Living in Mexico AMA: learning Spanish, crime

How’s the comfort level with Spanish for each of you? Can you converse enough to be social? What have you found most effective for learning?

Comfort level is improving, but still a long way to go. Neither one of us had any prior Spanish-language background (beyond the fifteen or twenty words one naturally assimilates while growing up in Texas), so we’re really starting from scratch here. Concerted study comes in fits and starts, as the mood strikes and time permits.

For formal programs of study, Jak uses mostly Pimsleur audio. He likes that he can multitask with it (I like that he does dishes while he listens). I use Pimsleur some also, but as a visual learner, I prefer Duolingo (which I recently found out is the brainchild of the re-Captcha inventor — see his amusing TED video). When I’ve finished Duolingo, I have a bunch of college class materials borrowed from my brother-in-law. Once I get to a solid intermediate level, I’ll probably hire a private tutor.

Informal study, on the other hand, goes on constantly. Jak is playing on an all-Mexican soccer team, where only one other member speaks fluent English, so he’s learning a lot of Mexican slang. He reports understanding orders of magnitude more than he did a couple months ago — but that’s still only a fraction of what’s being said around him. He reads the team’s Facebook page — which is full of Spanish texting lingo — and then uses Google translate and global web searches to decipher the abbreviations and deliberate misspellings.

I do all the market shopping, so I have accumulated an extensive vocabulary of food-related words. We’ve made several short trips back up to Texas to schlep the rest of our stuff down, so we’ve deciphered almost all of the road signs. I also learn a surprising amount of random things from billboard ads around Guadalajara. (Such as, the word for ‘pregnant’ in Spanish is ’embarazada’.) I look up words as I realize I need them, like to communicate with our housekeeper or gardener, neither of whom speak English. Take me out of a familiar milieu, however, and I struggle mightily. A few weeks ago we needed to communicate a problem to a Telmex worker, and I realized I had basically zero nouns in my repertoire relating to telecommunication.

And I sometimes make stupid mistakes with things I theoretically already know — like at the tianguis (weekly street market) last Monday when I asked for ochenta huevos when I actually meant diez y ocho. The butcher stared at me like I was loco until I figured out my error, after which I was extremely pregnant.

Do you have concerns about the stability of the Mexican government, or local crime?

Mostly not. I am, in the abstract, concerned about the cartel situation, but it doesn’t touch our daily lives in any way that I can discern — any more than I felt affected by the Mafia while living in the U.S. The Mexican government certainly has its share of corruption and other problems, but frankly, at the moment I think they’re doing better than the American government.

I am slightly cautious about local crime, only because many of the long-term expats we meet seem to have been burglarized at least once. My primary approach to this is: don’t have much worth stealing. Many gringos here live relatively ‘high on the hog’, to use the vernacular of my childhood, and (my theory is) make themselves targets thereby. We have a couple of nice computers, because necessary, but otherwise not much of interest to thieves. We’ll see how that works out …

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