¿Say “Qué”? Adventures in Learning Spanish in Mexico

I am pretty sure that taking Spanish lessons is a rite of passage (akin to a freshman hazing) that every long-term traveler in Latin America goes through. It seems like every blogger I know who has spent any chunk of time in this part of the world has wound up heading back to school in...

I am pretty sure that taking Spanish lessons is a rite of passage (akin to a freshman hazing) that every long-term traveler in Latin America goes through. It seems like every blogger I know who has spent any chunk of time in this part of the world has wound up heading back to school in a bid to get a handle on the language, and in that respect Tony and I are no different.

Although we muddled through Asia and a good swath of Europe with just a handful of key phrases in the local language and then thanked our lucky stars that English is pretty much the de facto international language of travel, we knew we wanted to do things differently in Mexico.

For one, we actually felt that Spanish was a language we had a halfway decent chance of becoming conversational (if not fluent) in. It doesn’t have tones or feature any sounds we can’t make or hear, uses an alphabet we can already read, and a lot of the words are pretty similar to English. Moreover, unlike Asia and Europe, we’re finally in a part of the world where, by and large, the language doesn’t change as we move from country to country. Since we intend to be here for a while, learning Spanish just makes sense; we figure the better we can communicate with locals in their mother tongue, the richer and deeper our experiences here will hopefully be.

We always intended to take lessons once we made it to Mexico, but we didn’t have any concrete plans for when or where that would be. It made sense to do them sooner rather than later, but we figured we’d know when the time was right.

A night out in Tlaquepaque
A night out in Tlaquepaque

When Tony & I packed up the dogs and bid farewell (a goodbye filled with equal parts good riddance!) to La Peñita, we headed eastward to Tlaquepaque. These days, Tlaquepaque is commonly referred to as an artistic suburb of Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara, but if you talk to the local denizens, they’re more inclined to dub it a pueblito (essentially a teeny tiny town). We figured it would be a good place to base ourselves to get a taste for Mexican city-living, and would be a convenient location from which to tour the region. In addition to exploring Tlaquepaque itself, we could make trips to Guadalajara proper, as well as tour tequila country, visit the Lake Chapala area, and even take in some pre-Hispanic ruins. We anticipated we’d have a full AND fulfilling month here.

And we have! Just not in the way that we anticipated…

Despite being in Tlaquepaque for three weeks now, we’ve seen embarrassingly little of it and done nearly nothing on our travel hit list. It’s a cute little town with some serious European flair, but for the most part, our sightseeing has been largely limited to the inside of a classroom at the Guadalajara Language Center where we’ve been taking Spanish classes pretty much since the day we arrived.

If you had told me three years ago that there would come a day when I’d be a bona fide student again, I would have told you that you were crazy. I was 29 and had spent 26 of those years in school, the last seven of which were devoted to completing my PhD. Given that I was deciding to take my life savings and travel around the world rather than jump into a post-doc or start prepping for tenure-track positions in the hallowed halls of academe, I can assure you that, for the first time in my life, I was capital-D Done with school.

But the longer I travel, the more it seems like life takes us not on a journey that stretches out in rolling crests toward the horizon, but rather one that follows a loopy figure-eight; no matter how much I think I’m evolving, I always seem to find myself coming full circle, seeing my past echo in my present. No matter how many times I shed my skin, there seems to be student inside me who just can’t be exorcised.

So, we’re taking Spanish classes. But it hasn’t been the easiest transition for either of us to reconnect with our scholastic roots. I’m glad that when given the choice to take 2 hours or 4 hours of class per day, five days a week, we elected to go with the shorter amount of time. (I had read enough travelers’ accounts to know that most people found four hours of class per day to result in brain blowout.) Through a stroke of luck, although we are paying the group rate for our classes, Tony & I have wound up being the only two students in our class, which effectively means we are getting private lessons. This is awesome in terms of getting to tailor the class to suit our interests (we are pretty much pros at talking about food and our dogs in Spanish now…) and go at the right pace, but it also means the class is fairly intense as we are always in the spotlight.

Pictured: us when we are finally fluent in Spanish
Pictured: us when we are finally fluent in Spanish

Neither of us anticipated how mentally draining and exhausting we would find these classes and for the first week we felt we needed to follow-up each session with a lengthy siesta in order to consolidate everything we had learned and recover. Even though our classes are only two hours, it feels like we are losing a much larger chunk out of our day than anticipated, especially when you take into account travel time to and from class, grabbing lunch afterwards, and any time spent reviewing our notes or completing assignments. Juggling class with the web design and marketing work that allows us to actually travel has been tough, and we quickly relegated fun travel-related activities to our weekends; we just don’t have the time or energy to go out sightseeing during the week. I guess one definite upside to these classes is that after going so long barely knowing what day of the week it is, our weekends finally have meaning again and we look forward to them with relish (and can even name them in Spanish, too!)!

