States, all the answers are correct, but which term you use depends on where in the country you live. If you live near Canada and ask for a soda, you might end up with sodium bicarbonate. If you live in a state where that sandwich is called a hero and you ask for a hoagie, you might be on the receiving end of a blank stare. And yet, you are all speaking English. The same can be said for any language in any country – German, French, Spanish, Swedish – words, pronunciation and expressions change depending on your location, but I will focus on Mexican Spanish because I live in Mexico.

In high school I studied languages – 4 years of Latin and 2 years of German, plus my mother brought a teacher into our home to teach us girls some Ukrainian, since her parents emigrated from Ukraine. When I reached my 50’s, I decided to begin studying Spanish. At least in New York, general Latin American Spanish is taught, and I have had native speakers from different Latin American countries as teachers.

After moving to Mexico, I realized that I would have to unlearn some of what I had been taught. The first example that comes to mind is the word for beans. I was taught habichuelas, but here they are called frijoles. For a long time, I had to stop and think and pull that word out of my brain when I wanted to say something about beans. Part of the difference between Mexican Spanish and other Latin American countries is that we have 63 indigenous languages here and many of our words descend from Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the region in which I live. A few of the multitude of examples are:

Spanish — Nahuatl — English

Chapulín – chapolin – grasshopper

Aguacate – ahuacatl – avocado

Cacahuate – cacáhuatl – peanut

Chile – chilli – chili pepper

When I first arrived in Mexico, I was able to read and write quite well, and could understand speakers if they spoke slowly, simply and added some visual cues. My spoken language was not very adequate. For reading and writing, you can recognize words from memory and use a dictionary with plenty of time to make sure what you are writing has exactly the meaning you wish to convey.

However, with spoken language, time is of the essence and you have to pull the words and sentence structure out of your memory bank – not to mention correct pronunciation, which can mean the difference between a normal conversation and an embarrassment or insult.

So what was I to do????? First thing, I hired a university student named Tatiana to help me improve my spoken Spanish. Then, once I bought and moved into my house, I had my neighbor Lourdes help me with Spanish grammar. She is a retired primary school teacher, so I was back in a classroom, except the classroom was her house.

I can tell you from experience that being surrounded by native speakers, most of whom speak little or no English, forces you to learn to speak their language. Keep a little notebook with you to write down new phrases or words. If they can’t explain sufficiently to you the meaning, there is always Google dictionary which has improved its accuracy 1000% since I started using it 6 years ago. But keep in mind that dictionaries, whatever their form, still have their limitations. And when translating letters from English to Spanish, I need to use several dictionaries and a thesaurus to get the exact meaning. When translating our students’ letters to their English-speaking sponsors, I sometimes have to ask for help from the directors of the literacy project here.

One example of the latter was being unable to translate “que padre” in my student’s letter. Literally it means “what father” which made absolutely no sense in any context and paper and online dictionaries were no help. I asked one of the directors and he told me it means “cool” as in “wow, that’s cool.” That also illustrates that wherever you live, young people make up expressions of their own (and then change them again when adults start to take over the expression).

Same thing happened when my son was 19. I said something to him and he said, “Mom, that’s sick.” I replied that I thought it was a nice thing and he told me “sick” means “nice.” Some behaviors are universal, I guess…..

Another tip is to describe what you want to say if you can’t think of the word. In the beginning, I still remembered a lot of my German and when I couldn’t think of the Spanish word for something, I would automatically say it in German. Now I force myself to simply describe the object or activity, many times using hand gestures.

Slightly veering off the subject, one of my sisters and I took German in high school from the same teacher. He was originally from Czechoslovakia. It wasn’t until one of my sister’s classmates went to Germany that we discovered we were speaking German with a Czech accent.

Anyway, currently I have weekly conversations with a young lady who lives in the village to improve my spoken Spanish – I say it’s to make my Spanish sound more like that of an adult and less like a child. I continue to write in my little book, and am also reading a children’s book (for age 8 and up) that has more advanced vocabulary, tenses, etc. Some of you may know the Judy Moody books – well, I’m reading Judy Moody is in a Bad Mood (Judy Moody está de Mal Humor). I’ve underlined the more advanced grammar and written in pencil translations of words I don’t know.

I am also practicing what I did when first learning Spanish – making use of Post-It sticky notes. Putting them up in places to commit words to memory. For instance:

As you see from the third photo, pronunciation is very important, plus awareness that different countries use different words for the same thing. Lourdes had never heard of the word “cojones” and had no idea what I was talking about until I explained it to her in detail. So perhaps that word is used in other Latin countries, but not here.

So, to begin to wrap this all up, learning a language is as fun an activity as you make it. Post-Its are great, because you go directly from seeing the object to the word in the desired language without going through English first. Before I ever took my first Spanish class, I bought DVD’s from “Standard Deviants” to get a head start (DVD’s – definitely showing my age). The company still sells instruction in a variety of topics, and for the Spanish, I refer to them as a cross between Monty Python and Sesame Street for adults. If this tells you anything about my philosophy, it is that even if something seems childish to others, as long as it helps you learn, it works, so you should at least try it.

So – Post-Its, children’s books, educational entertainment, and definitely speak with native speakers. Visit the country where the language is spoken if you get the chance (keeping in mind health and safety – Covid, etc.). When I was living in New York, I realized that I would never begin to speak well until I was surrounded by people who didn’t speak English. One of my friends was from Mexico City. She told her family about me, and I stayed with them for two weeks. It was a really good experience, staying with a family, having to learn normal daily conversations, and learn about life in that country.

And lastly, always be kind. If you come into contact with a non-native English-speaker, and they make grammatical errors or don’t know a word, maybe you can repeat what they are saying, but say it correctly. It is a nice way of helping them out. I am grateful that here, I have never – not a single time – had someone be nasty to me for my imperfect Spanish. The people I am close to will simply repeat something I have said with proper Spanish, or fill in the blank with the correct word or phrase if I am unable to think of the correct word or phrase.

So, please, be kind, and if you only speak one language, consider learning another, even just for fun. It opens a whole new world once you begin.

4 thoughts on “Speaking Spanish in Mexico

  1. I always think a person who is speaking English as a second language with any degree of proficiency is way ahead of me, as I only know one language. But I’m working on that using Duolingo. So far I’m getting stronger recognizing written phrases but I think I’ll need to find a person to practice with to transfer it over to listening and speaking, despite the app trying to tackle that too. Fingers crossed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are several programs to learn Spanish. I also studied with Duolingo, and when I got tired of it, I switched to Pimsleur, which I am using now. Sometimes it is good to switch off between different programs occasionally. There are live online tutors with whom you can practice. Here is a list I found online: https://www.verywellfamily.com/best-online-spanish-tutoring-services-4691945 Perhaps your first choice of tutor may or may not work out, but don’t get discouraged. You didn’t mention if the language you are learning is Spanish (I just assumed it from the fact that you read my post), but if it is a different language, you can just Google “live tutors in _____________” (insert the appropriate language). Good luck in your adventure learning a new language….


  2. You made some good points. I especially like the one to describe a word you don’t know instead of stopping your speaking to look something up.


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