Expats Living in Mexico Should Become Bilingual

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

If you live in or annually spend significant periods of time in Mexico, and don’t have at least a decent working knowledge of Spanish, you are doing yourself (and native Mexicans) a disservice. Of course in most places in the country where Canadians, Americans and Brits frequent, it’s not necessary; but really, consider this.

  1. Relative to other languages, Spanish is an easy tongue to master, not suggesting that there are not some who simply don’t have the facility to learn a second language.
  2. As suggested, you can certainly have a rewarding life without the language. However, let’s say that in your hometown of Los Angeles you have ten good friends. That’s from a pool of four million. If you live in Oaxaca City with a population of 400,000, and also have ten American people with whom you regularly socialize, what’s the likelihood that you really have something in common with them, other than language, if from a pool of four million you have only been able to muster ten? You’re selling yourself short.
  3. Culture. Hopefully the decision to live in or at minimum winter in Mexico was based on more than climate and cost of living. You appreciated and perhaps to a limited extent you had had the opportunity to participate in some of the rich traditions of a diversity of ethnic groups. Having non-English speaking friends exponentially increases the opportunities for you to engage with them, and be asked to attend their weddings, funerals, baptism and quinceaños; to rejoice, to grieve, to interact and to learn. There’s much more to culture in Mexico than celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, the 4th of July, and even festivals designed in large part for tourists such as Oaxaca’s mezcal fair, mole festival and Guelaguetza. Think about the cultural importance of becoming a god-parent to a young boy or girl, and being considered a part of his/her family.
  4. Medical/Dental. Returning to the theme of pool of potentials, in many Mexican expat centers there are professionals offering their services who are either American, Canadian or British born, and many medical and dental practitioners who have otherwise spent time in the US taking courses and honing their English language skills. But many of the best in their fields are not all that adept at a foreign tongue. Do you not want the best, without having to impose upon bilingual friends to assist you with translation?
  5. Charitable work. To the credit of many in expat centers in the country, they have had a tremendous impact on indigenous and marginal communities; however, by learning Spanish, expats can do so much more such as using their foreign-learned skills to assist with, for example, psychotherapy, business development, technology, and the list goes on. Teaching English is of course important, but there is so much more that can be done, and you may have the skills to impart.
  6. Even attempting to speak Spanish is a sign of respect. Do not be disrespectful to those in your host country. Learn the language. You’ll be treated better.

Participating in expat events and community activities such as those organized by garden, bridge and writing clubs is commendable, and certainly at the outset of embarking on a new life, enables one to slowly become acculturated into the broader Mexican society. But be careful. When my wife and I first moved to Oaxaca permanently, we visited the Canadian Consul. She gave us only one piece of advice: not to get too drawn into the orbit of the city’s expat community, for fear of never getting out of it and missing so much of the reason we decided upon a new life in Oaxaca. While we are certainly not fully bilingual, honing our Spanish language skills has made living in Mexico that much richer an experience for both us, and many of those around us.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), taking visitors to the state capital into the central valley hinterland and beyond, to learn about and sample this century’s most coveted spirit, as well as photograph and interact with artisanal distillers and their families.

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