I know there are a lot of horror stories from travelers and bloggers about subpar language schools with unenthusiastic teachers, but I actually can’t say enough good things about the Guadalajara Language Center. Normally this is the kind of thing I would research the heck out of to make sure we were going somewhere with good reviews and reasonable rates, so it’s kind of shocking to me that we just sort of fell into our classes at GLC. I had found the school when researching possible lodging options for Tlaquepaque, and we wound up renting our awesome apartment through them even though we didn’t sign up for any lessons with the school. When we moved into our place, the owner of the school, Wouter, mentioned that if we wanted to do a trial class for free, he could set that up for us. We agreed and were so impressed with how fantastic our teacher was that we committed to two weeks of classes afterwards. Despite being exhausted our first week, we both saw a quick improvement in our rudimentary Spanish (both Tony & I had studied the language for one year in high school, and I’d been practicing online with Duolingo, so neither of us was a complete novice) and, more importantly, increased confidence and willingness to use our limited Spanish to speak to others. After one week of classes, we told Wouter we would like to take a full month of lessons.

I think most of the bad experiences travelers have with language classes comes from courses that seem to have little practical application, where you’re bogged down with homework, and simply work through a textbook.

Thankfully, GLC has none of this. Although we get the occasional homework assignment, for the most part, our classes are taught entirely in Spanish (yet, remarkably, we understand most of what is said!) and the emphasis is really on conversation. We’re quite good at reading things in Spanish now and I reasoned we could work through Spanish workbooks and exercises on our own, so the real benefit comes from getting to listen to native Spanish speakers and work on communicating with them. Normally we start each class with 30 minutes of informal conversation and then our teach introduces a theme of some sort that we’ll focus on for the remainder of the class, whether that’s dealing with pronouns substitutions for direct and indirect objects (say what?!?), how to form imperatives (huh?!?) or expressing preferences, ordering things in a restaurant, speaking to strangers and people who work in stores, the differences between por and para (because Spanish has two words that mean “for” and you can’t use them interchangeably) or whatever else we’ve told her we’d like to work on. We’ve also learned a lot of interesting cultural trivia and linguistic quirks particular to Mexico that we certainly wouldn’t have picked up on our own: For example, Mexico technically has five meals per day. Also, although there is no word in Spanish that means “to borrow” there is a specific verb (that has no English equivalent that I know of) that refers to the act of throwing and taking part in a parade!

La gente de Tlaquepaque saying things we don't understand... yet
La gente de Tlaquepaque saying things we don’t understand… yet

I also have to give props to Tony, who has been a real trooper as so much of the grammar we’re learning is truly foreign to him as he doesn’t have another romance language to bootstrap off of, whereas my background in French and Latin definitely is and advantage there. I also have an easier time picking up vocab (or at least guessing at mystery words) because if a word doesn’t resemble English, then 75% of the time it resembles the French equivalent. Our first week of classes was really stressful on us because he needed to work a lot harder to keep up and I would get frustrated when he struggled with material I found easy, but in the end, we came through the other side and I think our relationship is actually better for it. After two years of traveling the world, foreign locations don’t strain our relationship that much any more, but leave it to language lessons to push us out of our comfort zones… There’s nothing like explaining gender and direct and indirect objects to your partner to foster patience and compassion!

We each have 30 hours of class under our belts now and… we’re nowhere close to fluent. We still feel like native Spanish speakers talk WAY TOO FAST (especially to me because they automatically assume I’m a local) while we take an ice age to form our sentences, and I’ve yet to replay a conversation in my mind afterwards without picking up on at least one mistake I made… but at least I know when I’m making mistakes now and we’re not letting that stop us from trying. The longer we’ve kept with it, the more we’re able to hold our own in conversations with locals and vendors without having to ask them to repeat every sentence three times, and I actually can’t remember the last time we spoke to someone other than each other (and occasionally our teacher) in English. (And sometimes, just for funsies, we try to speak to each other in Spanish too! We’re such dorks!)

