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Learning Spanish? Me Too! – Five Important Life Lessons

[color-box color=”gray”][dropcap]Join[/dropcap] Canadian Expat, Dodie Schadlich, in her weekly column for “Off the Beaten Path”.  Read on to hear about an issue that effects every expat that moves to Ecuador: learning Spanish. [/color-box]

Learning a new language at this stage of the game is not exactly an easy task.

I know quite a few folks that move here with no intention of learning Spanish and yet they seem to get by.  They hire translators for the more important issues like medical or legal.   They hire trusted locals to run errands like paying taxes.  They find and socialize in the gringo groups and frequent the gringo hangouts to satisfy their need to fit in.  The basics of day to day life can certainly be met in English only.

What is missing is the connection with the locals; the possible friendships that can cross borders, boundaries, and cultures but do require communication to nurture.

I personally have a goal of becoming fluent in the language and strongly feel a desire to assimilate and integrate into life in Ecuador.  I believe a big part of that is dependent on my ability to speak with the locals.   I cannot imagine how different my experiences would be. The stories I share with you all, would not exist if I did not at least try to communicate with the everyday people that cross my path.

When we arrived in Ecuador in May of 2012; I had memorized a total of 36 verbs, plus a few simple greetings and questions.  I could order 2 cold beers and later ask for a bathroom quite easily.   Anything beyond that became tricky, frustrating and hilariously funny at times.

I am going to share some lessons I learned along the way; 5 of them actually.  If these tips can save someone frustrations then the mission has been accomplished.

The lessons started within the first two weeks of arriving into Ecuador.

[color-box color=”green”] Lesson # 1  When looking for something specific, practice the appropriate phrases, any connected words, and pronunciations before heading out the door. Even better, google search or use a dictionary and write it down [/color-box]
[color-box color=”green”]Lesson # 2   Practice charades for even the most mundane and typical daily routines; some actions and gestures are universally understood in all languages. [/color-box]

We started our Ecuador journey in the mountain town of Baños de Aqua Santa.  Lots of green, mountains, waterfalls and rivers; much like our home in British Columbia except with an active volcano in the background.

Randy approached me one day stating that his allergies were starting to act up, his sinuses were plugged and he wanted me to run down to the pharmacy and pick up some Benedryl.   I was feeling confident, possibly a little too confident in hindsight, and headed down to the Farma- SEE-YA (incorrect pronunciation)   to buy some medicine for my husband.

I arrive at the store and ask the pharmacist for Benedryl and there was zero recognition to what I was asking for. Uh oh,   I was totally unprepared that they would not have Benedryl so I start saying words with hand signals to signify the symptoms of allergies; for itch, for watering eyes, for stuffy nose. She is just looking at me as I continue to say single words; finally, the light goes on in her eyes and she gives me medicine.

Sure, it took longer than I hoped but, in the end, I got the medicine and left with the new found knowledge that Benedryl is not available in Ecuador; good information to have.  I return home proud and feeling accomplished and handed Randy the medicine.  He takes two pills and expresses his appreciation for helping him out and we both proceed with our tasks for the day.

Later that afternoon, Randy walks into the room with a question; the conversation goes like this:

Randy:  Are you sure they were anti-histamines?

Me;  Yes, why?

Randy:  Well, I’m still stuffed up but  I’ve had like 4 Sh*Ts already.

Me:   BAHAHAHAHAH

Through tears of laughter, I inform Randy that I have no idea how on earth she could have mixed that up.  I never said anything even close to that.   By the next day; he had multiple visits to the toilet and I am sure he was practicing a few choice words for me.

This then brings me to Lesson #2.  I need to buy more toilet paper, so off to the corner store I go.  I get to the till and the lady asks what I would like and it occurs to me I do not know the name for toilet paper.  Oh brother, here we go again.

The conversation goes like this:

  Me;  Papel?

Lady:  ¿Qué tipo de papel? (curious look)

Me:  Uhmm  papel…. de baño?

Lady: (curious look and eyebrow raised)

Me:   Papel   ( as I reach around behind my back, bend over slightly and do the bum wiping motion)  

Lady: BAHAHAHAHAH  ¡¡papel higienico!!

