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Do Expats Really Need to Learn the Language? It Depends.

For many new or potential expats, one of the biggest perceived barriers to moving to the Latin tropics is the issue of learning the language.  Since most of the countries in the Latin tropics speak Spanish as their official language, this is just another hurdle that many foreigners face, especially those who’ve never really been exposed to the language.

Then again, as more and more North Americans are discovering the region and moving by the thousands each year to the Latin tropics, is learning Spanish even necessary?

learn spanish

Daniel Lobo

Do Expats to Latin America Really Have to Learn Spanish?

The truth is…it depends.  Mostly on you and the lifestyle you plan to live.  If you plan to move to a heavily touristed area or exploding expat destination, live in a gated community of other people like you, eat in the same chain restaurants you find in North America, buy expensive imported products in the big box stores, and never immerse yourself in the local culture…then no.  You don’t ultimately have to learn Spanish to do any of that.

There is enough of a long-standing expat presence in much of Latin America and enough English-speaking locals (in most of the mid- to larger-size cities) that you could easily get by only speaking English.  You could find businesses that cater to expats, professionals who speak excellent English, and even translators for those really important legal transactions.

However, if you’ve made the decision to leave your home environment in search of a new adventure in the Latin tropics, then I doubt any of that sounds very appealing to you.

You Do if You Want to Maximize Your Expat Experience

What generally does appeal to most expats is the idea of meeting new people (who aren’t exactly like them), embarking on new adventures, trying new things, and becoming a more engaged and well-rounded version of themselves.  If you’re going to achieve that, Debes aprender a hablar español.

Not only will learning how to interact with the locals enhance your experience as an expat.  It also helps build mutual respect from their point of view as well.  Locals in the Latin tropics are generally friendly and welcoming to most foreigners, especially those who’ve decided to call the region home.  However, it speaks volumes to them to see newcomers going the extra mile to embrace their language and culture.

They understand that you’ll stumble in the beginning.  And they won’t laugh at you…much.  In fact, most will slow down and help you with your pronunciation if you get it wrong.  (Hint: It’s arroz con “PO-yoh”, not “POL-lo” as it’s spelled.)  The main thing that makes an impact with them is that you’re trying.

learn spanish

Anina Imhof

You Don’t Have to Be Fluent Before You Even Hit the Ground

What’s important to remember as you prepare for your transition as an expat is that it’s not necessary that you become fluent in Spanish before you ever set foot in your new country.  In fact, it’s okay if you know little to nothing of the language when you arrive.  There’s a hefty learning curve involved and plenty of resources to help you along the way.

Here are a few tips that helped each of us in the beginning and that we now offer as advice to new expats we meet:

  • Use Google Translate or a similar app to help you in the beginning.  Yeah, you’re gonna look like a tourist, but using apps that can translate from Spanish to English in real time can be a lifesaver when you’re first learning the ropes.  The new Word Lens feature translates printed text using your smartphone camera, even when you don’t have an internet connection.
  • Don’t frequent only English speaking businesses and establishments.  The temptation will be there to only interact with people who speak your language, but don’t give in to it.  You’ve got to stretch yourself if you’re ever going to feel comfortable in conversation with locals.
  • Use every opportunity to practice.  Try to make conversation with your cab driver, your waitress, and the guy that does your yardwork.  Conversing with a variety of people will help you learn all the idioms and phrases that are specific to your part of the Latin tropics.
  • Enroll in a class at a Spanish language school.  This is one of the best ways to learn to Speak the language, and there are many reputable ones throughout Latin America.  You can also hire a tutor to come to your home and give your family private lessons.
  • Hire trustworthy English-speaking professionals to help you with legal matters.  If you’re buying a house, navigating the immigration process, investing in a business, or doing anything else with important ramifications, it is absolutely essential that you find a reputable professional to help you.  Get recommendations from other expats.
learn spanish

Geir Halvorsen

Don’t Let the Language Barrier Stand in Your Way

While learning the language is a necessary part of an expat’s transition, it should be the least of your worries.  Rather than being a barrier that prevents you from blending in with the culture, you should see it as one of the most fun parts of your expat experience.

Learning a new language has been proven to sharpen the mind, even helping to stave off diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.  For younger expats, it provides a fun challenge for the entire family, although the kids will likely pick it up the fastest.  And the benefits for bilingual expat children will be realized as they apply for jobs and build their career.

Whatever your stage of life, learning a new language is always a great idea.  What are you waiting for?  Que lo pruebes!

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2 thoughts on “Do Expats Really Need to Learn the Language? It Depends.

  1. 1

    Sorry guys n gals , you must learn spanish or your hard earned cash will disapper from the very hands that made it , been there done that , Kenneth

  2. 2

    I couldn’t agree more. If you want to enjoy all your new home has to offer, be it tropical Central America or any other Spanish speaking country, you do have to learn it.

    But I know many expats that have been here for two years without having to learn much more than hola, por favor, cerveza and gracias. Hell, we met a really nice Spanish student last year who had been for 8 years here, and he was on his first stages of Spanish (he lived in a non-touristy area, but worked with people from all over the world).

    People in Central America are used to foreigners and do speak English (many speak only rudiments), but to be able to talk in their (our) own language can bring you closer to other people and perhaps avoid one or two misunderstandings… the “lost in translation” type.

    I do believe that necessary or not, learning Spanish is fun! Josh, Park, family and readers, hit us up if you would like to learn some 🙂 >>

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