“But I Don’t Speak Spanish”

While in Miami airport recently awaiting a flight home, I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler. When he learned I lived in Ecuador he was extremely curious and asked many questions about why I was there and how I liked it. Before we parted he said, “Well, I don’t speak Spanish so I couldn’t move to your new country.”

He’s partially right.

In many of the rural areas of Ecuador fluency in Spanish is necessary for survival. Even in cities as large as Loja, with 200,000 residents, you would be hard-pressed to find many English speakers.

But in major cities like Guayaquil, Quito, and Cuenca, as well as smaller communities such as Cotacachi and Vilcabamba that have attracted numerous expats, English is spoken by enough folks for you to at least get by.

I arrived in Cuenca over two years ago with a Spanish vocabulary of perhaps 10 words and scant local contacts. Armed with such meager language skills I knew I would encounter some daunting challenges. But I had decided to face everything, no matter how difficult, with a smile, and to not take myself or my circumstances too seriously.

This attitude served me well as I often resembled a silent movie actor trying to communicate through exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. I almost pulled a muscle trying to demonstrate the concept of ordering food “to go.” And 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 after that one.

As I started learning a few more words I tried using Google Translate to carefully compose and memorize a couple of sentences. I then walked into a store and confidently spouted out my perfect Spanish.

Big mistake.

Because of my successful emoting the clerk incorrectly assumed I actually spoke the language. She proceeded to unleash a tidal wave of Spanish to which I could only meekly reply, “Habla Ingles?”

And I’ll never forget the time I was almost the only gringo at a birthday party for a local woman. To this day I’m not sure what I said, but a lady I was chatting with thought I was flirting with her right in front of her husband, and they both stormed out of the house.


If, like me, you’re not a fan of, “For English press 1, for Spanish press 2,” it would be the height of hypocrisy to not gain some proficiency in the language of your new Latin American home. Plus, speaking the native tongue shows proper respect for the local culture.

Excellent Spanish schools can be found throughout Ecuador, and there are numerous DIY courses like Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur for sufficiently self-motivated students.

So how’s my Spanish now? I’m proud to report I can successfully communicate with most dogs and toddlers. Although I prefer dogs, because you never know when you’re going to run into a precocious kid who makes you look bad.

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