Both of these experiences made me realize the importance of preparation. Even when heading out to gather the most mundane item, it is good practice to run the conversation through your head before arrival. This will help you identify problem areas that may arise, words you may not know.   When in doubt remember, there are some international actions, some common, everyday tasks that have no boundaries and can be easily communicated with some hand gestures.

 [color-box color=”green”] Lesson #3  Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, we learn from our mistakes. The bigger the mistake, the quicker and more deeply we learn it. [/color-box]

A year after learning lessons 1 and 2.  Another learning opportunity arose.  By then we were living on the coast in La Libertad, just outside Salinas. My Spanish had definitely improved over the year, but I was still speaking much like a cave man in short, broken sentences.  My conjugation was improving but I was still building my vocabulary day by day.

We had to travel to and from the big city of Guayaquil as we renovated the property which gave me the opportunity to visit some trendy coffee shops. Back then, these types of shops were not found in our area of the coast, so it was a treat!

One day I found myself at the Juan Valdez Coffee Shop (very much like a trendy Starbucks) and I bought an overpriced double whipped Frappacappachinomochaspiced thing, in Spanish.   Wow, that was easier than I expected; feeling confident and proud.

She hands me a cup, I pay the bill and things are going well.   Now, I simply need a lid for this frothy mess in my cup.

I say as clear as I am able;  ‘ un tam-po-nes, por favor.’    The look on her face was hard to read. Either she didn’t understand me or she didn’t hear me correctly.

So, I repeat again, slower and louder using a full sentence.   ‘ Yo Necessito un Tam-po-nes por favor’.  For added effect, I use the hand gesture of pointing to the top of my cup.

It was hard for me to describe the look on her face, and I am wondering how I can say this differently;  I start looking for the lids so I could just point at what I needed.

Just then a stranger from the line leans forward and whispers to me; the conversation goes like this.

Stranger:    Tapas is the word for lid

Me;   Thanks, so what was I asking for?

Stranger:  (sheepishly)  a tampon

Me;  BAHAHAHA   What! NO, I don’t need one of those!

Me: (now looking at the clerk)  No, lo siento, no necesito tam-po-nes.  Tapa por favor, yo necesito una tapa

Rest of the line of waiting customers;  chuckle, chuckle, grin, grin, laugh out loud

These lessons may take you by surprise; they may come at the most inopportune time however, I can tell you with certainty these lessons will never be forgotten. Tapa means a lid,this will stay, front and center in my mind…forever

[color-box color=”green”]Lesson #4  Practice Pictionary, and stick man drawings, they may come in handy.[/color-box]

Some people are more artistic than others, and I happen to be one that barely can draw a stick-man. I am an ok partner to have for Pictionary because I am a good guesser, but when it comes time to draw, well… we simply can’t be great at everything, can we?

Lesson # 4  happened while we were building the bamboo home in 25 days.  Some of you may have read that story; if not, you can find it here. How to Build a Home in 25 Days

Randy and I went to the job site regularly, and one particular visit was about a specific plumbing piece that was needed;  Randy was trying to communicate the part and I was assisting with the language barrier as best as I could.  Explaining plumbing pieces in English or Spanish is not exactly one of my strengths.  It became apparent we were getting nowhere; there just did not seem to be a word that translated over to Spanish to help with the comprehension.

I decided to try and draw it… well…

Pen and paper in hand, a line here, a line there, a little crook here, and a hole there.   The Maestro is standing beside me, waiting for the sketch to be complete so we can move forward in the conversation.

As my pen leaves the paper and I gaze down at my drawing;  I think, Oh My that looks like a penis.   I look up at the Maestro and he is totally wide-eyed and silent with a surprised and puzzled look on his face.  I immediately crack up so badly that he follows, now we are both laughing hysterically.

Randy, who had been looking over shelves trying to find other pieces and parts, comes over to see what all the laughter is about.  He glances at the drawing and his hands fly up and he says “Oh Jeeezzzz, are you kidding me?!”   This just makes us laugh even harder.

Randy re-drew the part and we carried on, but not without periodic fits of laughter.  I find it funny, the little and unexpected things, that will remove the language barrier.

