When People Assume I Can’t Speak Spanish

I already spoke Spanish fluently when my wife and I moved to Mexico in 2015, but since that ability is not apparent from looking at me, people often assume that I don’t and they sometimes treat me like I’m invisible.

For example, I may be patiently waiting to be assisted by a store clerk and none of them will approach me or even greet me. However, as soon as I utter a word or two of Spanish, they give me a surprised look and become more attentive. This happened to me yesterday while trying to buy a new cell phone in Playa del Carmen.

I’ve experienced this type of behavior for years and it’s not limited to Mexico.

A few years back, I was standing standing in line at a large coffee shop in Bogotá, Colombia. When I finally made it up to the clerk, she looked at me with a mildly annoyed face and started to call for a manager. When I asked her in Spanish why she was calling for a manager, she looked surprised and apologized. She said that she didn’t think that I could speak Spanish so she was calling for assistance.

An Amusing Story

This story occurred in Colombia about 10 years ago.

My wife, who is originally from Colombia, and I were invited to a luncheon at the home of an old family friend. Our host was a woman in her 60’s who did not speak any English. After greeting me with a short mucho gusto, she ignored me and chatted exclusively with the others.

This one was partially my fault because I didn’t make any attempt to participate in the conversation. It seemed easier to sit quietly and eat my lunch.

Here is the funny part. Whenever she would pass me something, she would slowly sound it out in Spanish. For example, when she passed me the rice she said “arrrrozzzzzzzzzzzzzz”. This happened several times and each time I would answer with a simple gracias.

About an hour into lunch, she asked my wife a question related to immigration law in the United States. Coincidentally, I was teaching classes on the topic to law enforcement officers in the United States, so my wife told her that I could answer that one.

The woman looked at me a bit puzzled and then glanced back at Linda. I paused a moment before answering because I knew that my peaceful lunch was about to come to end.

The moment I started to answer her question in Spanish, her eyes widened and her face turned red. She covered it with both hands and then started to laugh.

She said that she felt a little embarrassed about trying to teach me Spanish and I told her not to worry about it. A few minutes later, I asked her to please pass me more arrrrrrrrooooooozzzzzz. My wife did not find it as amusing as I did.

Let’s Wrap This Up

For those of you who are thinking of making the move to Mexico, I encourage you to start learning Spanish before you come down. It will be much easier for you to pick up the language once you have an understanding of the basics.

If you need some help with it, you can start by watching the short videos on our site: Spanish for Retirees.

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About the Author

Qroo Paul
Paul Kurtzweil (Q-Roo Paul) was a deputy sheriff in Florida for 25 years before retiring at the rank of lieutenant in 2015. He and his wife moved to Mexico looking to maximize their retirement income. They later started a blog called Two Expats Mexico (qroo.us) to share their experiences as well as information about the logistical and legal aspects of retiring south of the border.

21 Comments on "When People Assume I Can’t Speak Spanish"

  1. Happens here in the states Pual

    • Yes, it happened when I was a deputy sheriff and that worked to my advantage…lol.

      • Yeah it helps if the person you are approaching says, “hide the weed” in Spanish thinking you won’t understand.

        • That sort of thing happened quite often when I was a deputy. People would even discuss their alibi in front of me or mention unrelated crimes.

  2. Great post! Love the stories. Never thought about how inconvenient it could be for certain store workers to have to find an English speaker for some customers. I can speak a little Spanish so will have to try speaking it more often 🙂

  3. Suzanne Wells | October 11, 2017 at 2:11 pm |

    I had three years of Latin and one year of Spanish in high school, and I lived in Italy for two years. I usually visit
    Ajiijic each year. I can read Spanish (slooooowly) and can understand much of what I hear. When I speak, however, something funny happens. What I want to say sometimes comes out in Italian. The lady at the grocery store thinks I AM Italian. All in all, where there’s a will to communicate, there’s a way. I am enjoying your Spanish lessions.

  4. Janet Rivera | October 11, 2017 at 2:12 pm |

    Ha ha! That is awesome!!

  5. Crystal Parra | October 11, 2017 at 2:14 pm |

    I go through the same thing. My husband is Mexican and speaks fluent spanish and i’m, oh, about 80%. I went to a restaurant recently, gave the waiter my order in Spanish, told him no onions on the enchiladas and he came back and asked my husband, in Spanish, if I was ok with the sauce being spicy – even though I had just ordered my entire meal in perfect Spanish. He somehow assumed I wouldnt be able to understand his question regarding the level of spicyness in my enchilada sauce.

  6. Paul – You are a great story teller. I was particularly amused with today’s post. The best line was the the last – ‘My wife was not as amused’. Classic. Thanks for the time that you commit to updating your blog. I am learning a lot about the life of expats living in Mexico. We are looking forward to our first trip to Akumal in just under 2 weeks. We have loved our previous visits to the Riviera Maya – but thanks to reading your posts, I will view my surrounds with a different perspective this visit and who knows maybe I can talk my wife into a extended trip to attempt to find out if life as an expat is one that suits us.


    Alan Perry

    • Thanks for following the blog. I am confident that you will love Akumal. I say that because I have yet to find someone who says they hate it here — probably because those people already left…lol.

      Enjoy your vacation 🙂

  7. Beth Kaufman | October 11, 2017 at 2:19 pm |

    Being that I write comedy, I love your sense of humor, I would have found that funny. Love this blog as well!

  8. Ahhhh….yes! I’m a very blonde gringa and this often happened to me when I worked in Eagle Pass, Texas. It’s an odd feeling, for sure.

  9. Chistoso! My Spanish is adequate and enthusiastic, if sometimes comical. It comes in handy when venturing outside “Gringolandia.”

  10. Thanks for the laugh 🙂 Good story!

  11. Roberta Laity | October 11, 2017 at 6:14 pm |

    Love this story! We went to Mexico a few years ago with 6 friends, 2 of us with some level of Spanish. On a tour to Chichen Itza, we were in a van with some tourists from Argentina. We were fascinated with the Mayan history he was providing and peppered him with questions. He was pleased with our interested and answered many questions in English. The others did not ask anything or seem interested at all, even when we spoke in Spanish. Later on, they were scolding him in Spanish for not speaking Spanish enough and paying more attention to us. At the end of they day, I sat next to one of the women from Argentina and asked her (in Spanish of course), where she was from, where she was staying and how she was enjoying her trip. Her expression was priceless.

  12. Funny stuff. I love surprising people like that by rolling out some Spanish.
    Funny article. Thanks!

  13. You should live in Quebec! I’m an anglo (studying Spanish for upcoming 2 months in Mexico) I am 95% fluent in French…..the stories here could have been written by ME here in Quebec……the confusion with the F/E is not only similar, it is the same….I’ve lived in it my whole life. Misery loves company so I am amused to read these comments and stories! (probably because of the culture/language I live in, I would not consider visiting a country without having some knowledge of the language!) When in Rome!!

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