Published on April 27th, 2014


Wanna Learn Spanish? Speak Like an IDIOT!

Uno, dos, tres... learn spanish

Uno, dos, tres…

If you’ve been following my tales here at TravelnLass for the past few years, then you already know that I ADORE Vietnam. Indeed, I lived there blissfully for more than 2 years, and would happily live out the rest of my days there (especially my beloved “L’Auberge Ami” up in the cool, green mountains of Dalat), were it not for…

The insufferable (no less than *SIX* nuanced tones!) Vietnamese language.

Now, I’m apparently not too bad at learning new languages – having lived in France and Italy for a spell and (amazingly) still – after more than 30 years! – can understand the French family of four jabbering away across the aisle from me on a flight to Myanmar.

Then there’s my reliable (if rudimentary) base of Spanish – all but lost after but a semester of high school Spanish, but fortunately re-emboldened by 20+ years of skipping to ‘n fro Costa Rica leading trips and doing research as a tour operator in Central America.

Indeed, though I’d not recently spoken a word of el español for many years now (struggling instead with learning a wretchedly pathetic amount of phrases in Vietnamese, plus a handful of words in Thai, Kazakh, Khmer, Laotian, Nepalese, Indonesian and Malay – not to mention a few colorful Oz expressions – as I skipped around Asia), I’m exceedingly thrilled with the (admittedly, stuttering but still…) progress I’ve made in expanding my Spanish here in Ecuador in the past few months.

learn spanish at the market

The dear lasses at my neighborhood mercado have patiently taught me the Spanish names for a boatload of local fruits and vegetables.

A seriously looooooong way to go mind you, but yapping in Spanish with street vendors, cabbys, tienda folk, and those endearing lasses tending fruits and veggies at my local “9 de Octubre” mercado is proving EVER so much easier than the bewildering Thai squiggles on every signpost in Chiang Mai, and the elusive tones of Vietnamese.

And while I diligently practice each and every day with (the majorly fun and addictive) Duolingo, no book nor dictionary nor language CD nor online language program – no matter how nifty – will ever get you proficient, much less fluent in your chosen L2. At some point, you must put the books and CDs aside, toss the dictionary (not to mention turn off the Google Translate app on your phone) and…

Venture forth into the sea of gibberish on the street, in the grocery store, the cafe and the bus… Indeed, dive headlong into communicating in the local language AS.BEST.YOU.CAN. Be it with but a vocabulary in the single digits and a lot of exaggerated pointing and foolish clown-like mime.

IOW, I firmly believe that the single best way to learning ANY language – is to simply SPEAK it every blessed chance you get.

Yes, yes – you will no doubt sound like an IDIOT at first.

But think about it: If you were to encounter say… a Zulu lass struggling to sputter a simple “Where…go me…yokugezela?” on the street in Seattle – you’d not think her the least bit stupid or idiotic. Rather – much like the locals I’ve encountered in foreign countries all over the globe – you’d be delighted that she was trying her best to speak English, and hurry to help her find the bathroom.

In short, the very first obstacle in learning a second (or third, or…) language is to get over yourself. Your ego. Your nonsensical attachment to perfection. Of COURSE you’ll make mistakes. A GAZILLION errors in both vocabulary (yup, those silly “feminine” and “masculine” endings – ack!) and grammar.

But here’s the thing: NOBODY CARES. Certainly not the locals. They’ll be thrilled that you’re even TRYING to speak their native language.

It’s really the ONLY way to – poco a poco – become more proficient in speaking a new foreign language. Each time you actually try to communicate with a local and/or get something done (buy a loaf a bread, ask the price of something, get yourself from Point A to Point B in a taxi, etc.) – you’re much more likely to remember the vocabulary, the grammar, the pronunciation the next time. Your vocabulary will magically increase, and before you know it – you’ll be speaking – if not like a pro, then at least less and less like an IDIOT! 😉

Speaking of putting all dignity aside and resigning yourself to sounding like a full-blown “idiot” – humor can help in learning a new language too. As evidenced in this exceedingly hysterical YouTube video I recently ran across – ENJOY!