Tony working hard on his Spanish, probably (Rory doesn't buy it)
Tony working hard on his Spanish, probably (Rory doesn’t buy it)

Because I’m a language nerd and a perfectionist to boot, sometimes I get frustrated at what I feel is slow progress on my part. Every so often, if I’m not vigilant, instead of saying something in Spanish, I’ll blurt it out in French, and it drives me crazy to have phrases effortlessly pop into my head in French fully formed and yet to have to laboriously select each and every word in Spanish, my tongue tripping over the sounds. Even though I know it’s not a fair comparison to make given that I studied French for over 10 years, I have to constantly remind myself that my relative fluency there did not happen over night. It’s a daily reminder to be patient and kind to myself, things I’m not always good at, but work that is always worth doing. I am often quite dismissive of my French because I feel I don’t speak as well as I would like, but floundering around in Spanish has given me a new-found appreciation for how much I do know and how well I really can express myself in French! Here is hoping that with continued practice and exposure, poco a poco I’ll get my Spanish to a similar level.

Some people think that language classes for just a few weeks or a month aren’t of any real use, but we viewed these lessons as an investment and both feel we’ve really gotten our money’s worth. I had kind of stalled out in my own private studies, and taking these classes has really renewed my commitment to improving my Spanish and got me over some of the roadblocks I had hit on my own. It is possible to travel Mexico with just English, but that’s ultimately not the kind of trip we want to take. I may grouse about having to go to class every single day, but I always manage to get my butt in the chair and I haven’t regretted it yet. Throughout our travels, we’ve generally pursued experiences that help us better connect with people and dip beneath the surface of a country, and our Spanish lessons have really just been another extension of that. We may not have seen as much of the Guadalajara area as we intended, but we’ve been having plenty of adventures nevertheless and I know this is a month we won’t soon forget and will pay dividends in the months and years to come.

Now it’s your turn! Tell Us: Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language? Do you have any tips or tricks to help us on our way to Spanish fluency?

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38 comments Leave a comment

  1. I did 6 months of spanish night classes before I travelled to Latin America and although it was only 2 hours per week plus homework, it definitely helped when I arrived in Mexico. I do wish we had done a 1-2 week course somewhere during our travels too as I did the spanish night classes when we were still living in London so there was no immersion. I am planning to head to Argentina, Chile and Uruguay at the beginning of 2017 so will definitely brush up my spanish before then as well as doing a class there, maybe in Buenos Aires

    May. 20 2015 @ 10:01 pm
    1. Katie author

      I think we have done a really good job given that the last 3 weeks have essentially been a crash course in intermediate Spanish, but I think with languages there is only so much you can do in a short amount of time and ultimately it’s something you just have to stick with. I’m really glad I had been flirting with Duolingo for the past year or so as that definitely helped us out a bit when we arrived in Mexico, but I think we were at a point where we really needed formal classes to help push us to the next level. Now that we have familiarized ourselves with pretty much all the major tenses, we can spend the next few months refining those skills and building our vocab. I know even still we won’t wind up fluent and that in order to truly master Spanish we probably have more lessons in our future, but I think we have enough of a foundation now that we should be able to get through the next few months on our own.

      May. 21 2015 @ 12:24 pm
  2. Love your dedication to learning Spanish. I can only imagine how frustrating that would be! We get by around Europe with the basics, but I always felt that learning another language would make it a better experience. If we were to spend an extended period of time in one place though, we would do exactly what your doing, even though it can be a long, frustrating endeavor. Maybe one day we will be expats somewhere other than an English speaking country, forcing us to learn another language. Though hopefully not Mandarin, because that language looks impossible!

    May. 21 2015 @ 5:41 am
    1. Drew author

      After two years in Asia, as frustrating as learning Spanish can sometimes be, we know it’s so much easier than 99% of the other languages we encountered on our trip (I think Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia could be simpler) that we feel really committed to sticking with it and powering through the tough moments. The fact that we are able to not only communicate with people around us (albeit brokenly and with the vocab of a three year-old) but can also understand when people speak to us (provided they do so slowly) is really gratifying and motivates us to keep improving. We may not be totally conversational yet, but we can already say so much more than we could three weeks ago and relative to every other language we tried to pick up bits and pieces of along the way, we’re veritable chatterboxes.

      I will say, if you do ever feel you need to learn Mandarin, I suggest heading to Taiwan to do so. I learned a few basic phrases in preparation for our month in China and gave up after the first week because no one could understand me at all. Yet when we went to Taiwan, I tentatively tried the same phrases again, and lo & behold, people actually made an effort and seemed to appreciate that I was trying. Ironically, I also had more luck using my Mandarin in a Chinese community in Lao than in mainland China!

      (Also, just be grateful Mandarin only has 4 tones… Cantonese has 9!)

