No Spanish? No Problem!

One of the first questions that is always asked when I say I live on the gorgeous island of Cozumel off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is: “Do you speak Spanish?”

The short answer is no. Or, to locals “poquito” which means “a little bit”. So they know to switch and speak in English.

The long answer is that although I’m learning, it takes time and, in my case, a lot of time. Yes, I’m determined to become fluent in Spanish but do you actually need it to live here? Not at all.

People think not being able to speak the local language is a major obstacle. It isn’t. Especially here. You can easily get by on English and live the Caribbean dream with warm weather year-round and a lifestyle you couldn’t afford back home.

There are bilingual cashiers at the supermarket, most of the island runs on tourism so a lot of locals speak English, and just about everywhere you go waiters, real estate agents, shopkeepers, doctors, lawyers, bank tellers, and other professionals either speak English or have someone on staff that does. Even most taxi drivers speak English “un poco”(a little). Certainly enough to get you where you need to go.

You don’t have to worry if something goes wrong health-wise either, every health professional I know speaks English so going to the doctor, dentist, or hospital is not a problem.

Most professionals are well-educated and fluent in English so you can find everything you need for the stuff that really matters. Like real estate agents to help you find a place to live and help with workmen if any issues arise, like plumbing, internet, gas, etc.

Here’s an example: recently getting my very first set of glasses went smoothly from initial consultation and eye tests through to fittings and eyewear choices largely because the optometrist was fluent in English. Not only that, there was the added bonus of it only costing about one-third of the price of what I would have paid back home.

You will not be alone on Cozumel if you don’t speak Spanish. There are expats who have lived here for over a decade who do not speak Spanish. They know a few basic greetings and sayings which they have picked up along the way but still have not learnt the language—some of them never intend to, they are happy living their lives Spanish-free.

This goes both ways. Although a lot the locals speak English, there are a lot who are not involved with tourism so don’t have a need for it. This means if you go to the hardware store you may have to use an app like Google Translate or SpanishDict which will easily get you what you need. A simple picture of what you need, taken with your phone, will do the same trick.

That said, learning Spanish is a great skill to have, and it will make your life easier. Here’s five reasons why you should give it a go:

1. It’s Fun

There have been times when my little language whoopsies have ended in hysterical laughter with locals.

I once told a lady she had a face like an octopus instead of saying she looked very pretty that day.

How?

I still don’t know.

But, everyone laughed heartily enjoying the blunder and, thank God, they have the patience of saints and are more than happy to help you learn…after the laughter dies down, that is.

2. You’ll Make Amazing Friends

There is a bond that forms quickly with people when you smile and greet them in their own language. An acceptance that automatically happens. This can lead to life-long friends or just more enjoyable day-to-day encounters with those around you.

A tour bus driver shared a delicious local dish with me at one of the roadside stops because when boarding I looked him in the eye and said “buenos diás”—good morning—and smiled. Being the only one to do that was appreciated and I appreciated the fact that it landed me a tasty treat.

3. It Enriches Your Life

You will find out about hidden gems only the locals know about. You will be invited to festivals, feasts and celebrations, birthdays and weddings. In short, you will experience the culture at an elevated level most expats do not get a chance to and feel more integrated in your new Caribbean home.

4. Food, Glorious Food

I love to cook. Some of my most satisfying experiences living abroad have been with locals sharing their recipes and teaching me how to cook them. Plus, it makes finding ingredients a lot easier if you know the Spanish names.

A Mexican grandmother stood in a market and ripped her bunch of fresh herbs in half to share with me. Why? Because it was the last bunch of parsley and when she heard me ask for “perejil”she understood that I wanted it for a recipe. Smiling sweetly, she happily gave up half of hers and wished me a good day. Mexican grandmothers really are the sweetest.

5. R.E.S.P.E.C.T

Living in another country it is respectful to at least try and learn the language. You may be horrible at it. You may accidentally tell a lady she has the face of an octopus like I did, but the locals love that you try and will always help by gently correcting you.

It’s easy to live the Caribbean dream without speaking Spanish, but learning it will enrich your life in ways you never thought possible. There is a saying here “poco a poco” which means “little by little”—It’s a great way to live and a great way to learn.

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