So, you know Spanish and Mexican culture concerning languages? A bit of advice

articles Living, Working, Retiring

William B. Kaliher

Unless you are one hundred percent fluent in Spanish, expect the Mexicans around you to know more English than you do Spanish. Bob, a friend, retired to Mexico and opened a small maintenance business. He didn’t need to know the simple or common Spanish words for chair, table, or car for his investment. He instead needed items from hardware stores that most of us don’t know the words for in English, much less Spanish. Items like the little band that tightens around tubing to hold it, or that type of latch that goes inside a kitchen cabinet or the thing-a-ma-bob needed so the gas light will work correctly. So, put yourself in my friend’s shoes when you know little Spanish, but need to purchase these or similar small repair items or parts a few times a week.

A corner Mexican ceramic store in quiet 3 de Mayo, Morelos, not far from Cuernavaca. © Julia Taylor, 2008
A corner Mexican ceramic store near Cuernavaca. © Julia Taylor, 2008

For six years Bob slowly grew his business. He used a nearby hardware store. The owner, Alfredo, worked with him each time he came in. My friend drew pictures of items. He described various pieces in a loud voice, ever hopeful the English word with sufficient volume would resemble the Spanish word, allowing Alfredo to quickly understand what he needed.

Over the years Bob’s Spanish improved and his purchases from Alfredo took less time. One spring morning he needed some hinges for a door and stepped into Alfredo’s, ready to place his order.

Alfredo looked up from the newspaper spread across the counter and asked in perfect English, “Whadda ya’ think the Cubs will do this year, Bob?”

Bob froze, dumbstruck for a moment. “You speak English and let me struggle to buy hardware for six years?”

“You learned Spanish didn’t you?”

Bob discovered Alfredo had lived and worked in greater Chicago for twenty years before returning home to open his hardware store. He’d learned English and adopted a baseball club.

A typical building on Mazatlan's Camaron-Sabalo street has stores below and apartments above. © Gerry Soroka, 2009
A typical building on Mazatlan’s Camaron-Sabalo street has stores below and apartments above. © Gerry Soroka, 2009

Not all Mexicans who speak English hide it for the reason Alfredo did. Many know English, but because pronunciation is so important in Spanish, they feel it is equally important in English. They don’t want to speak incorrectly. Those people hold back for different reasons than Alfredo. I often find when I’m struggling for a word while speaking Spanish, my Mexican friends, regardless of social class or education, will often offer the word in both languages to help me while remaining too cautious to screw up English even a tenth as much as I butcher Spanish.

I’ll leave you with a joke my friend, Juan Carlos, related before you ponder the funny to odd incidents you have had while speaking Spanish:

What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual.

What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual.

What do you call a person who speaks one language? Americano [Estadounidense]

William B. “Bill” Kaliher has traveled Mexico at every opportunity since 1964 by car, bus, train and motorcycle. He has written for the Mexican Ministry of Tourism. Although known for his Mexican travel articles he’s sold work to over 600 publications including The World & I, The Pragmatist and Down Memory Lane. as well as online magazines such as MexConnect.

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His book, Mexico by Motorcycle: An Adventure Story and Guide, has garnered mainly five-star reviews, been covered in several magazines, and recommended by expats who have resided in Mexico for years. Perhaps, the top compliment was by a reviewer who wrote, “This reads like a novel.”

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Published or Updated on: January 9, 2023 by William B. Kaliher © 2023
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