      May. 21 2015 @ 12:33 pm
  3. 6 real meals? I want that! and a siesta 🙂 When we did our travels through Asia and Europe, Sergey attempted to learn Spanish (mostly by Duolingo) in anticipation of us making it down to South America at some point. He didn’t get very far, and neither did we, but I think in the future we have some travels to the region and language classes for sure. Such a neat experience you guys!

    May. 21 2015 @ 5:48 am
    1. Jenia author

      I really like Duolingo but it’s obviously focused more on writing-based translations and isn’t necessarily aimed at travelers, so at times I find it really frustrating because a lot of the intro material isn’t stuff you would find very useful in day-to-day life. Like, it’s great that I know how to say the bear at the penguin, but how about teaching me my numbers and how much something costs? I’ve also found that grammatically speaking, it’s explanations can be quite hard for people who don’t already have some understanding of the language in question and/or similar languages (I have studied French for years, so I understand direct and indirect objects and how their positions are different in romance languages compared to English, but even I found that section on Duolingo hard!) and I would often supplement the Duo lessons with ample internet research. Because we had some background in Spanish, I know we’ve been able to push through material in our real life Spanish classes much faster, and once we’re done with them, I expect I’ll go back to Duolingo and finish the Spanish tree, but with a better foundation. Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any one way to learn a language… for us, having many different resources (structured formal classes, textbooks, Duolingo) has made the process much richer and rewarding, I think.

      May. 21 2015 @ 12:38 pm
  4. Languages are hard for me, mostly because I lack the discipline needed to study the vocab. But those intensive classes can be very useful, especially if you plan to spend a lot of time in country. I studied Mandarin every day for a month in Shanghai, then continued with private lessons twice a week. After two years, I could order food, give taxi drivers directions and have clothes made, but that’s about it. I just could not hear or pronounce those darn tones! My Latvian is better, and I can understand a lot more when I hear it spoken, but still struggle to come up with sentences on my own. And that’s after three months of classes and six months of private lessons. I really admire anyone who is able to put in the work necessary to become fluent. I’d rather do just about anything else!

    May. 21 2015 @ 5:56 am
    1. Heather author

      Oh, I have very little interest in sitting down and drilling vocab. I will work through exercises in books and do things like Duolingo, but just studying a list of words? BORING! Given that I now have the main grammar basics in Spanish down, I think I’m going to start trying to expand my vocab by reading more material en español. I have some of the Harry Potter books in Spanish, and figure I can find YA-level novels in Spanish that will hopefully be interesting and a fun way to learn new words. And, of course I’ll keep plugging away at Duolingo too. It’s no substitution for getting out there and speaking with people, but I think it will be a good way to supplement our classes and keep learning. I’ve found that the more I read things in Spanish and expose myself to “correct Spanish”, the more I’m developing an instinct for how things should sound and how to more fluidly form sentences, so hopefully this will help!

      May. 21 2015 @ 12:42 pm
  5. One of the main reasons I would love to travel in south America is revive my buried Spanish. I would like to actually be fluent in something someday. I worked my ass off to learn Chinese and holy god does that language take dedication(that I lacked). One of the weirder things I did that helped was that I started hashtagging my instagrams in Chinese and English- it was good practice and it made it stick in my head for some reason + it gained me a ton of Chinese followers, until China blocked Insta

    May. 21 2015 @ 8:29 am
    1. Rebekah author

      Oh, that’s a great tip about hashtags on Insta! I have played around with a few since arriving in Mexico, but I could probably stand to add a lot more. That would be a fun way to build vocab, particularly for words we’re likely to find useful/relevant to our daily life.

      Also, why am I not surprised to hear that China blocked Instagram? Sigh….

      May. 21 2015 @ 12:45 pm
  6. Ahhhhh this reminds of trying to learn Urdu – something I’m still in the process of doing. You are totally right about it being draining, and in that it takes a bigger chunk out of your day that you had expected. And I feel that I have sort of plateaued with Urdu – I’m not using the complex sentences that I would need to use in order to become an advanced learner.

    For me personally, it’s a matter of having a good teacher who explains things in a way which makes sense. I’m the type of person who, once a concept is explained, will put it into use. It’s just getting my head around the concept initially which is a bit tricky.

    Best of luck for your language classes – you’re doing well, I’m sure, and your new home town looks lovely!!

    May. 21 2015 @ 8:48 am
    1. Tim UrbanDuniya author

      Yeah, of all the languages I could be trying to learn right now, Spanish is probably the easiest given its shared roots with French! I feel like any language where I can’t read the alphabet it’s written in is already going to be so much harder than one where I can at least sound things out and quickly begin to recognize words (especially because I know I’m a visual learner).

