How to Live in Mexico; Learning Spanish as an expat


I hope that you haven’t stopped learning English, or whatever your native language might be, and learning Spanish will be the same. We never stop learning, or we shouldn’t. And there are ways to learn Spanish that will help get you communicating better in your new country.

We have already learned one language, so we have proven to ourselves that we are capable of learning a language, we just need to use the same approach that enabled us to learn English, or our native language.

Most of us already spoke our native language before attending our first year of school. We learned our native language by living in an environment where our native language was being used around us every day. We heard people speaking, we heard the television and radio. We mimicked what we heard, and thus we began speaking a new language, even if we didn’t know what we were saying.

Learning a second language isn’t much different. Attending Spanish classes, doing online courses, and reading Spanish textbooks isn’t going to help you learn Spanish if you aren’t applying yourself to the language outside of study time. Learning a new language is a full-time immersion experience, not a couple of hours a week. It is repetition, surrounding yourself with the Spanish language, and using every Spanish word in your arsenal every chance you have, and building on your vocabulary one word and phrase at a time. This is exactly how we learned our native language.

I have spoken about my own struggles with learning Spanish, all self-imposed struggles. I lived full-time in Mexico for several years before I was able to form one complete sentence in Spanish. I depended on everyone in Puerto Vallarta speaking English, it was the reason I chose to live in Puerto Vallarta. It wasn’t until I moved to Oaxaca for two years that I didn’t have any other option but to learn Spanish. I was way too comfortable in Puerto Vallarta where learning Spanish isn’t necessary because most people are required to speak English due to the city’s reliance on tourism. But I am much happier today, I have a much larger circle of friends, I understand Mexico better, and its people and culture much clearer now that I can speak the language. That is my hope for you. Learning Spanish isn’t just about learning how to speak a different language, it’s about opening yourself up to larger possibilities and a better understanding of the place you have chosen to call home.

Here are some tips for learning a new language that I discovered on my own journey.

Use the Spanish words you know

You already know the word ‘Hola’ in Spanish, so the word ‘Hello’ should never pass your lips again. Even when greeting your expat friends, say ‘Hola’. You probably already know ‘Cómo estás’ (how are you), so you should never say ‘How are you’ in English again. Every Spanish word you know should replace the English word from this point foreword. Use it or lose it.

The word ‘Spanglish‘ comes from using the Spanish words you know when speaking English. Mix the two languages to make sure you are using every Spanish word you know. ‘Can you pass the sal, por favor?’ If you know ‘sal’ (salt) and ‘por favor’ (please), then use those words, only use English for the words you don’t know in Spanish. You’re speaking Spanglish! Doing this is also going to help the people around you learn Spanish too, it’s never too early to begin teaching other people what you have learned.

Learn Spanish as a couple

Living with someone who is also learning a new language can be beneficial, but they can also an obstacle to learning a new language. If only one of you is committed to learning a new language, you will be doomed to fail.

One way to use your partner as an advantage to learning Spanish together is to have an agreement that English can no longer be spoken in the home. Or at least between certain hours, and they should be a big chunk of the day (9-5?). Remember, use it or lose it. If you speak English with the person you spend the most time with, that is a lost opportunity to learn Spanish and use what you have learned. If you are spending most of your time speaking English, why are you trying to convince yourself, and others, that you are really trying to learn Spanish? I don’t know anyone who has learned Spanish by not speaking Spanish.

Use Spanish audio and English subtitles

Languages are just sounds that we have trained our brains to recognize and assign a meaning to each unique sound. When we are learning a new language, the biggest challenge is getting our brain to recognize the sounds we are hearing and assign a meaning to the sound.

Has someone ever said something to you in Spanish, a phrase you know, but when you hear someone else say it your brain doesn’t process what is being said and it just sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher to you? It still happens to me, even after 12 years in Mexico. The hardest part about learning a new language isn’t learning how to say the words, it’s training our brains to hear and comprehend the language.

Just like in our native language, sometimes it’s better to listen than to talk.

So set up your Netflix to use Spanish language and English subtitles, it will help your brain become used to hearing the Spanish language and not just ‘blah blah blah’. Also, try some Spanish music and telenovelas. You should be hearing Spanish at every available opportunity you have.

Pro-Tip: Watch YouTube videos in Spanish and click the video settings for the playback speed and reduce the speed a little so the speaking is slightly slower so you can hear each word and syllable. It’s good practice and helps your listening skills.

Don’t stress over the rules

There are a lot of rules in the Spanish language, so don’t let yourself get too caught up in them to the point that you become discouraged or overwhelmed. Priority number one for you is to be understood in your new language, not to become a Spanish professor.

