“Quieres una lata o botella?” the friendly pulperia owner asked as I stepped up to the window and asked for cerveza.
When I arrived in Nicaragua 22 months ago the simple question of “Would you like a can or a bottle?” was far beyond my level of Spanish comprehension. Back then I could say, “good morning, good afternoon and good evening”. I could count to 10. I knew the two most frequently used words by tourists—cerveza and bano—but I certainly couldn’t use them in a sentence.
Nearly failing in the simple task of buying a beer at the corner store helped me realize just how helpless I was when it came to speaking Spanish.
Thankfully my present day reality is quite a bit different.
I’m now able to shop, dine, and drink with ease anywhere in Nicaragua. I can visit my favorite spa, see my doctor, and take my dog to the veterinarian—and be understood—without having to participate in a game of charades.
My consumer Spanish is excellent.
But unfortunately when it comes to having a meaningful, in-depth conversation with my Nicaraguan neighbors I don’t fare quite as well.
Poneloya, a small beach town near Leon, was the place my husband and I began our Nicaraguan adventure. Very few people spoke English. And the locals had an extremely difficult time understanding us with our poor pronunciation.
Our next door neighbor would smile and say, “Que paso?” (What’s up?) and we’d shrug our shoulders and smile having absolutely no clue what he was saying.
By month two it was readily apparent that it was time for some Spanish lessons and a little independence. Not being able to communicate my wants or needs left me feeling lost and incompetent.
A friend introduced me and my husband to Alberto—watch repairman by day, Spanish teacher by night.
After just one month of classes I understood the structure of the language. I had a much larger vocabulary and I was starting to get an ear for the local dialect. My interactions with locals was still slow and tedious—and at times involved a bit of charades—but I was confident I could get my point across.
With a multitude of English-speaking friends and only 16 hours of formal Spanish lessons under my belt I’ve learned first-hand that you’ll get as much out of something as you put into it. Find a good teacher.
The key is to not be afraid to make mistakes. The respect I receive within my Nicaraguan community for making an attempt at the local language is well worth the effort.
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