Moving to Mexico: Expectations vs. Reality (Language)

Bienvenidos to the fourth post in the series where I compare our pre-move expectations to what actually happened. Today’s topic is the Spanish language.

In case you missed the first three, I covered the topics of housingfood and community. You can read those posts by clicking on the words that appear in blue in the previous sentence.

Expectations

My wife and I already knew Spanish when we moved to Mexico, although her Spanish is much better than mine. She was born in Colombia and Spanish is her first language.

As for me, I learned Spanish on my own out of necessity while working as a deputy sheriff in Florida. That means that I knew how say things like search warrant and spent shell casing in Spanish before I knew how to say dishwasher. Even after all these years, I am still more comfortable speaking about legal issues in Spanish than I am sports.

I thought that once we were in Mexico, my Spanish would get much better because I would be completely immersed in the language. I expected to have to speak Spanish to our neighbors, friends and at local businesses.

Reality

The reality was a sharp contrast to what I had envisioned. It turns out that almost all of our neighbors are English speakers. Even the few that do speak Spanish, also speak English fluently. So much for practicing Spanish with my neighbors.

When we leave the complex, it’s more of the same. We hear English being spoken at most restaurants and shops throughout this area. If we enter a business for the first time, we are often greeted in English as though it were the default language for the area. Once we respond in Spanish, they usually look a little embarrassed and start speaking Spanish back to us.

I know that this has a lot to do with the area where we live. We are in an area that attracts a lot of English speaking tourists and expats. When we travel away from the coastal tourist areas, the need to be able to speak Spanish increases dramatically.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Several readers have told me that they would love to move to Mexico, but they are afraid that it would be too difficult because they don’t speak Spanish. The fact is that if you settle in a tourist area like Cozumel or even Cancun, English will get you by in most situations.

On those rare occasions when you absolutely need a translator, you will probably be able to enlist the help of a bilingual friend. We have helped several of our friends with translation over the last year.

I still encourage English-speakers who move here to learn Spanish. By not speaking Spanish, you will miss out on a lot that Mexico has to offer. That being said, at least you know that you will be able to survive in the meantime while you are learning the language.

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About the Author

Q-Roo Paul

Paul Kurtzweil (Q-Roo Paul) was a deputy sheriff in Florida for 25 years and retired at the rank of lieutenant in 2015. He moved to Mexico with his wife six days later to enjoy a laid-back, Caribbean lifestyle on a tight budget.

In 2016, Paul started a blog to share information with other people who may be thinking of making the move to Mexico. The blog, Two Expats Living in Mexico (qroo.us), has been viewed over a million times and Paul’s articles appear in periodicals across Mexico.

11 Comments on "Moving to Mexico: Expectations vs. Reality (Language)"

  1. Charles Benfante | December 17, 2016 at 9:03 am | Reply

    I moved to a typical Mexican town not knowing much Spanish at all. The people were and still are gracious to put up with me and explain or show me what things are. I learned enough to exist for three years. Bought food and clothes although at times not always what I wanted, but the shop owners were very tolerant of me. I have a Spanish speaking girlfriend of 7 months and have learned a lot from her as she speaks no English at all.

  2. First off I would like to say we enjoy reading your blog :). We moved here for 6 months first to decide if this is the place for us. Although my wife has learned a lot of Spanish since we moved here. In most cases where the person does not understand English there has always been a very kind Mexican person that hears what going on and comes to assist us with the translation. The Mexicans we have met have been very kind and always seem to have the time to help. A few times we just use an offline English to Spanish translator on our phone, but you would of came in handy when I had to fill out an accident report because someone ran in to the back of our car at a light. There was a police man right there watching the whole thing so everything went good except the part where the guy took off and we had to give chase following the police on his motorcycle with our car at speeds up to 135 km lol. Never did catch the guy though. When we returned back to the place we were hit the police radioed to another police that understood English to come and help us :).

