Unable to Manage a Basic Spanish Conversation
After spending nearly fifteen years living, working, and traveling in Latin America, I’m still more than a bit surprised by the number of native English-speaking people who have been living in Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, some for decades, and are still unable to manage even a basic conversation in Spanish.
I therefore began to mentally assemble some of the reasons for this lack of conversation skills, and, in addition to my own observations and experiences, came up with this list of the five key reasons why English speakers living in Spanish-speaking countries fail at learning Spanish.This very topic is addressed in the article post “Top Ten Reasons Why Expats Who Live in Japan Don’t Know Japanese” on the website All Japanese, All the Time, and, indeed, many of the reasons for Japanese language learning failure listed there are quite similar to the ones I ultimately list here but with one great difference described later.
1. An English-only Attitude
Immediately upon relocation to the Guadalajara area of Mexico, English speakers are inexorably drawn into the English-speaking community in and around Lake Chapala, which boasts hundreds of thousands of native and near-native English language speakers. No need to struggle with Spanish here. Everything you could ever want or need is available and in English to boot.
This area is by no means unique either. Panama boasts an all-English language ex-patriot community in Boquete near the town of David, Panama’s second-largest city. Products and prices favor the English-speaking retirees and ex-patriots to the point that virtually only they can manage them. Panamanian workers ride in on "collectivos" and buses, then ride back out again at the finish of the day’s work. And why not, they can hardly afford $12 USD for lunch or $5 USD for a cup of coffee.
Add to this that Spanish classes can cost upwards of $50 per lesson hour based on a monthly program and all your English-speaking friends and neighbors in close proximity, and you have a tenable recipe to remain mono-lingual. Likely, you have witnessed the reverse of this in your own country when foreign language speakers immigrate into their own language-based communities or neighborhoods, i.e., Little Italy, Chinatown, Germantown, etc.
2. The “I’m Too Old to Learn a Foreign Language” Syndrome
In many cases in Latin America, the ex-patriots are retirees or the elderly who erroneously think, "I'm too old to learn a foreign language now."
But, to quote Henry Ford, "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right."
So, they trudge on without even making an honest effort at developing real Spanish language communicative skills, age non-withstanding. According to a number of cognitive skills and language development researchers, there is no support for age as a barrier to mental development and learning, including foreign language learning. You could supplement this with a substitution of busy, tired, stressed, important, loaded with responsibility, etc., into the space where "old" is used. They may genuinely think they can't, so they can't.
3. Lack of Good Foreign Language Schools and Foreign Language Teachers
Admittedly, it is more than possible to live in an area where good foreign language schools and foreign language teachers are either in short supply or non-existent. A bad or untrained foreign language teacher can actually do more damage than good in many cases. As adults and parents, we may have to 'teach' our children to communicate in their first language (L1), but that hardly makes us language teachers. Small towns and private communities may not offer the prospective Spanish language learner ample opportunity to develop needed linguistic communications skills.
On the other hand, if you’ve already progressed to a certain point of knowledge and fluency in Spanish, then these very same conditions are actually an aid to further development of your Spanish language speaking skills.
4. Native Spanish Speakers Who Want to “Practice” Their English
There seems to be a never-ending parade of locals who desire to show off or practice their less-than-perfect English language speaking skills the moment they discern that you are a native speaker. From a cab driver's winsome "Where are you from?" to the supermarket clerk; security guard; good-intentioned, curious (or nosey) neighbor to passengers on a bus or in a collective, your speech will attract any and all who have the least smattering of English from any time period of their past. This is no matter how fleeting or distant that smattering of English might have been.
"I speak a little English, too," begins the exchange.
From then on, you’ve been "volunteered" as their personal English language instructor and are doomed unless you can somehow regain the upper hand.
5. Lack of Persistence in Spanish Language Learning Efforts
It happens to the best of us; we try to say something (good) and we’re laughed at, ridiculed or even ignored (bad), so we shut up. We’ll try a private tutor, not progress well enough for our expectations, and stop altogether. We’ll listen to the radio, watch TV programs or videos, attend sporting events, and get "blown out" by an overwhelming wave of colloquial speech that leaves us incredulous—end of Spanish language learning efforts. We’ll try reading a magazine article, novel, or newspaper, and then be unable to find irregular verb conjugations, idioms and expressions, or aspects of connected speech in our flimsy little paper-back bilingual dictionary and say "the heck with it" at our efforts to understand even so much as a classified ad.
There is one exception I want to mention in the comparison of learning Japanese to learning Spanish, which is that Japanese is so radically different from English in grammar, structure, writing, pronunciation, and other linguistic aspects. Japanese inherently comes with such a number of built-in “booby-traps” for the native English language (L1) speaker that an exceptional amount of drive and dedication are required to even have any hope of making progress in learning Japanese.
That aside, I offer these personal observations on the failure of native English language speakers (L1) to learn Spanish while abroad. Spanish is in a language family (Romance Languages) close enough to that of English (a Germanic language) such that there is relatively little to bar easy Spanish language learning from native English speakers. My view ultimately is that anyone can learn any foreign language. Yes, some foreign languages will be more difficult to learn and perhaps take much longer to master; but if you hang in there, keep practicing, and use many different language learning methods, you’ll eventually be able to fluently speak any foreign language you wish.
Breaking the “Code”
How, then, do you break the Spanish language learning code to successfully develop communicative skills? That involves directly going against the grain of the above-mentioned trends.
- Don’t limit your friends and associates to English speakers only
- Involve yourself in Spanish language-based activities on a regular basis
- Get a really good Spanish dictionary and use it daily
- Take short Spanish courses—online if need be—and finish each one
- Talk to people in Spanish and ask them to help you
- Use a wide variety of Spanish language learning methods from playing games to formal study
- Have fun as much as possible with your Spanish
Never Give Up
Finally, in the words of Winston Churchill, “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
No matter what you may have heard, you cannot learn Spanish while you sleep, from being hypnotized, or in a few minutes each day. You certainly didn’t learn to speak English using those methods, did you? It takes regular, extensive, concerted effort and practice to learn Spanish, or any other foreign language for that matter. Remember to hang in there, keep practicing, and use many different language learning methods, and you’ll eventually be able to fluently speak any foreign language you wish, especially a relatively “easy” one like Spanish.