Nancy and I both had two years of Spanish in high school. In both cases our teachers were not good. We’ve found that experience to be pervasive. In the final analysis, however, it didn’t and doesn’t matter.
Mexicans don’t speak Spanish. They speak Mexican. Their societal and regional differences are much larger than American English (NE, Southern, Western, Californicated, etc.) In the latest iteration, friends tell us that “juevos” (eggs) is not only common slang for testicles, but in some parts of Mexico around Mazatlan, that’s all it means. So how do you order breakfast? Dunno.
Because the Jesuits and their Spanish followers populated Baja, most of Baja actually speaks a pretty pure form of Castillian Spanish, with the prevalent lisp. “Bueanoth Tardeth” (good afternoon) works like a charm. You would get beaten to a pulp talking like than in Santa Fe.
Many of the long-time Expats are very successful with a Midwestern accented Spanish. They know the words, but don’t even try the accent. This is incredibly effective. Often there is a period of confusion when the Mexican I’m trying to talk to can’t figure out if I’m speaking Spanish or English because my Spanish pronunciation is so poor.
We are able to function pretty well, though, based on a few simple ideas:
1. Mismo, pero… (mas, mas penqueno, mas poquito, mas grande, …) (Like this, but more, more small, more few, more big…). We find something similar and work from there. Crude, I know.
2. Avoid verbs. Avoid them like the plague. Verbs need to be conjugated, plus Spanish verbs need the formal “usted” form, which is a disaster waiting to happen.
3. Use only the noun. I can look up the noun on our electronic Spanish dictionary. Spanish nouns all have gender, another bottomless pit of despair. In fact, we often get the noun on the electronic noun finder and show it to the incredibly helpful Mexican. They are always relieved that they can help us without having to deal with our linguistic deficiencies.
4. Incredible success is often possible when the Mexican speaks Spanish and we speak English. Stuff gets done, and everyone is wildly happy when it all turns out well. This is how we buy the best Tamales in the world.
5. The Bright Water secret weapon: When all else fails, quietly mumble something without consonants and make a non-committal head movement. I suspect that this is often what the Mexicans are doing to me. A quick shrug, nods of agreement, and we all get on with our lives. Whew.
Often, someone will want to practice their English, which is always better than our Spanish. It’s a lot of fun.
“Howdy” always, always, always works. “Howdy, Buenoth Diath,” is possibly the most fun thing to say in the world, as long as it’s not yet noon.
Pro tip: doing something while standing next to Nancy is always, always more successful than doing the same thing while not standing next to Nancy. I have no plans to wobble around Mexico without Nancy. That would be disaster.