In this article I want to talk about what happened to me during my early attempts at trying to communicate in Spanish with the native Spanish speaking peoples of Central America. After spending six weeks ploughing through a basic level Spanish text book and learning as much Spanish vocabulary as my memory would permit I thought I was ready to take on the Spanish language for real! !
I actually started my trip through the Americas in the U.S. I spent some time in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego before heading south to the Mexican border on route to Tiajana. Although I didn’t actually converse with anybody in Spanish in the U.S I did learn a lot about the Spanish conquest of this region before the English took over!
You might be wondering what that has to do with learning Spanish! Well, the point is that learning Spanish shouldn’t just be about learning how to communicate in Spanish. One of the best ways to keep yourself enthused about your studies is to immerse yourself in all things Spanish. Learning about Spanish history for example and in my particular case about the Spanish conquest of the Americas is a great way of adding substance. It kind of validates and gives purpose and added reason to why you are learning the Spanish language in the first place.
This might all sound a bit deep but the truth is that cultural immersion really can help you to understand certain things about the Spanish language that you might not be able to gain from a textbook alone! Plus, if your anything like me you’ll simply love learning about Spanish history and the conquest of the Americas as a matter course.
Before I went to the U.S I didn’t realise just how much of the Americas that the Spanish were originally in control of. Their rule extended the entire Pacific coast from Southern Argentina right the way up to modern day Alaska. I also didn’t realise that the names of some US cities are actually Spanish names! San Francisco (Saint Francis) Los Angeles (The Angles).
The further south that you go in the U.S the more Spanish influence there is. In Florida and L.A, Spanish place names are common and some road signs are even translated into Spanish.
So, with a little Pre-Columbian history under my belt and my self study crash course in Spanish I caught a bus south from L.A direct to the Mexican town of Tijuana just over the U.S / Mexican border. To start with I didn’t really get much of a chance to test my Spanish out on anyone. The taxi drivers, the owner of the hostel I stayed at and the bar staff at all the bars I went to all seemed to want to talk to me in English! This wasn’t that surprising however! Tijuana has a reputation for being a bit of a party town for young North Americans looking for a good weekend!
I tried to speak a little Spanish to the locals but couldn’t string sentences together quick enough. I think most people could see I was struggling and decided to make it easy for the ‘poor gringo’ by speaking to me in English! It wasn’t until I decided to head south again further into Baja de California that I got my first real opportunities to speak.
I went to a local bus company to book a bus to the next town south, called Ensenada. This time I was on my own; no-body spoke a word of English. I then attempted to explain to the lovely young Mexican girl that attended me that I wanted to catch a bus to the next town south. The only thing was I didn’t know how to say it properly. I didn’t know the word for ‘catch’ or ‘get on’ and had forgotten even basic words like ‘to go’ and ‘ticket’. All I kept blurting out was ‘ummm…..bus…..ummm…bus….. Ensenada!’ I must have looked like a bumbling fool and I certainly felt like one!
Of course the lovely young Mexican girl understood that I wanted to go to Ensenada by bus, even from my mumblings, but the next challenge was figuring out the bus timetable and how much it was going to cost me. If this wasn’t bad enough I couldn’t understand a word of what the Mexican girl was saying to me in Spanish! In the end the Mexican girl had to write numbers down on a piece of paper (thank god numbers are the same in both English and Spanish I thought!) After a period of time, which seemed like forever I eventually paid my pesos and reserved a seat on the next bus out, which was in a few hours!
Admittedly I had only just arrived in the Spanish-speaking world and I hadn’t really done a lot of studying so I probably shouldn’t have expected much! Later I was told that the Mexican accent could be one of the hardest in Latin America to understand as well. But, the thing was, I was pretty annoyed and shocked at just how useless I was! So from that day onwards I promised myself that I would find a little time each day during the rest of my travels, (not difficult as a backpacker), to improve my Spanish skills. I knew I had a long way to go but I was determined to do it!