  3. Hello Paul, this is Miguel Tapia-Díaz, your friend in México city, now renamed Ciudad de México (CDMX or Mexico city because formerly was named Distrito Federal). It’s fantastic that you show you entirely face (I only see your “sides”-fotos de perfil-) and now understand the reason of your jubilation being a very youn man. Yes, to be a policeman maybe requires a loooong vacations. Excuse me if I am snoop (entrometido, metiche): how old are you? I don’t know the way that your blog link with my mail but I love to read it because you should to another american and canadian people other face of my beloved country. In fact in january of this year I had de posibility of make my own retirement (I’m 48 years old) but I’m very inquieto (unquiet?) and I know I can’t live without car traffic, polution and noise (I live tight to the International Airport Benito Juárez…almost inside, believe me). In the other side I love my job. As you maybe remember I am Ophtalmologist and got my clinic in a very centric side of the city. The last reason: my mother still living (I’m single with no kids) and even she had 5 suns my beloved and young bro die 12 years ago my 3 sisters están de adorno (maybe your wife can translate this phase). The fact? My mother is a widow with 1 sun, male and with resources. It doesn’t matter: I’m happy.
    I know some day we know face to face, when I travel to Akumal I will send you an anticipated message.
    Let me give you 1 advice: TRY to know other places: Mérida, Yucatán is lovely and the Yucatecos (the Yucatan people) are very warm and jokers. His food is SPLENDID, the best of the country for me. And don’t forget Uxmal: its better than Chichenitzá. Then go to Campeche, Campeche, the 2 beautiful city in México; with 2 days is enough.
    Well, as always is my pleasure.
    Remember you have a friend in this crazy maze named CDMX. I send you a big hug, say hello to your wife.

    • Hi Miguel, I’m 46 years old. This year we plan on taking your advice and seeing more of the country. Let us know when you are in Akumal and we can meet in person.

  4. Quintana Roo is a great location if you don’t know Spanish but want to learn. English is widely spoken so if you get stuck you’re likely to get help but if you want to learn Spanish (which you should!) people are always patient and helpful, as well as give you a chance.

  5. We lived in Ajijic on Lake Chapala for two years. The weather is incredible but, as has been your experience, most people speak English. If you are afraid of being in Mexico and not able to speak Spanish, then Ajijic, Quintana Roo, or one of the other places mentioned above would work fine. We are starting our second year in Pátzcuaro, Míchoacan and are learning much more Spanish. The locals are kind in response to our efforts to communicate. At this point I realize I will never be a fluent speaker, but just want to continue to get better. Thank you for a good post sharing your language experiences.

  6. Another great article Paul. My two cents? Although most folks we encounter are patient and helpful, most encounters happen in a hospitality or retail environment. These folks are usually hired because they speak English. Patience is part of the job. But take yourself (as I know you both do) into the local scene and your Spanish becomes much more imperative and frankly, appreciated. I have a small business in Tulum and rely on my limited Spanish. And as you said in the blog, You gain so much more knowledge of the culture, and will make great, lifelong friends as your Spanish grows!

  7. Love reading the blog and the comments! We are new to Playa, just 8 weeks tomorrow. We are extremely happy here and love what of the culture and people we have been able to experience. When we were house hunting in April, we met a taxi driver who speaks pretty good English and has assisted us with translations everywhere since we arrived in August. My husband is speaking Spanish well as he has a knack for languages and I am taking lessons that are taking so long (it seems to me). I do think immersion is great but until you can actually understand or hear words that you recognize in a native’s speech it is very difficult to get by without help. We are thankful for our taxi driver who, along with his family has now become our friend. I love this country and it’s wonderful gracious people/culture. Viva la Mexico!

    • Congrats on your move to Playa! It’s wonderful that you two are making an effort to learn the language. It is rarity among expats that I have met but it will make your overall experience in Mexico much better in the long run. 🙂

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