“My Most Embarrassing Spanish Gaffe”

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I was giving a presentation about the city of Cuenca at an International Living event in Ecuador recently when I asked the 420-plus attendees to raise their hands if they were fluent in Spanish.

So few hands went up you would have thought I’d requested volunteers for root canals. Now, this was a room full of people who are thinking seriously about relocating to Latin America. So much so, they had flown out to see the place for themselves.

I rephrased the question: “How many of you are concerned about your lack of Spanish?”

Almost every hand in the massive room shot up in the air.

If you move to a foreign country where the native language is different to your own, I’m not about to tell you, “No problem.” On the other hand, even if you’re thinking about moving to a country like Ecuador with Taco Bell-level Spanish skills, I offer myself as evidence that you will not perish.

I arrived in Cuenca almost three years ago with a single digit Spanish vocabulary. My wife and I had good intentions of getting a better grasp on the language before departing Las Vegas, but pesky little details like amassing documents for our visas and staying up nights packing all our belongings kept getting in the way.

So with second language prowess that would make Tarzan look like a debating champion, I plunged into our new adventure abroad. I knew I would encounter some daunting challenges. But I had decided to face everything, not matter how difficult, with a smile, and to not take myself or my circumstances too seriously.

Over the next few months I almost pulled a muscle trying to demonstrate the concept of ordering two cappuccinos “to go.” I gave what I thought was an Academy Award winning performance explaining to the lady at the dry cleaners that they had created a stain on my clothing and I wanted it redone for free.

I was so exhausted I needed a siesta (and a drink) after that one. But I persevered…

I once said something to a lady at a party that was apparently so insulting that both she and her husband stormed out the door. I stood dumbstruck countless times as a store clerk would unleash a tidal wave of Spanish so intense that I could only meekly reply, “Habla Ingles?” (You speak English?)

But my lowest moment came when I attempted to request a shopping bag—and instead somehow asked the two female employees if they were prostitutes. Thank goodness they both had a sense of humor.

The trick is to stick with it. Will you make a ton of mistakes? Absolutely. But you’ll find yourself getting better each time.

So here’s my advice: Absolutely work on your foreign language skills before moving abroad if you possibly can. That kind of ground work will help you no end when it comes time for you to step into your new country. And of course, when you’ve got the language skills, your transition to a new culture will be immeasurably easier…and more enjoyable.

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