      And you’re so right that your teacher really makes a huge difference. We have had two teachers at our language school and our first teacher was absolutely amazing. Even though she spoke to us almost entirely in Spanish, she managed to communicate so effectively that I would say I understood 98% of what she was saying. I often say that if only every Mexican spoke to us like Mónica, we’d have absolutely zero problems communicating here! 😉

      May. 21 2015 @ 12:48 pm
  7. Having just returned home from Latin America I am missing hearing Spanish every day!! I loved the act of learning (although we did also find it time consuming and exhausting!) and was super impressed with what I could understand by the time we left. I think it’s totally worth the time and effort no matter how long you’ll be in the area; getting a feel for the language enriches your travel experience. Buen suerte!

    May. 21 2015 @ 9:18 am
    1. Gillian author

      Do you have any plans to maintain/continue improving your Spanish now that you’re back in Canada, Gillian? I am already trying to figure out what the next step for us will be when we leave Tlaquepaque at the end of the month because I don’t want us to get complacent and stop improving. The next city we’re looking at has a language school as well, so I’m wondering if maybe we should sign up for a few hours of conversational lessons each week (not every day, and not for two hours) just to keep us on track. I know part of why we’re not at the level I would secretly like is because we haven’t been fully immersed (we’re not living in a homestay with a local family who speaks to us outside of class in Spanish, our classes are only 2 hours per day instead of 6 or 7, we still watch tv/movies in English, etc.,) so I just hope that once we remove our classes from the equation that we are still able to continue to build up our skills.

      May. 21 2015 @ 12:52 pm
  8. It is not easy, isn’t it? Your post perfectly sums up our struggles as a family to learn Spanish, I just never had the time and the patience to write it all up:) After feeling super frustrated in Argentina because of lack of Spanish, we stopped for a month in Sucre Bolivia and started learning Spanish from scratch. We made a quick progress, felt excited, blabbered with everyone left and write and then we left Sucre and started traveling again … and things haven’t been pink on the Spanish front once we left Bolivia. In Peru there were so many tourists that locals insisted talking to us in English, even though we talked to them in Spanish. We suddenly lost focus and were fell out of our Spanish immersion:( In Colombia the people we have met are all well educated and most speak amazing English, BUT also their Spanish is super fast and hard to follow…

    Like you, I am also a perfectionist, but at this point I have decided to talk as much as I can, no matter that my sentences are broken up and my grammar is not perfect. Practice makes better, right? Good luck and keep on learning, lol. That’s the only way, I am afraid:)

    May. 21 2015 @ 10:40 am
    1. Maria author

      You know, a secret lazy part of myself has thought on a few occasions that if we were able to make it through Asia & Europe without really knowing the local language, then surely we could do so here in Mexico. And we probably could, but as language learners, Mexico has actually been a really great place to learn because we really do frequently encounter people who don’t speak really any English at all and so we really do have to communicate, however basically, in Spanish with them. In La Peñita, which does get some tourists due to its location, there were a few people who really seemed to only want to talk to us in English (perhaps so they could practice and also maybe to make us feel more welcome), but it’s very rare for that to happen now. I suspect part of this might because people all assume I’m Mexican, and given my track record for being mistaken for a local during our travels, I have a feeling no matter where we go in Latin America that’s likely to be the case! I will be so happy when I get to the point where people speaking Spanish at a regular clip no longer sound like they’re rapidly mumbling! I always think that if I could just hear the words they were saying, I’d probably be able to figure out what was going on! 😉

      You’re right though that we can’t let the fear of not being perfect stop us from trying and improving. The more mistakes we make, the more we’ll learn!

      May. 21 2015 @ 1:01 pm
  9. Oh.. I know we will SO struggle with this being, like Tony, only fluent in English. But, we plan on taking a few classes at different times along our route and am sure we’ll find great improvement as we go along. Good luck!

    May. 21 2015 @ 2:58 pm
    1. Rhonda author

      The nice thing about Spanish is it’s really easy to learn the basics necessary for transactional communication—I’m sure, given all of your trips to Mexico, you already know that. The tougher part will come when you want to improve beyond that and really speak more naturally as a native would… You may struggle with direct and indirect object pronouns (essentially, the “it” and the “them” in the following sentence: I told them about it.) because they are more complicated in Spanish (as there is gender involved, for one thing) and the placement of them does not follow that of English. And then, of course, there are all the tenses AND the subjunctive, which is quite difficult for English speakers to comprehend, I have found (I know I learned it when learning French and then, mostly forgot all about it… which is part of why my French isn’t as good as it should be!). The nice thing for us is even though we’re sort of doing an intensive language boot camp, we have plenty of time to continue to learn and improve. I think these lessons will set us up well for independent study/practice in the coming months, but if we feel we have plateaued, then I won’t hesitate to seek out language classes once again! Good luck to you and Jim… mastering a language is tough, but when you get to use it every day, it’s worth it!

