How to Live in Mexico Without Spanish
Most people wonder if you can live happily in Mexico without speaking Spanish.
Since I sell a book of curated tools to help you learn Spanish in a way that won’t leave you numb, you probably think this is a trick question.
The truth is that you can live very happily in Mexico without Spanish. While you cannot pick up the language well enough to be conversant without deliberate study, you can learn enough to operate day to day through a little exposure and attention.
I’d calculate that most retired expats in Mexico don’t speak it conversationally. Usually they don't want to assimilate into the culture in a traditional sense although they assimilate in other ways; by volunteering or organizing fund-raisers for local Mexican charities and causes. They find ways to contribute.
I have younger friends in Mexico who have children with English-speaking Mexican husbands and have also have never learned beyond the basics.
Life in Mexico is undeniably less frustrating, cheaper and socially richer if you’re conversant. This I know first-hand from comparing my very first visit, when I hardly spoke any of the language, to my experiences after committing myself to it (post-50 BTW) for a few years. For this article though, let’s put the advantages of having it aside.
Expats don’t learn Spanish for obvious reasons. They think they’re too old to get started. They have other hobbies they enjoy more. Studying is too boring. They tried to learn many times and found it too frustrating or weren’t making the progress they thought they should.
I have a friend that always invites me hiking. I know the exercise and the fresh air would be good for me and I’d love meeting a few new people. In spite of these and a host of other substantial reasons, I just don wanna (the same way I don' wanna give up Girl Scout thin mints). I imagine that’s how most people feel about learning Spanish. For this post at least, I am not going to try to convince you otherwise.
Any place you’re considering retiring or moving to part-time in Mexico probably has a reasonably large expat community. The mutual bond of being an expat, while often times making for strange bedfellows, makes friendships easy to make. It’s perfectly natural to approach strangers simply by virtue of your shared status, far less awkward than at home.
For all the disparaging things you hear about “gringo gulches,” enclaves and gated communities where expats who don’t speak the language often live, many expats are very content, ecstatic in fact, living in them.
Being happy is what matters, not what other people think. Just like neighbors who live in American suburbs and rarely find the need to go into the anchor city, pot luck dinners and happy hours, socializing with expat neighbors and supporting one another if they're sick is the order of the day in expat communities.
Some of the enclaves are surrounded by golf courses and other amenities. Life is good. (If you want a book that really captures the spirit of the "non-assimilated" expat, read Fran Lebowitz's hilarious "Tales from a Broad: An Unreliable Memoir.")
When you arrive to Mexico, if you can't practice Spanish do practice a little forethought. Find the English speaking doctors as soon as you arrive; don’t wait until you need one. Find out which hospitals/emergency rooms will most likely have English-speaking staff or serve tourist areas. When traveling by car, make sure to take a pocket dictionary in case of a breakdown.
You will also need a few bilingual friends who can help you with phone calls to the electric, cable and telephone companies. Even when you speak good Spanish, phone conversations are more of a challenge in a second language.
Mexicans are very tolerant of non-Spanish speaking expats. In most cases, the Mexicans you meet when you don't speak the Spanish at all will be in service industries that rely upon, at least desire expat clients. Restaurant and bar staff, shop keepers, house-keepers, tour operators, property management personnel, some plumbers and electricians will largely be used to communicating with non-Spanish speaking clients.
Along the same lines, many Mexicans fool you into thinking the speak English well when they only speak it well within the context of their business and topics that come up in relation to it.
As long as you’re as kind and patient as they are, you will be rewarded. The websites Linguee and Google Translate can help you translate entire phrases before a service call. Gratitude really helps too.
Many Mexicans actually prefer practicing their English to your speaking Spanish. Several times I have found myself in conversations where a Mexican is speaking English and I’m speaking Spanish. We’re both trying to improve our second language and then find ourselves at an impasse, neither one of us willing to give up our ground.
We must look ridiculous to bystanders too, stubbornly plowing along in a linguistic wrestling match until stumbling upon a topic where the one with the stronger grasp of the second language does a take-down. When you speak only English, you avoid this competitive situation completely.
I will offer a few tips however from observing non-Spanish speakers, mistakes I’ve even made myself.
First, don’t raise your voice. There is some type of cognitive dissonance that makes us think if we speak louder, they will understand us better. No idea why. My Mexican friends learning English never do this. From that we might assume it’s a cultural dominance issue.
Somewhat related to talking loudly when someone can’t understand you is the common sight of seeing a passenger yelling in English across the aisles or to someone in front or behind them while taking public transportation (Pssst, they can still hear you). This is the social equivalent of talking on your cellphone in a public place. My Spanish friends comfort me by saying Italians are just as bad as Americans are. What a relief!
I can honestly say I have never, ever heard Mexicans yelling at each other while taking public transportation, unless it’s a hired party bus. This is not to be confused with how loud they can be socializing in their neighborhoods though.
The closest I’ve seen to loudness by locals on public transportation are drunk or out of work Mexicans making rather poetic appeals to riders on a bus for donations.
As you’re speaking in English to someone who doesn't, speak slowly and clearly. That will allow your listener to more easily pick up the cognates - the nouns and verbs that are very similar in both English and Spanish. As the cognates accumulate, eventually you will get your point across.
The main reason for the large number of cognates between the two languages is because English borrowed heavily from two other languages that are closely related to Spanish- Latin and French. Both Spanish and French developed from Latin, which is why they are called ‘romance” languages.
If you don’t speak any Spanish at all, you might pay more because you will need to find service providers who speak English, and sometimes they charge more. For those instances, an English-speaking Mexican friend who knows what Mexicans pay, some survival Spanish and that pocket Spanish dictionary are highly recommended for even the most linguistically challenged.
ITunes has many free survival Spanish podcasts, clearly designed for people who want to know enough just to get by. They focus more on memorizing phrases and useful daily vocabulary rather than grammar or building blocks. From my “Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online,” here are some I liked:
- One minute Spanish
- Finally Learn Spanish/Spanish A+
- Insta- Spanish Lessons by Tracy Tipton
- Learn Spanish with Comentarios
- Five Minute Spanish
- Spanish the Easy Way.
Mexico is a country of softer voices and meaningful glances. You will come to love that. If you can even just match their tone and the general graciousness they exhibit in their communication style, you can still go far in Mexico.
Reasons to learn it:
Should a medical emergency come up, it might be helpful until the English-speaking medics arrived.
Even a little Spanish will go a long way to making Mexican friends in Mexico.
Learning a language is one of the best things you can do to exercise your brain.
Next Up: The why and how on including cooking websites and information on Mexican healthcare in the same blog.
Most recent: On the practical matter of testing for particle matter in your water in Mexico.
Kerry Baker is the author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online,' a book of online tools curated into lesson plans, along with tips on learning the language as a potential expat. If living in a Spanish-speaking country is in your future, get started today.