If you are a typical English speaker, one who knows only one language, moving to a country where the primary language is something other than English is a challenge.
Especially if that language is as obscure and unfamiliar to you as the dark side of the moon.
Let me say upfront, you don’t have to learn a new language. I know many people here in Ecuador who, despite living here for years, have not even begun to master the language.
I know people who have tried and given up and people who never bothered trying.
I know one woman, with good intentions, who takes basic, beginning Spanish over and over because her heavy Texas accent renders her Spanish incomprehensible.
An Easier Life
I also know many people who do speak Spanish and their lives seem not only richer but far easier.
Personally, just so you know, I am a low-level intermediate student. I can place an order in a restaurant, I can ask for simple directions, I can follow the context of a conversation.
I study, formally, two mornings a week in a language school where the curriculum is set and the progress is incremental but forward.
But Studying Is Not Easy
Studying a language seriously is difficult. It costs money. It takes time and dedicated study every day. It requires practice—practice actually saying something out loud despite the probability you will get it wrong and feel like a fool.
I recently shared a table with a long-time resident, a man who has married, not one, but two Spanish-speaking women. Yet he could not, or would not, order a pizza in Spanish. When the waiter asked for more specifics on the toppings, the man responded in loud, aggressive English “Just bring me a pizza.”
This discrepancy between one’s ability and its significance is often the topic of fierce conversation among expats.
A Controversial Stance
For example, the following is “Jane’s” response to a complaint from Marvin posted in an English language bulletin board here in Cuenca about the level of customer service he received from his bank.
He asked for a reference for an English-speaking bank employee to help with his $25,000 visa-related investment.
What’s “not acceptable” is your arrogant sense of entitlement. What effort, if any, have you made to learn the local language which, by the way, is Spanish? My guess is NONE. People like you are an embarrassment to every expat that lives in this city. Fortunately, though, you won’t last long and it will be good riddance when we all get to see “Marvin” post his “moving sale” here.
Jane set the tone for a comment thread that became a heated discussion about national sovereignty and language.
The debate is real and worth thinking about. Another response:
In the States the language is English, here the language is Spanish. When you go to a country, you speak the language or learn the language or hire a translator or go home. Why is this so hard for people to understand?
Figure Out Your Stance
Are you contemplating moving to a county where you don’t speak the language? If so, have you settled this debate for yourself? Should expats living in a Spanish-speaking (or any foreign) culture be required (or forced) to learn the language?
If your answer is yes, or even if it is just your intention to learn the language, ask yourself these questions:
- Will you keep at it until you learn? And what level of proficiency will be sufficient?
Discussing a $25,000 investment requires very clear communications. Discussing medical issues is also a dangerous place to confuse words.
- Will you be comfortable taking a translator to discuss these personal topics?
- Can you order a pizza? Can you be clear about your needs? For example, can you say that you only drink bottled water or eat only vegan? If not, what is your plan?
Please comment. I look forward to calmly continuing Jane’s debate.
by: Dana Dwyer