My favorite quip is at 5:50 – “poquito wordo” – what’s yours?


About the Author

Off-the-beaten-path travel is my passion,and I’ve always lived life “like-a-kid-in-a-candy-store” – eager to sample as many flavors as I can. Indeed, my life motto has long been: This ain’t a dress rehearsal, folks!

18 Responses to Wanna Learn Spanish? Speak Like an IDIOT!

  1. Great post and hilarious video!

    I actually prefer to try to learn languages by immersion bc if I start at home I usually have tons to “unlearn” that gets in the way! Since I knew I’d be in South America for 5 months, I thought I’d give one on one lessons a try, but I think I’m going back to – as you said – just speaking (badly!) every chance I can get and avoiding English.

    Good luck on your continued studies and perhaps our paths will cross somewhere in this wonderful country! 🙂
    Malia @ Shoyu Sugar kindly contributed to world literature by posting…Colombia by BusMy Profile

    • Dyanne says:

      Yes Malia, I too find that the greatest danger lies in having to “unlearn” something that you learned incorrectly to begin with. For example, I apparently learned to pronounce the simple Spanish word “fácil” (easy) wrong to begin with. I mistakenly placed the accent on the second syllable (rather than correctly, on the FIRST). And it’s been super tough to break the habit now.

      Also, I first learned Spanish whilst running small group tours to Costa Rica in the ’90s and am finding that there are many differences in the Spanish spoken there compared to here in Ecuador. Again, hard to change once something’s become ingrained.

      But yes, yes – bottom-line ever so important if you’re serious about learning a new language: avoid all opportunities to speak English like the PLAGUE! In my experience (w/ French and Italian and now Spanish) only when you (deliberately) place yourself in a position where you HAVE to speak L2,, will you begin to make progress in fluency.

  2. MCRT says:

    I have seen Que Hora Es before and think I can decipher about half of it. Never took Spanish. I do know that people generally like it even if you can only say something like Me no hablo Espanol. Hablo si Englais? Or Un cervesa por favor. Another fun post by the GlobalGirl. Have you found your first Ecuador cache yet?

    • Dyanne says:

      Nope Mike, no Ecuador find yet. There’s only 3 listed here in Cuenca, and sadly, 2 of those are presently (and apparently permanently) disabled. The one remaining hide I’m saving for a special occasion to go after.

      That said… what I HAVE been doing geocaching-wise – is cookin’ up a couple of my own globalgirl hides. Unlike Asia – there’s TONS of great places for hides here, and I’m presently scoping out one along the (spectacularly beautiful) Tomebamba river, plus a “mystery” (natch, for the gg) cache involving an ancient Inca cipher.

      • MCRT says:

        Sounds cool. I don’t know if I’ll have a chance to find it, but I look forward to trying to solve it.

  3. Favorite part? Too many LOLs. It’s a tie between ‘chihuahua’ and ‘Santa Claus’.

    I gotta agree with Dyanne. When I’ve spoken like an idiot, the locals have been warm, supportive and helpful. For the past 5 1/2 years I’ve had to decipher correct English words mispronounced by Filipinos, Thais, and a few Scots. I concluded If I don’t learn the proper pronunciation in a new language, then the value of learning that word is greatly diminished.

    Vaya con dedos.
    Four Letter Nerd kindly contributed to world literature by posting…The Cost of Quality of LifeMy Profile

    • Dyanne says:

      Yes FLN, wherever I’ve attempted to speak even a smidge of the local language – be it Portuguese in Mozambique, Arabic in Morocco, Kazakh in Mongolia, Australian in Oz 😉 – the locals have ever been most kind, supportive and in fact gleeful, that I even half tried. I believe they view it as a compliment, an acknowledgement that I am but a guest in their native land, and thus am trying my best to be polite.