Keeping a pen and paper with you to help communications is a great idea, but, be careful and ensure you understand your creative drawing abilities (or lack thereof)  and be ready…for anything.

[color-box color=”green”] Lastly, we come to Lesson #5  – Learn to laugh at yourself, it makes the process easier. [/color-box]

Don’t take life so serious.  Being scared of making a mistake, trying to avoid embarrassing or uncomfortable situations, will shelter you from the very experiences that leads not only to learning, but also to connecting with people in unexpected and often times hilarious ways.  Some things are beyond languages and customs, such as hugs, smiles, tears, and laughter; they are all part of a universal language.

Jump into your new life with gusto.  The Ecuadorian people will embrace your attempts at communication, they will laugh with you (and even at you sometimes)  but it is part of the adventure.  So go ahead, take a chance, jump in and see what happens…and don’t forget to enjoy the ride.

9 Responses

  1. Hay you two havent heard a peep since xmas ,no pictures, nothing, was begining to worry if you fell of the flat earth or won the lotto and weren’t telling us, any way thing are good here so far…. life is going on whether we like it or not had a longer winter this year you shoukld hear the whinning just the normal winter we used to get HA! HA! HA! just had lunch with the youngest daughter and son in law their doing good the oldest is just finishing her degree and is still teaching too she has exams to do and then exams to make up for her students she is totally exhausted and has 5 weeks to go don’t know how she manages as she doesn’t take after either parent ,maybe shes some one else’s kid HA! HA! HA!Great write up there princes, hope all is well with you and Randy always good to hear from you If you have time would be nice to have a few picture from Christmas if not “Oh well’ Love you guys Pep’e

  2. Love it! I can so relate to the blank looks I sometimes get when I speak my “perfect Spanish”. I try again, and now the blank look has turned into “Is this guy crazy?” look. “Jump into your new life with gusto”, what great advice for all the moments that make up a life. When done consistently, I believe it gets called “A good life”. Thanks for sharing your very funny stories Dodie!

  3. Oh Dodie you are so funny! I remembered your Tapas story, so when we were in Quito and I got a coffee and I needed a lid I was sure to ask for the right thing ! Carla and I still got a great chuckle out of hearing the story again !
    You are a great writer! I so agree that when you are in another country it’s SO helpful to speak some of the language. More than just hello,goodbye, please and thank you and where is the bathroom ? that certainly helps of course but as you said being able to connect with the locals is so great !
    I look forward to your stories every week !!
    Hugs, Laree

    1. Hey Peter, if you are reading her weekly column on the page and commenting, you are in the right place! Subscribe to our newsletter to receive the latest articles and classifieds sent to your inbox 5 days a week

  4. Absolutely right Dodie! I’m one that doesn’t mind looking like an idiot from time to time, and I certainly can laugh at myself!! I have become good friends with some Ecuadorean’s, who most speak some English. We’ve taken trips together, and I’m often surprised at how easy it is for me to make them laugh! I’m innocently saying things that double them over with laughter! Every time we pass Parque Iberia, I see this little hot dog place advertising Mandingoes! I always say….”some day, I’m going to get one of those Mandingoes!” Once they get control of themselves…they say, “Sarah, you should always say “Mandingo hot-dog!”
    But I’ve had MY turn at laughing too….like when German tells me we stayed in a “warehouse” (I’m sure he sees the word spelling in his mind) and if you don’t pronounce the “h”‘s in Spanish…..the whorehouse becomes a warehouse! I wondered about the room his mother and I slept in…..that the entire shower was glass walls!! JaJaJa!

  5. Loving all your articles Dodie , thank’s for the information I well keep it in mind the next time I’m in Ecuador . I’m sure we will have a few good laughs .. Still working on my Spanish Lol .. I look forward to reading your next article you sure have a way with words . Love it keep up the good work .

  6. Reminds me of a taxi ride with my girlfriend. She was very confident in her Spanish so she proceeded to give directions… “erecto”, she she spoke loudly to the driver. Our Ecuadorian friend with us said, “ummm, that does not mean, go straight”. Bwahahahaha, when he corrected her directions, we all had a great laugh, including the taxi driver.

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