Saturday, November 28, 2009

Learning Spanish

Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Cruisers can live in Mexico for years and never learn a word of Spanish. Finger pointing and other gestures combined with grunts and a surprisingly wide-spread knowledge of English even amongst your average street vendor combine to make it pretty easy to let your Spanish lessons lapse. You could hang out exclusively with other Americans and Canadians, shop at the large commercial supermarkets, and use a friend to help you with the occasional mechanic and never learn more Spanish than hola and adios.

However, I’m going to recommend that you make the effort to learn Spanish anyway. Learn at least the most useful few hundred words and phrases that differentiate the Ugly American from a savvy experienced traveler making the most of an experience abroad. You don’t have to speak it well. You don’t even have to understand what you are saying. What you must do is look like you’re trying.

In my professional life, I frequently consult for companies who are writing English language documentation destined for either an international, English as a Second Language (ESL) audience or for translation into multiple languages. In both cases, a key to reducing cost and improving usability is to restrict the source documentation to a simple, stripped down version of the English language. Instead of drawing upon the upwards of 30,000 words in our native tongue, I help clients identify the roughly 2,000 words they need to communicate every important concept, feature and task required of their product. For each industry, this core simplified English dictionary varies somewhat with roughly a third being industry specific and ten percent unique to the client or product.

But think about that. A mere 2,000 words is all that is needed to convey the most sophisticated of concepts in industries as diverse as airplane manufacture, medicine, or network security. When it comes to “simplified cruiser Spanish,” you could master everything you need to know by adding 20 words or phrases to your vocabulary every week for two years.

This is how the crew of Don Quixote is learning Spanish. We tried Rosetta Stone and school books. We did online programs, coloring books, little signs on everything on the boat. Nothing really stuck with either the girls or myself. Finally, I got smart. The very trick I have successfully implemented in company after company would work here. For us. In Mexico. We needed 2,000 words of cruiser Spanish, and we needed to learn them a little bit every week as the words became important to us. This would help us “mine” our lives for the appropriate palette of words and give us many opportunities to use the new words each week.

We began with a week of food. Followed by another week of restaurant. Then we did a week of more food. This family moves on its stomach. We pulled into Santa Rosalia for the first time and realized we needed a week of dock terms, then another week of town terms, and right before we left in the van, a week of traveling words. We returned to suck down two weeks of words in three days relating to wind, weather, hurricanes, forecasting, and tides. Then we drifted on our laurels for a few weeks slowly taking in boat parts, clothing, colors, and birthday words. Last week DrC insisted it was time I learned 20 words relating to sex, and so I felt compelled to give the girls their own list of non-related phrases having to do with holidays and cleaning tools. With relatives headed down in the coming weeks, we’ll tackle relationships, travel on planes, and words needed in thank you letters to grandparents.

This slow accretion of words and phrases is working. My accent is absolutely awful, but daily I find myself using my Spanish more, with increased comfort and confidence. The Mexicans laugh with me when I say bird beak (pronounced pee-ko) rather than small (poh-koh), but they appreciate the effort. Each day, a vendor teaches me a new word such as poblano (chile used for chile rellenos) or tornillo de ferrous inoxidable (stainless steel screws). Each day, my grasp of cruiser Spanish grows, and I am more comfortable moving around in Mexican markets and ferreterias (hardware stores).

Knowing the language in the country through which you travel makes good sense. You are safer. You are stronger. You are more courteous. Your depth of understanding of the people and culture you are encountering is considerably greater. Just because you can travel in Mexico without learning the language, doesn’t mean you should. If you are planning a trip to French Polynesia or Latin America, start now. Two thousand is just not a very large number.


Positively Orphaned said...

Great advice! I often get overwhelmed and confused with languages, so I really like your idea of tackling a few every week. Sounds very manageable. Thanks!

A. Wannabe Travelwriter said...

Toast and familia,

It has been a while since I interviewed the ladies (which Lat 38 never published). I enjoyed my month on Cirque and certainly meeting your family. After doing a little catching up on your blogs all I can do is wish you everything good in your lives.
You all deserve it!