  4. James says:

    That video is hilarious! I love language learning and all the challenges that come with it. It’s like one big puzzle to solve in order to be understood. I have a lot of respect for those who immerse themselves in a language to the point of fluency.
    James kindly contributed to world literature by posting…“I do not wake up for less than the perfect beach” (Phu Quoc, Vietnam)My Profile

    • Dyanne says:

      Yep James – just a big ol’ puzzle with a gazillion pieces, a most apt analogy. And those “aha!” moments when one or two of the pieces (i.e. words) fall into place (and a local actually UNDERSTANDS you!)

      That said, dunno that I’ll EVER achieve full Spanish “fluency” here. But lucky you – you bilingual lad (both English and Vietnamese, learned no doubt as a tot at your mother’s knee?) I only wish I’d been exposed to multiple languages as a child.

  5. I have a pretty good ear for languages too, but I was mostly thwarted in Vietnam as well. By the end of 3 months we could recognize and say most food words (making clear what our priorities were) and our numbers, but we never progressed beyond simple “hello” and “goodbye” in conversation. I found that it wasn’t just the tones that were lethal to learning Vietnamese, but just so many of the sounds that are made are foreign and don’t seem to coincide with the Romanized transcription. I think the one thing I look forward to in Europe and whenever we make it to Central/South America is I will have half a chance of actually being able to pick up the language. I figure no attempts made there could be worse than the way I butchered all these Asian languages, so I’ve nothing to lose! (That’s really the key to learning a language isn’t it? Make mistakes, laugh, and learn!)
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) kindly contributed to world literature by posting…In the Lap of Luxury at the Mekong Riverview HotelMy Profile

    • Dyanne says:

      Indeed Steph – “Make mistakes, laugh, and learn!” That’s what it’s all about.

      And yes too, no doubt you (as I) will much enjoy the (comparative) ease of learning/speaking/likewise butchering Spanish when you drop into Latin America. That’s the main reason I (reluctantly) left Asia and have settled here in Ecuador – at least here I have a hope of eventually being able to have an in depth conversation with a local.

  6. Wes says:

    Great post, couldn’t agree more. Can’t be afraid to sound like an idiot. I can only imagine what I sound like in Spanish.
    Wes kindly contributed to world literature by posting…Ecuador Travel Photo Of The Week: Spices In OtavaloMy Profile

    • Dyanne says:

      I KNOW Wes – I’m sure I must sound like an idiot, but amazingly all of the locals that I talk to are so kind and seem to really enjoy conversing with me. Indeed, they seem very pleased that I’m even trying!

  7. Sue Pearson says:

    That is so true!
    Sue Pearson kindly contributed to world literature by posting…Paper Mache Dragonfly, Angelina by mosaicmacheMy Profile

  8. Sue Pearson says:

    Haha, funny video, thats about where I am! Can’t wait to really learn by immersion for sure. I am glad its Spanish and not Vietnamese. I can’t imagine that! I’m also glad I have months to keep learning before I get there, I believe that is at least a very helpful thing!

    • Dyanne says:

      Yes Sue, while it’s always good of course to use Duolingo and other methods of language acquisition to gain familiarity and a wider (passive) vocabulary, imho immersion and getting past the “but I sound like an idiot” obstacle (i.e. SPEAKING) will truly expand your proficiency (in any language) by leaps and bounds.

      Sadly, I’ve met many expats here who are diligently using books and even private language classes, but when we go into a bakery where the Ecuadorian owner is known to speak English – instead of ordering and chatting in Spanish (which is what I do) – they swiftly lapse into English!

      In short, you really need to just plow ahead and speak Spanish at every blessed opportunity you can find.

      • Sue Pearson says:

        I’m sure it will take quite awhile to feel even slightly “comfortable” speaking! I can’t imagine how anyone who has never taken a lesson or studied prior to arriving to live there, can not feel completely overwhelmed, even with the handful of English speakers around. I guess bravo to their bravery!

        • Dyanne says:

          Best analogy I can come up with Sue, is learning to play a musical instrument like a guitar. Learning a language is a skill. At first you just pluck a string or two, then learn a single chord and strum, strum, strum… And little by little – you’ll eventually be playing an entire song!

          Point is – if you merely read music in a book or listen to a song on your iPod – but never pick up a guitar and actually try to PLAY. You’ll never, ever be able to play the guitar.

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