      May. 22 2015 @ 8:43 am
  10. I’ve never taken language classes the way you are now in Mexico, but I studied Spanish in high school and then studied abroad in Argentina one semester when I was in college. Language learning is always a series of ups and downs depending on the day (or hour) but I couldn’t agree more that it’s essential for connecting with people and feeling less foreign in a foreign place. I’ve been extremely grateful for my fluency in Spanish, not only because I feel more comfortable traveling in Latin America, but also because I’ve made friends and connections that I never could have without the language skills. I’d say your best bet to increase fluency is to be “adopted” by a family: not only will they invite you to eat and share part of their life with them but they will force you to speak and listen as you do in class. Exhausting, but so worthwhile!

    May. 21 2015 @ 10:49 pm
    1. Kara author

      I did a few language exchanges when I was in high school too (I lived with a host family in France for 3 months), so I agree that really immersing yourself with a host family is the best way to really learn a language. It’s a bit harder for us because, well, we’re traveling as a couple, and so we do default to speaking to each other in English AND all of our work is in English too. We also have our dogs, so I’m not sure how feasible doing homestays will be right now. Still, we’ll do the best we can within our given constraints and I’m confident we’ll still continue to improve (albeit, perhaps not as quickly as if we were totally immersed).

      May. 22 2015 @ 1:48 pm
  11. Buen trabajo! You guys are doing so well. Like you say, it’s so much easier to learn Spanish if you’re able to speak another romance language, so congrats to Tony! I’m pretty sure you’re getting a lot out of your time in class too, I used to teach languages in a secondary school in London and the years 7 – 9 (11 – 14 year-olds) had three hours a fortnight, over the year that comes to about 60 hours, you guys seem to be getting about 40 hours in a month so I think that’s a pretty substantial amount. When we head to Spain next year I really want to improve my Spanish and although Amy doesn’t think she’ll be able to learn easily I think she’ll pick it up pretty quickly. Keep up the good work!

    May. 22 2015 @ 12:41 am
    1. Andrew author

      I think what our month of lessons here in Mexico has taught us is that if you really want to learn a language and improve your ability to speak, you need to actively pursue that goal, whether that’s through classes or independent studies. Some people claim that they just “pick up” languages by being surrounded by them, but we know how easy it is to get by with very little language in places and decided we didn’t want to do that here. We could probably have learned more if we had gone for 4 hours class/day, but I think that might have broken our brains… We’ve also been pretty lax lately about reviewing our notes from class since we’re in the final stretch, but I think once our classes end at the start of next week, I’ll make it a priority to study for at least an hour independently every day. And I hope when we reach our next destination that we’ll be able to find something formal where we can do a language swap with native speakers, or maybe sign up for less intense conversational classes so we can continue to build on what we have learned. At this point, I’d say we know enough to make it through the basics of daily life, but we want to get even better! Still a long road ahead of us, but I know we’ll get there.

      Also, Amy may have a harder time picking up Spanish if she doesn’t have another romance language in her arsenal, but she’ll have you so that will make things easier! I would frequently translate things for Tony in our class if he really couldn’t figure out what our teacher was saying, and when we’d go over concepts at home, I could try to explain them to him as well. I think he might feel fairly lost on his own, but having a supportive partner definitely helps!

      May. 22 2015 @ 1:55 pm
  12. I forgot to mention, while teaching English here in Vietnam, I use a sitcom called Extr@, it’s specifically designed for language learning and it has versions in English, French, Spanish and German, the kids love them despite their stereotyping and they’re pretty easy language to follow. Having said that I’m sure there’s loads of shows you can watch right there in Mexico!

    May. 22 2015 @ 12:46 am
    1. Andrew author

      That’s a great idea, Andrew! We have access to Mexican Netflix here (as well as Spanish-language tv, in general) so there are a lot of Spanish-language options for us to choose… Unfortunately, we’ve been watching things in English, occasionally with Spanish subtitles on to help us build vocab that way. At some point, we should probably switch over to listening to things in Spanish (perhaps with the Spanish subtitles still on!)…

      May. 22 2015 @ 1:57 pm
  13. Well done guys and don’t give up,keep learning.

