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Helpful Hints On Learning Mexican Spanish

Thom McDonald

While I have always found Mexicans as a people to be polite, friendly and helpful to foreigners in their country, I have also witnessed on many occasions, a subtle but noticeable difference in their reaction to tourists who make no attempt at Spanish, and those who do make an effort, however successful.

As languages go, Spanish has got to be one of the easiest for English speakers to learn. It's grammar and structure are relatively simple and similar to those of English. With minor differences in pronunciation, there are hundreds of words that are very close or identical to their English equivalents. So why would anyone who intends to travel and/or live in Mexico not try to learn Spanish?

Once you've decided to go for it, you need to decide upon an approach. There are always night classes at community colleges, or you can choose from one of dozens of self-instruction offerings at your local well-stocked bookstore. If you choose the latter approach, I have a few suggestions.

Most of the books, cassettes, CD's, etc. that I have seen are not very well suited to someone who wants to learn how to converse with Mexicans. Many take the "phrase book" approach, e.g. "I wish to buy two first class tickets to Barcelona". "I need a .doctor, dentist, grocer, undertaker, etc." It's my opinion that no one has ever learned any language from these books.

The second type is the classroom-type textbook approach. These may work for someone with a lot more tenacity and self-discipline than I. I believe they work better in a classroom environment.

Then there are those that take the "easy does it" approach, concentrating mainly on the fundamentals that one needs to "get by", and keeping grammar to a minimum. These seem to work the best for most of us, or so it would seem, judging by the large number falling into this category.

I have spent a great deal of time looking and, in many cases, trying several from each of the above categories. I have always been amazed by the fact that nearly all of them suffer from what I consider to be a major flaw: almost without exception, they teach European Spanish pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. With the vast majority of Spanish speakers living in the Western Hemisphere and speaking "Latin American" Spanish, I find it amusing and frustrating that only a few of the readily available books are based on "Mexican Spanish".


How to tell if a book (cassette, CD, CD-ROM, etc.) is pitching European Spanish:
  1. It tells you to pronounce "z" or "c" before "e" or "i" like English "th" and "ll" like English "ll" like in "million". This is the way they talk in Madrid, not Mazatlan.
  2. You see verb conjugations which include the 2nd person plural form "vosotros" i.e. "you all". I have never heard this used in the Mexican Spanish that I have been exposed to.
  3. There are red and yellow striped flags on the cover.
  4. There are pictures of some guy dressed like a flamenco dancer, eating paella and talking about his automovil. (Mexicans usually say "carro")
Fortunately there are a couple of books that I have found which do not suffer from the above afflictions, and are, in my opinion, more useful for anyone whose intent is to learn to converse with Mexicans. My favorite is "Spanish for Gringos", William C. Harvey, 1990 Barron's Educational Series, Inc. This book takes a simplified approach, full of humor, helpful hints and packed with really useful vocabulary arranged in a topical manner. The author is very obviously a Mexophile. Highly recommended, and it only costs US$ 8.95, slightly more with two cassettes.

The other is "Spanish in 10 minutes a day", Kristine Kershul, 1988 Lane Publishing Co. (Sunset). Not nearly as complete as "Gringos", this is nevertheless a good introductory work.

For more resource suggestions go to "Learning Spanish in Mexico"

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2001 by Thom McDonald © 2008
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