In my experience, it really isn´t as big a problem as you think.
In most of the large cities in this part of the world there are people who speak at least some English. Both my attorney and my architect here in Uruguay speak excellent English. I found two banks so far in Montevideo where someone could speak English. And I have not checked all the banks.
So it isn´t as if you are unable to function if you never learn Spanish!
You can also find groups of English speakers here. In Montivideo there is a group that meets at around 1:00 every Sunday afternoon for lunch at the Old Maz Restaurant in the neighborhood called Pocitos. (Location has changed. See note at end of this article for new meeting information.) Many are from the US and Canada. One visits from Australia, and some are Uruguayans who come to practice and perfect their English. Since they have lived here all their lives they are a great source of infomation.
We usually meet in an upstairs dining room that the restaurant reserves just for us. Once the group gets there it is sometimes not easy to get them to leave. I have been present when we were asked to at least move outside because the restaurant owner wanted to close! And then some of us usually walk the two blocks or so to the local ice cream store to take up residence there for another hour or two.
This is a friendly group that likes each other´s company. If you decide to come down and check out the territory, I assure you that you are welcome at the Sunday lunch at Old Maz. If you have questions, you will find someone there who can answer most, if not all, of them. Do you see that man a bit to the right wearing the red shirt? That is Glen. He started this group several years ago. If you do get to one of the Sunday gatherings at Old Maz, be sure to say hi to Glen and tell him I sent you! 😉
Having said all that, life will never be normal for you here unless you do learn the language. If you are in preparation stage for a move to our area, I suggest you use the time to learn as much vocabulary as you can before you come. It takes some self-discipline to invest time every day for spanish vocabulary, but you will be glad you did. It will give you a head start.
But with an attitude of adventure (which you already have or you would not be reading about living in a foreign country) it is not so difficult–in fact, in my opinion, it is fun.
There are a couple ways to do it. If you prefer a classroom experience, there are schools that aim to get you speaking Spanish quickly. They usually involve several hours a day of intensive training for relatively short periods. In the Old Maz group we even have a member who gives private Spanish lessons.
Or you can do it on your own. My spanish-speaking son advised me not to waste time at first on grammar. He said spend your time learning as much vocabulary as you can and you will be able to communicate much sooner. After you have the vocabulary, then you can work on grammar.
So I ordered a Spanish textbook like the one he had in college, Mosaicos, second hand from www.alibris.com. I paid less than $4.00. It even had a CD with it.
I was interested to learn that the reason this is called Latin America is because the language is almost pure Latin–hence, Latin America. Since other European languages, including English, are based on Latin, many Spanish words are easy to remember because they are similar to words that you already know, called cognates.
It is working for me. I am here alone in Montivideo right now and am able to communicate just fine without a Spanish class.
I am far from perfect. In fact, my son teases that I am “this woman that talks baby talk!” Sometimes the local people laugh at my Spanish, but it is good-natured laughter. I laugh too! Some of them go out of their way, if they see me, to talk with me in Spanish. And others who are trying to learn English will do the same because they want to practice. All in all people here are friendly and really want to be helpful.
I do have problems communicating with the owner of the hotel where I am staying. One day, joking with her a little about my inability to think of a word I needed to tell her something, I said, ¨Yo necesito una profesora!” (I need a teacher). She put her hand on her chest and said proudly, “YO soy profesora!” (I am the teacher.)
From that day on I have problems saying what I want to say to her because she is so busy being my profesora. She stops me mid-sentence to correct my pronunciation or my arrangement of words. She is encouraging and committed to teaching me . . . whether I want her to or not!
So I hope that you will not worry or be put off by the prospect of learning a new language. It is not the fearsome project you might think. People here will help you.
It will be a new experience. A new challenge to keep you young!
Note: Since this article was originally posted, Old Maz has closed down. However, the Sunday English Speaker’s Meeting is still alive and well, still meeting from 1p.m. to 4p.m., but now the location is Fellini Ristobarretto at Jose Marti y Benito Blanco. All are welcome! For further information go to http://www.totaluruguay.com/montevideo/expats.html.
© Arlean Kelley 03/11/2009 All rights reserved.