No es mucho que pedir


“..and you don’t even need to know any Spanish!” is often one of the trademark selling points of an Antigua vacation. Menus are regularly printed in Spanish and English. It’s hard to get a job in hospitality here if you don’t speak at least a conversational level of English. Flocks of international tourists fill the hostels each year, and, almost invariably, a considerable portion of these tourists segues into becoming long-term residents. Many don’t really intend for that to happen; the town’s singular charm and unique opportunities seduce more than a few errant backpackers and other wingnuts wandering the Latin American gringo trail. Hell, it happened to me. While a veritable tome could be written on the nature of international relocation to Antigua, one of the more contentious points is the endemic unwillingness of many residents to speak Spanish.

I use the word unwillingness because, frankly, I don’t buy it when anyone tells me they cannot learn to speak Spanish. Sure, a sturdy foundation in another language—particularly within the mono-linguistic, cookie-cutter United States household—may seem like a remarkable feat. However, as is often the case, a remarkable feat is merely a series of unremarkable feats strung together.

Students receive a language class in Máximo Nivel, a spanish school in La Antigua Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

I’ve often heard repeated the tired old trope that children are better language learners than adults. While this may be true to an extent, it overlooks an important point— kids are simply unencumbered by the matured ego, which precludes most adults from trying anything new and unfamiliar. This is particularly relevant when failure is a likely result. While you might be willing to give ceviche a try, your ego remains unthreatened, regardless of your taste buds’ reaction. Your dignity remains, even as your body revolts against the uncooked seafood. Confuse yourself and the waitress in the simple act of ordering ceviche, and the ego feels wounded and wants to wave the white flag of linguistic surrender.

To be sure, I am not quite fluent in Spanish. I can hold a more-than-decent conversation, and often receive compliments from native speakers about my progress. I sometimes need to remind myself that, as of writing, I’ve got almost two years of not-quite-intensive experience under my belt. A Guatemalan friend of mine once wryly reminded me that it took him almost seven years (his first seven years of life) to gain fluency!

Now, I make most of my living here playing music. Was I ready to play music at a professional level after only two years of playing? Absolutely not. Nothing worth doing is going to be learned in a course of days, weeks, months, or even a couple of years. Our band’s fiddle player once told me it takes five years just to suck at playing the fiddle! But a foundation will constantly be reinforcing and growing—so long as you are willing to fail. Over, and over, and over again.

Teaching spanish in La Antigua Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

The quest for success is overrated. Defined by Ambrose Bierce as “the death of endeavor and the birth of disgust,” traditional ideas of ‘success’ are unrealistic and, ironically, fated for failure. Failure is a much nobler, more practical goal. A novice writer will have much more ‘success’ if she endeavors to write a mediocre story. A budding guitar player will advance much faster when he aspires only to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Paradoxically, the language learner who is more concerned simply with speaking than with ‘fluency’ will likely progress much more rapidly than the acutely self-aware, would-be student.

Remember, it is far more embarrassing to live somewhere and refuse to speak the native language than it is to fail fantastically and repeatedly. This is an objective fact.

Consider this: thanks to the tides of ‘hablo un poco’ gringos living here, the bar is set astonishingly low. With just one week of intensive practice (and the inevitable failures which follow), you can set yourself a fair deal above the unapologetically daft gringo crowd.

You’ve likely already been pummeled over the head with the good reasons to learn to speak and understand some Spanish. They become self-evident upon arrival in a Spanish speaking country. Aside from being able to converse with locals and all the other usual motivators, it’s a simple showing of respect. Sure, the tourists who are spending a week here before buying the proverbial t-shirt and hitting the next mile marker get a sort of pass. But you, Antigua expat, are not off the hook. Especially if you find yourself telling people how fed up you were with ‘the system’ back home. If you don’t force yourself un cachito out of your comfort zone by learning some Spanish, then ‘the system’ is essentially just signing your checks.

Spanish students in Máximo Nivel, in La Antigua Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

This is not meant as an indictment of the Spanish-impaired crowd in Antigua. Many of you are very close friends of mine, and I have much love for the majority of you. I’m as flawed and incongruous and as broken as anyone else. No, I’m not just trying to call you out. Rather, I write to gently remind you of where you live, and what can be reasonably expected of you in return. The United States (and other native English-speaking lands) already have a bad enough reputation around the world—there’s no reason to propagate our perceived ignorance by refusing to speak at least a little Spanish. As stewards—ambassadors—abroad, we have a great privilege and responsibility to be in a position to prove that they’re not all so bad.

You can do this. You cannot do this all at once. You will fail many, many times. You will be cheered on and helped out by everyone that matters, every step of the way.

Oh, and as the market price of an hour of private Spanish instruction in Antigua is generally about the same as two Gallos at your local gringo trap watering hole, chances are good you can afford it. Choose your investments wisely, you’re reading Comvite after all.

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