The area where we live in the Riviera Maya has a lot of expats from the United States and Canada. As a result, it is not uncommon to hear English spoken at most restaurants, stores and bars.
The thing that has surprised me most is that the overwhelming majority of expats make little or no effort to learn Spanish. In fact, of all of the English speaking expats that I know – and there are a lot – I can count on one hand the number who are actively trying to learn Spanish.
Granted, it is not easy to learn a language as an adult. My wife and I are fortunate in the respect that we both already spoke Spanish prior to moving to Mexico. We frequently assist our friends with translation when they have to communicate with repairmen, businesses, and even government agencies.
Since we do speak Spanish, I have noticed that our experiences in Mexico vary quite a bit from those of our friends who do not speak the language. We are able to submerge ourselves more in the native culture instead of staying safely inside the expat subculture in the area. By not speaking the language, many expats miss out on so much.
I think Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous quote sums it up nicely: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
I have compiled a list of 5 reasons why you should make a “real” effort to learn Spanish if you choose to make Mexico your home:
1. Follow Local News
Although my friends will watch the major news networks from the U.S., like CNN or FOX, they are very out of touch when it comes to local news because of the language barrier.
Since I was a law enforcement officer for 25 years, crime in my area is of particular interest to me and those stories appear in the Spanish language papers. Even if a story makes front page news, my English speaking friends are usually unaware it happened unless someone mentions it in a Facebook post.
Tip – You can read many of the newspapers for free at issuu.com. Here is a link to a Spanish language newspaper from Quintana Roo: Diario Respuesta.
2. Save Money
This is a big one for us because we are on a tight budget. There are several ways that speaking Spanish saves us money:
a) Negotiating prices – In Mexico, negotiating is just part of the culture and the inability to communicate can cost you a lot of money in the long run.
b) Exercising consumer rights – In Mexico, it is illegal to add tax or a service charge to the final bill at a restaurant or other business. In spite of the law, some businesses try and take advantage of foreigners and add charges. This has happened to us on a few occasions, and each time, I would explain the law in Spanish to the manager and the fees were removed.
c) Completing paperwork and applications – Instead of hiring an immigration attorney, we completed all of the visa paperwork ourselves in Spanish and successfully obtained our resident visas. This was a substantial savings.
3. Get a Deeper Understanding of the People and the Culture
I absolutely love chatting with locals and learning more about their lives, viewpoints and core values. People are so friendly here, and once they know we can speak Spanish, it is hard to get some of them to stop talking. I have learned much more about my new country from these conversations than I could have from Internet sites alone.
4. Be Self-sufficient
With a working knowledge of the language, you will be able to travel freely and communicate with locals wherever you go. You will not have to schedule your life around the availability of your bilingual neighbors and friends.
5. Prevent Dementia and Keeps Your Brain Sharp
Research has shown that learning a language improves cognitive function and can help to prevent dementia. Here is an article about it: Students should learn second language to prevent dementia in later life.
So, what are you waiting for? There are a lot of free resources online, so there is no reason why you cannot start learning Spanish today. There are even a few video lessons on this site: Spanish for Retirees Living in Mexico.