Early on in my Spanish learning, I decided that I was going to use usted (formal) in all circumstances. Although the rule would be to use usted when speaking to someone you have never met, anyone in a business situation, older adults, and people of authority. You would use tú with friends and younger people. Or that’s my understanding.

I was getting used to most of my conversations being with friends, so informally addressing people was common for me, so on the occasions where I should have shown a little more respect with usted, I failed and used informal Spanish out of habit. I decided I rather be overly formal with friends than be disrespectful to strangers, elders, and people of authority above me. It’s always better to be overly polite than rude.

When we started learning our native language as children we didn’t know the language rules, but we could make ourselves understood. We picked up the rules as time went by. A very frustrating part about learning Spanish is they always want to start throwing the rules at you first as if the goal is for you to start speaking a new language on a college level within days. But that isn’t the way most of us learn, and it just causes unneeded stress and discouraging us from wanting to continue our learning.

Learn Spanish you need to know

Don’t waste your time learning words and phrases that you rarely use in your native language. There will be time to learn the extras, but first, get a grasp on learning Spanish you know you will use daily. The goal is to start speaking Spanish as soon as possible, you can’t accomplish that if you are learning words and phrases you won’t use.

Keep a small pocket notepad with you at all times. We have all heard about a diet diary, or spending diary, where people document everything they eat or spend to understand their diet and budget better. Now make a common phrase diary. When you realize there is a phrase you use often or need to know, write it down. Like, what time do you open? Or, what time do you close? How common is that question? We probably ask that pretty often, so write it in your notebook as a phrase you NEED to learn and WILL use.

Write down any phrase you realize you use often or is handy. We don’t normally think about what we talk about on a regular basis, it’s just habit, but when you start to pay attention to these words and phrases you use the most, you will be able to start speaking your new language much faster.

Now consider a Spanish class or online course

I started this How to Live in Mexico article with my belief that we learn a second language exactly the same way we learned our native language. Now think about the points I have presented and then think about how a child learns their native language. They use the words they know. They speak their native language in the home. They watch movies and TV in their native language. They just go for it without stressing over the language rules. All these things support what they are learning in school. Taking a language class but not using that language in real life isn’t going to work.

If you are dedicated to taking Spanish seriously and you are ready to apply it to everything in your life, then it’s time to start a class! If you think you will just go to class and retain all that information for when you decide you might need it in a year, that isn’t going to work for you. Enroll in Spanish classes when you are serious about learning and using the language every day, otherwise, you will simply waste your time and money.

Now that you are ready to commit and apply Spanish to your daily life, you may want to try these options:

Don’t get discouraged

If you are serious about learning Spanish, applying it to all aspects of your daily life, taking lessons, enrolling in a Spanish school, and doing everything you need to learn a language, you will learn. Don’t get discouraged.

It took most of us about 18 months to form simple sentences in our native language, although we began trying to communicate from the moment we were born. You are not going to be fluent in Spanish in a few months, regardless of all the promises made in paid programs, but you can start using it almost immediately if you’re serious about learning Spanish. Everyone can learn a new language, don’t let your inner saboteur tell you that you are too old or too stupid to learn Spanish. You can do this!

Making it work for you

Everything I write about in How to live in Mexico is based on my personal experience and your experiences might be different, but one thing I can promise you is that you won’t learn Spanish if you aren’t willing to use it every chance you have. Maybe not all my suggestions will work with you, take some of my experiences and mix them with your own life experiences, and be dedicated to learning Spanish in a way that works for you. The key is applying Spanish to every part of your daily life where it’s possible, however that works for your life. Everyone can learn a new language if it’s something they take seriously.

  1. Use Spanish words and phrases you know at every possible time.
  2. Watch TV in Spanish with English subtitles, and listen to Spanish music. Get used to listening to Spanish, it’s just as important as learning how to speak Spanish.
  3. Learn Spanish you will use so you can start speaking words and phrases now.
  4. Use Spanish at home with your partner, family, friend, who whoever you live with.
  5. Have patience with yourself, don’t get discouraged, don’t give up.

Online Spanish Resources:

  1. Duolingo – Spanish learning app and website
  2. SpanishDict – Free Spanish resources and lessons. I still get their Word of the Day email every morning and really try to use the daily word as much as possible that day. The site has really improved over recent years.

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Ian Hayden Parker is the founder of PVDN and has been living as an expat in Mexico for the past 12 years. You can contact Ian Hayden Parker to suggest a topic for the next issue of How to Live in Mexico by submitting your feedback here. You can also join the PVDN Newsletter to receive daily news and more articles like this, join the newsletter here.

How to live in Mexico is a new series of posts dealing with life as an expat in Mexico and lessons that have been learned over the last 12 years as an expat.

Next week: How to live in Mexico; Making End-of-Life plans


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