    Once me and Dale housesat in a tiny village in Spain for three months, in that time I had the intention to improve my Spanish and learn as much as I could. Sadly I didn’t find anyone giving Spanish classes, I then started to use duolinguo daily hoping to improve and get to practice with the locals around, I soon found out that it was a little village full of Dutch, German and English expats and the few locals there wanted to practice their English so they barely spoke with me in Spanish. It was a bit of a disaster for me and I didn’t learn that much 🙁

    I’m positive you are doing much better, even if it’s pretty hard at times! 🙂

    May. 22 2015 @ 3:05 am
    1. Franca author

      I remember that when you first took on that housesit that you were very gung ho about learning Spanish, but found it quite frustrating. That is one of my worries about winding up somewhere with a large expat/tourist population—that we won’t get as many opportunities to practice our Spanish—but so far, we haven’t encountered that too much thus far. For once people mistaking me for a local is actually turning out to be a good thing! 😉

      May. 22 2015 @ 1:58 pm
  14. Oh my god, I love your top photo so much. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m obsessed with your dogs 🙂

    Felicidades a ustedes! I learned to speak Spanish living in Los Angeles, taking classes at community college there, talking to my friends and their families, and traveling solo in Mexico. Making Spanish speaking friends is the best of course, but I also found it handy to befriend other travelers who spoke less Spanish than me, forcing me to do the communicating for us both.

    Oh, and listening to Spanish-language music! Have you guys discovered the beauty of 1980’s and 90’s Rock en Espanol? I’m kind of obsessed and working on a greatest hits playlist to share with my Mazatlan friends. I’ll send you the post when it’s up.

    May. 22 2015 @ 10:34 pm
    1. Cassie author

      Most the Spanish music we’ve heard so far is just instrumental Mariachi stuff (blared at loud volume by passing trucks!), but we should definitely explore the music scene a bit more. We’d definitely love to see your greatest hits playlist when you’ve finished! Anything to increase our exposure (while hardly feeling like learning) is a plus in our books (and it may give us extra cool points with the locals!).

      May. 27 2015 @ 1:15 pm
  15. Well done you guys! Learning another language as an adult is never easy but it looks as if you guys are on the right track!

    Yep! I live in Berlin. I’m an expat, but my husband is German and so are his friends. I sort of live a double life as I’m fully engrossed in the expat scene too. However, when I first got here, I enrolled at a private language school and they were great and it took about 3 months before I finally got it. I’m a control freak so that was pretty frustrating but after that it was plain sailing. I still make a few mistakes with the articles der, die, and das but I can normally work my way around it…! I guess I must be OK as I sometimes do translation work and in the past I was on German TV as a British person and I’ll be doing another TV programme very soon as the Queen’s coming. They wanted a British person who spoke fluent German but with a British accent……!

    p.s. I’m also a teacher/trainer so my big tip is to watch Spanish TV without any subtitles at all & llsiten to Spanish music. It’ll kill you and frustrate you at first, but you’ll benefit in the end. You’re welcome LOL!

    May. 25 2015 @ 10:34 am
    1. Victoria@ The British Berliner author

      Wow! Sounds like your German is really pretty excellent, but I guess you have good incentive to learn… all you need is love (and grammar drills!), right? 😉

      We need to be better about watching Spanish tv… we’ve tried watching a few of our shows with Spanish dubbing AND subtitles, as we figured having both would be easier on us, but unfortunately we found the dialogue and the subtitles weren’t matching up (in that the subtitles said something totally different!) so that just made us crazy. We could just drop the subtitles I suppose, but you’re right, it feels like torture because everything moves SO fast and we only catch a few words here and there. I guess that’s the only way to get our listening comprehension up to speed, though… literally! 😉

      May. 27 2015 @ 1:18 pm
  16. Aww, the joy of por and para. I still get it wrong all the time despite having studied Spanish for over a year now. One day I’ll get it and so will you. 🙂

    We actually only planned on taking classes for one month, but then extended it to three months full time (2hrs a day for 5 days a week). That was in Bolivia to prepare me for my upcoming voluntary placement in Peru. I volunteered part time and still took daily lessons for two further months. Once I started working full time for an NGO I still took one class every Saturday to keep at it and master the subjunctive. I just found that I forgot grammar so quickly and I felt that getting a quick reminder really helped me. I also valued the chance to practise conversations with my teacher, as I only needed to speak Spanish in my job when I visited the project once a month.

    Sadly we don’t live in Peru anymore, but I am still studying Spanish in Ghana by reading Spanish books (you can buy short stories for different levels which are great), and by watching DVDs in Spanish or with Spanish subtitles. We know we are going to return to South America one day, so I don’t want to forget any of my Spanish.

    As frustrating as learning a language can be, if you keep at it, you will find yourself dreaming in Spanish one day, and that is usually a turning point. Good luck!

