There can be a lot of pressure when moving to a foreign language speaking country when only your better half knows the lingo. It puts stress on one side to constantly translate and the other racing to learn the new language as quickly as possible. In the case of my husband (a.k.a. the hubs) and me, he was already fluent in Spanish before moving to Panama whereas my lingual skills were limited to words like fajitas, fiesta, and margaritas.
During our first three months in the country, we didn’t socialize. The most translating the hubs did was ordering my food at restaurants, which I picked up quite quickly, although he is quite the gentleman and prefers to order for me while dining out. Our fifth month in Panama rapidly changed with the opening of our taco stand.
I have all the know-how in the kitchen and the hubs brings his appetite. I had to teach all of our new Spanish speaking employees how to recreate intricate Mexican recipes. The hubs was charged with the task of interpreting.Never mind that he only knows how to make sandwiches and bowls of cereal in the kitchen, he had to learn a new slew of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Because of his lack of knowledge in the kitchen, I didn’t always trust that he was getting my point across to the employees.
We would leave our training sessions completely and utterly mentally exhausted. Wanting to blow off steam and wind down, we would head to the local hangout to wash down ceviche with a few beers. Spend enough time at a particular watering hole and you’ll start making friends. Now the hubs was charged with a new task, carrying yours truly in social situations. It’s extremely awkward to continually stop conversation to translate what each person says. I felt even more awkward when I did have something to contribute but the conversation had moved on by the time I figured out how to say what I wanted in Spanish. Talk about feeling like a social outcast!
As months went by, I required medical and dental checkups. Where I could previously go alone, I now needed my husband in the room with me to express concerns on my part or tidbits of wisdom conveyed by my doctor to me. Let me tell you, this gets really difficult once it comes to the lady appointments! An ongoing theme of my not trusting that the hubs was conveying my point really started turning into massive frustration for both of us.
Nine months in the country and I really felt colossal pressure to become fluent. I tried Rosetta Stone but didn’t enjoy learning about steel mills or how that would transfer into daily conversation. We also tried speaking Spanish at home but it was ridiculously unrealistic to expect ourselves to speak in a foreign language, especially when we had important things to discuss like who left the toilet seat up or wet towels on the floor.
I asked the hubs how he learned. He purchased an English language book and a Spanish version of the same book and translated the Spanish to English. He checked his translation against the English version of the book. This helped him contextually understand and learn new words. I love reading and tried my hand at this. I have to give credit to the hubs because I found this enormously maddening although rewarding at the same time.
I took a tip from someone I met years ago. Write down the 20 most used verbs in your own vocabulary, translate, and then conjugate each one into past, present, and future. This was a lot simpler and enjoyable for me. I was conversationally quicker and therefore, motivated to learn more.
I asked the hubs if we could socialize more. We befriended a few people learning English and some who were strictly Spanish speakers. I implored the hubs to only help me when I specifically asked for it. (He had a knack for reading my mind at this point.) This would allow me to get lost in social situations and see if I could get back on track myself by hearing familiar words. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.
Now 16 months in Panama and I’m almost fluent and the hubs is no longer a full time interpreter. I still have plenty of grammar issues but my friends and our employees understand what I’m saying or at the very least, what I’m trying to get across. I feel more integrated with the culture and have made new and closer connections with people. Simply because of speaking the local language, I’m happier in my new country and that’s what it’s all about.
Stephanie Angulo became an American expat in Panama at 30. She didn’t go to Panama to retire. She writes about her experiences starting a restaurant, exploring her new country, traveling, and assimilating into Panamanian culture at Xpat Escape. You can also follow her journey on Twitter.