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The Language of Expats

“What’s your name?” she asked.


“Where do you live?” I told her, and mentioned we’d been there for two years.

“Oh,” she replied, “my mother lives in that neighborhood.”
Realization dawned. “Yes, she’s my next-door neighbor,” I responded, beaming.

We talked about her family, and her nephew, Cyril, who runs a hostel in Panama City.Emboldened by our growing rapport, I explained that, while we lived next to her mother and liked the house and the neighborhood, we’d be looking for a new rental in July. Might she know of anything?

She told me where she lives, and said she thinks there might be something in her neighborhood.

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“Can you call me if you hear of anything?” I asked her, and we traded phone numbers.

We parted with mutual good will, and I left feeling absurdly pleased with myself.

I had gone into the restaurant to pick up some flan for dessert that night, and to find out if they’re open on Easter Sunday. The conversation evolved from my initial question about Easter.

So why was I so pleased with myself?

Because the entire conversation was in Spanish.

My Spanish is pathetically rudimentary. I can order food in a restaurant, conduct business in the shops, and handle the basics. But my conversations usually stumble to an uneasy halt after the greeting, a mention of the weather (muy calor is always a safe bet here), and an inquiry as to whether the family/wife/husband/children are well.

All my speech is in the present tense. No past and no future. I’m not at all embarrassed about saying things like, “last week I go to the beach,” because I figure my meaning is clear even if my grammar is lousy. I describe my Spanish speaking ability as about on the level of a slow two-year old.

So to carry on an actual conversation, which included an exchange of information, and lasted for more than 30 seconds, felt like a big accomplishment.

Before moving to Panama, I took conversational Spanish at our local community college for three semesters. I also used some self-study programs – the one I liked the best was Pimsleur. I downloaded it to my iPod, and listened to it whenever I was driving by myself. I also joined LiveMocha online, and used it extensively.

Since we arrived here, my Spanish language skills haven’t progressed much. I spend so much time on the computer working that I just don’t want to do any computer-based self-study, although there are excellent options for that.

I tried a local class that an expat friend put together, but the style of teaching didn’t resonate for me.

I’m a language person. That’s probably why I became a writer, after all. I love knowing everything about a word, where it comes from, all the strange ways to use it. I like to think I have a quick ear, but I learn much faster if I understand the verb form, for example, or how a particular noun relates to its Latin root.

Not everyone learns the same way – that’s why different methods work for different people.

But when everything’s said and done, it’s all about the communication. And, as my exchange with the daughter of my next-door neighbor shows, you don’t need perfect grammar or an extensive vocabulary to get your point across.

People often ask how important it is to speak the language when you live in a foreign country.

My response is, that depends on what sort of life you’re looking for.

Personally, I never wanted to be like the stereotypical British traveler during the Victorian era. You know the type – they went all over the world expecting the “natives” to understand and speak English. It’s a similar attitude that creates the “Ugly American,” who travels abroad expecting everything to be just like back home, only with different scenery. It’s the attitude that “my way is the best and only way to do anything.”

That’s not me.

I don’t want to lock myself away behind gates in a community of other English speakers. And yet, my lack of language skills – my small victory the other day notwithstanding – prevents me from forming any deep, satisfying relationships with local Spanish speakers.

What can you do if you want to live a life that’s deeply immersed in a country and culture you didn’t grow up in? As I see it, there are only two options:
1. Move to a country where English (or your mother tongue) is the primary language.
2. Improve your skills with the local language.

Of course, there’s always the third option, which is to give up on the total immersion experience and be willing to skate along the cultural surface.

I choose option 2, and there are plenty of possibilities.

I won’t enumerate all the online choices – do a Google search and you’ll find dozens of programs to help with your language. You’ll succeed if you find a program whose teaching style matches your learning style.

I enjoyed Pimsleur, but I only started it after I took the community college classes. I might have found it frustrating had I tackled it first. The benefit to LiveMocha is the chance to interact with native language speakers – real people, not official teachers.

Rosetta Stone, which is highly rated, didn’t work well for me at all.

Another option before your move is to find local classes. In the US, community colleges and some local libraries offer language classes to adults.

If you choose carefully, you can move to a city or town in your new country that has a language school. Attending classes in your new home town will help in several ways:
1. You’ll learn the true “local” language. My teacher at the community college was from Ecuador. Her Spanish is not the Spanish I hear around me in Las Tablas, Panama. While the vocabulary and grammar will be (mostly) the same, regional differences can be huge.
2. It will give some structure to your days as a new expat
3. It will immediately put you in touch with people you can interact with socially
4. Your teacher can be a helpful resource about the local community.

Much as we enjoy Las Tablas, we don’t feel settled here.

We’re always talking about other possibilities and other challenges.

Our move here was a necessary response to the US financial meltdown, and we chose it almost entirely because of the low cost of living. Now that we have more options open to us, our next choice will be more deliberate.

One of the elements I’ll be looking for is a good language school nearby. I’m not ready yet to give up on my idea of having meaningful friendships with local, non-English speakers.

We still want to be close to the US – five grown children and two aged parents all live in the States – so we’re still focusing on Central America. Granada, Nicaragua keeps coming up, so we’re likely to visit there to check it out.

If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

by Susanna Perkins.

Susanna always wanted to experience life in another culture – she just never imagined it would become the “sensible” option. Believing that, when life hands you lemons you learn to juggle, she found herself with an entire crate full of citrus following the financial meltdown in the US. She started tossing fruit around and ended up, with her husband and three small dogs, in Las Tablas, Panama. With a more-or-less reliable internet connection she works as a freelance writer and shares her expat insights and experiences on her website, Future Expats Forum, and teaches non-technical people about WordPress at WordPress Building Blocks

Read Susanna's other Expat Focus articles here or click the button below to view her own blog…

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