    May. 29 2015 @ 5:21 am
    1. TammyOnTheMove author

      Wow, Tammy! I don’t think I could do three full months of classes—that takes some serious commitment! I won’t rule out taking classes again in the future as certainly if I decide I want to master the language some more class time will be required, but I am quite please with what we managed to do in just one month. Just yesterday I managed to have a conversation with the man down the street who runs a little quesadilla shop with his wife where I chatted about food in Tlaquepaque vs in La Peñita, as well as our plans for Mexico post-Tlaquepaque and what we were planning to do that day. I am sure I made mistakes, but even still, I was able to get my point across and it was the most in-depth conversation I’ve had in any language other than English or French, so that certainly must count for something!

      And don’t worry, once I master por vs para, there is still estar vs ser to work through as well… 😉

      May. 30 2015 @ 12:47 pm
  17. It sounds like you faired much better than me, well done. I did try, but despite only being me and Kel in the class our teacher was really inflexible and basically made us work from a textbook. I have the attention span of… oooh whats that.(terrible joke)

    Basically it was dull so I lost interest straight away. Although I think some stuff did sink in, as now we are here in France I can see that my language skills are even more woeful here, it’s all relative I guess.

    May. 29 2015 @ 3:37 pm
    1. Rob author

      I really think your teacher makes or breaks your Spanish lesson experience. We were SO FORTUNATE that our first teacher at GLC was just absolutely amazing—even though she lectured us 99% of the time in Spanish alone, she was just so great at communicating and was a lot of fun. She was also great about tailoring the class to what we wanted to learn and we spent so much time talking about our interests (food & dogs!), so that was great too.

      Clearly you guys need to bike down to Spain and put those rusty Spanish skills back to use! At first it was hard being in Mexico because we had spent 9 months in Canada & the U.S. where communicating wasn’t an issue at all, but I’m glad we took the time to boost our knowledge of the language here which has certainly helped our confidence!

      May. 30 2015 @ 12:52 pm
  18. I wish we’d done the Spanish school far longer than we actually did. And once we were done and moved on, we kind of hit a wall. We would revert back to the ease of English between us, so we didn’t advance our Spanish much as we traveled further south into South America.

    But I must say, 6 months in Latin America did imprint itself on us. We flew from Buenos Aires to Paris and spent 3 weeks there and we felt like doofs saying gracias all the time when we know French! Oh us 🙂

    May. 30 2015 @ 8:16 am
    1. Emily author

      Initially we were only going to take 2 weeks, but decided to up it to a month. Although our traveling/day tripping in the area may have suffered as a result, ultimately I’m really glad we did the full 20 days of class. I’ll be interested to see what happens once we’re no longer forced to learn the language for 2 hours per day—we’ve promised we’ll study together for an hour each day once we reach our next destination, so hopefully we will continue to improve. If not, I guess we’ll have to look into taking a few classes a week or something like that if we do want to get better. Thankfully, I think our Spanish is currently good enough now that we can make it through most interactions without reverting to/relying on English (though we do still have some vocab gaps for sure!). Little by little, we’ll get there.

      Also, I still morph into French if I’m not careful when speaking Spanish. Of course, sometimes when I try to think of how I would say something in French, I come up with Spanish vocab instead so… yeah, my brain’s a big old mess! 😉

      May. 30 2015 @ 12:57 pm
  19. I took Spanish lessons in school from 6th grade through graduation, minored in it at University and then worked in a Spanish-speaking elementary classroom, and still feel like my Spanish is mediocre on my best days and downright awful on most of them. I just try to smile a lot so that people think ‘she may be dumb, but she sure is friendly!’ as I butcher the language 5 or 6 times with every sentence I speak!

    May. 31 2015 @ 12:00 pm
    1. Jenny @ Till the Money Runs Out author

      Ha ha! Yeah, I’m sure that people think I have some kind of disability because everyone automatically assumes I’m Mexican and then just can’t get over the fact that I am not and also don’t speak the language.

      I think I have gotten to a point now where I am not letting my fear of embarrassment at making mistakes hold me back from chattering away with people. We have now had two very lengthy conversations with our neighbors here in Tlaquepaque, and they are so kind and patient with us that it feels really gratifying that we are making an effort. I know that 90% of my sentences have some kind of mistake in them, but I’m just motoring on and continuing to study and practice with Tony in private in the hopes that eventually we’ll get to the point where we are getting more things right than wrong! We definitely need to build our vocab, but we can get our point across and now do more than just ask the price of things and order off a menu so that is progress!

      May. 31 2015 @ 2:54 pm

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