Me no hablo (clearly) – trying and failing to speak Spanish abroad

Learning to speak Spanish

With a couple of languages at just-about-passable A-Level standard under my belt and a healthy collection of stamps in my passport, I’ve always considered myself fairly adept at communicating abroad. I dub myself a ‘language person’ and charge brazenly into a range of foreign dialects with a whole lot of gusto (but not a lot of finesse or understanding surrounding the finer details of irregular verb conjugation) When it comes to travelling, I’ve always upheld the motto that “it’s better to try and fail, than to fail to try”, and have thus far gotten by with an armoury of basic phrases and an impressive range of facial expressions wherever I’ve been.

Us Brits have a bad reputation when it comes to learning languages, typically relying on talking. very. loudly. and. very. slowly. Preferably in any generic accent of our choosing. And if that fails, we fall back on hand signals and a bit of school-book French. Despite not being in France.

Up until now, the mere sound of a Little Englander attempting to order “el drinkio sill voo play pronto pronto” is enough to have me sliding down my chair in embarrassment. I’ve been desperate to disassociate myself from the kind of stereotypical behaviour that the Del Boys of Great Britain have perpetuated, and have thus far managed to get by without bringing shame upon myself and my country. But moving abroad is a whole nother kettle of fish. Now that I’m looking ahead to extended periods of my life being spent in a Spanish speaking corner of the world, I recognise that a few basic phrases and polite smiles aren’t going to get me very far. Faced with the prospect of looking for work as a diving instructor in what, for all I know, can be a very competitive industry, I know that the ability to both talk and teach in another language will be a hugely valuable string to add to my bow.

If only you could learn a language just by eating the local food

I’ve spent the last year with the very best intentions to brush up on my virtually non-existent Spanish. Using some of the oldest tricks in the books, I decorated my house with tri-lingual post-it notes with a broad scuba vocabulary translated into French, German and Spanish. I bought a phrase book and kept it by my bed. I wrote out the verb formations for the present tense on a blackboard. The idea was that by subliminally immersing myself within a house of words, I would begin to pick them up.


Nice try. It turns out that ‘learning by osmosis’ doesn’t work. Other than being able to spout random words at the drop of the hat like a well-meaning but slightly simple Latina parrot (“el tubo de respiracion!” “la mascara!”) I have made only baby-steps on the road to fluency.

My hand-drawn scuba dictionary is only going to get me so far

Arriving in Roatan a few weeks ago, we stepped off the plane and flagged down a taxi. Having agreed a price (somehow when it comes to money the world seems to be able to communicate just fine) we spent the rest of the journey in embarrassed bemusement as a stream of Spanish assailed our ears, none of which we could understand or respond to. After a sheepish “no hablo Espanol”, I sank dejectedly back into my seat and realised that, to this man’s eyes, I was the classic Del Boy Brit. It was enough to refuel the ambition to learn this beautiful language and show the country I’m now calling home the respect it deserves.

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