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Should I Learn Spanish Before Moving to Ecuador?

Posted in: Language Learning, Living in Ecuador

This is a guest post by an American expat living in Cuenca since 2007. 

learn-spanish-ecuadorWe recently stopped by the post office in Cuenca to take care of some business and were amused to see a foreign woman loudly inquiring in English about the status of a package.

Apparently the woman felt that if she just spoke English loud enough that she would be understood. She made no attempt whatsoever to speak Spanish. The patient postal worker was doing his best to communicate with this woman, but he was clearly uncomfortable trying to answer her questions using his limited English.

The loud English-speaking lady was finally able to ascertain the status of her package and left the post office with a slight smile on her face. She gave me the impression that she was satisfied with herself because she was able to accomplish a task without having to put forth the effort to speak Spanish.

This and other similar “language standoffs” between English and Spanish speakers raises the question: Is it really necessary to learn Spanish before moving to Ecuador? Can one get by with just speaking English?

Although some expats may argue that is in not necessary to invest time in learning a foreign language before moving abroad, there are some valid reasons for learning the local language.

Thinking of learning Spanish? You should read our Speak from Day 1 review. It is a comprehensive guide on how to learn a new language. If you are looking for some motivation, check out this video by Benny the polyglot. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before…

Should I Learn Spanish Before Moving to Ecuador?

1) Emergency Situations

Imagine that you wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself in need of emergency medical care. If you do not speak the language of the emergency personnel who answer your call for help, how will you communicate to them your exact location or explain the nature of your emergency?

We recently found ourselves in just such an emergency situation and were thankful that we were able to communicate in Spanish with the emergency room personnel. If you are faced with an unexpected emergency situation, do you want to just assume that the operator who answers your call for help speaks and understands English?

Common sense dictates that you would need to learn at least some Spanish in order to get help in the case of emergency. You might even say that it could be a matter of life and death.

When Bryan and Dena learned Spanish, they used lots of books and courses.

2) Self Esteem

Recently we received a distress call from a friend who has been in Ecuador for a few months. She was stressed out because she was unable to successfully communicate with her landlord regarding an issue with her apartment. Our friend speaks almost no Spanish and her landlord speaks no English. She made several attempts to communicate with the landlord and explain a rather complicated situation regarding the installation of her internet.

Our friend finally gave up trying to communicate with her landlord and called us for interpretation help. Our friend was frustrated because she felt helpless due to her inability to communicate in Spanish. She lamented the fact that she does not yet speak enough Spanish to defend herself in certain situations.

Had our friend started studying Spanish in the months or years before her move to Ecuador, she would no doubt feel more confident and satisfied with herself.

3) Quality of Life

Learning to communicate in the local language can improve your quality of life. How so? If you do not speak the language, you will be limited to a few nods and basic greetings when you meet neighbors passing on the sidewalk.

We have found that as a general rule Ecuadorians are interesting, sincere people who make great friends. The majority of our friends are Ecuadorians and we would not have been able to develop such good friendships had we not taken the time to learn Spanish before moving to Ecuador.

Also, learning Spanish has helped us to get a better understanding of Ecuadorian culture which in turn has enabled us to avoid being overly critical when faced with the inevitable “culture clash” situations.

Learning Spanish has also helped us to avoid feeling like outsiders in our neighborhood. A while back we got acquainted with an expat couple who had very limited Spanish skills. Although they had lived in other Spanish speaking countries for a number of years, they just never got around to learning the language. As a result, they had a generally negative view of Latin-Americans and felt unsafe in the neighborhood they lived in. They never got to know their neighbors and were suspicious of everyone. It is possible that had they taken the time to study Spanish and learn something of Latin-American culture, they would have perhaps been happier living here. Instead, they decided to move on to supposedly greener pastures.

For our family, the years we have invested in learning Spanish have served us well. Being Spanish speakers has enabled us to form some good friendships, has helped us handle emergency situations and has made us feel more self reliant and comfortable living in a foreign country.

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Meet the Author

Bryan Haines is editor of GringosAbroad - one of the largest English language sites about Ecuador. Work with GringosAbroad. He is a travel blogger, photographer and content marketer. He is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands).

31 comments… add one
  • Dennis Mar 5, 2014, 2:49 pm

    Anyone of any age who fails to learn the language”is” too lazy and ignorant. The ugly American rears it’s ugly head yet again. when in Rome people, when in Rome. Time to grow up and play ball in the grownup’s world.

  • Michelle Apr 8, 2013, 3:48 pm

    Hi Bryan and Dena! I’m from the US and I currently live in Ecuador (in Quito), and I’ve really enjoyed browsing through a lot of your content this afternoon. I especially have enjoyed your posts about learning Spanish both in Ecuador and in Canada before moving. I think that you’re absolutely right that starting to learn Spanish before arriving in Ecuador is a good idea, and knowing Spanish has definitely helped me to feel like a more integrated part of the community in Quito. I work for a company that offers online Spanish classes (via Skype) with native Spanish speakers from Ecuador, and we’re always looking for new students. I’d like to offer Gringos Abroad some free classes so that your readers can try our service. Readers who are thinking about relocating to Cuenca (or anywhere in the Spanish speaking world) might be especially interested in learning the basics or brushing up before arriving. I’m sorry if this isn’t the appropriate way to contact you, but please let me know if you’d be interested! Thanks again for the awesome content. Saludos!

    • Bryan Haines Apr 10, 2013, 2:58 pm

      Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for your comment and your offer. I would like to publish a post written by you – including your offer, but also explaining what you do and how it can help new expats.

      You can check the guest blogging guidelines here

      Thanks!

      Bryan

      • Michelle Apr 11, 2013, 10:30 am

        Hi Bryan- I just submitted a post! I look forward to being in contact. Thanks!

        • Bryan Haines Apr 12, 2013, 3:26 pm

          Received. Thank you. It looks good and it will publish next week.

          Thanks!

    • Molly Apr 29, 2015, 1:15 am

      For Miclelle, I will be moving to Ecuador this August and need to learn Spanish as fast as possible. Are you still offering free classes?

    • Tonya Mar 30, 2017, 2:34 pm

      Hi Michelle,
      I am so glad that I ran across your comment. My husband and myself are wanting to visit Ecuador and possibly make it a home. I totally agree that out of respect one should know how to communicate with the native language. My husband and myself were researching the best ways to learn Spanish and I’ve found that a Rosetta Stone approach is nice but more of an immersion approach would be more idealic. I would love to find out more about your skype class with native Spanish speakers from Ecuador.
      Thank you in advance.
      Tonya.

  • Donna McNicol Jan 22, 2013, 9:24 pm

    New to this website, reading interesting articles like this one. We are planning a trip this summer or next winter to Cuenca to evaluate it for a possible retirement location. Neither of us know any more Spanish than banos or cervasa. LOL! But we are ordering software to learn at least some basic vocabulary. We’ll never be fluent in Spanish but we will hopefully learn enough to get by, especially in an emergency. Great discussion…thank you all!

  • J. D. Chinn Jan 13, 2013, 12:01 pm

    Here’s my basic list:
    http://www.spanishdict.com/translate/

    ?Y=and
    Adios=goodbye
    Aho=garlic
    Altos=tall
    Ano=year
    Aqui=here
    Arroz=rice
    Barbilla=Chinn
    Bella=beautiful
    Bien=been, being, well
    Buena=good, nice
    Bread=pan
    Camaron=shrimp, prawn
    Carna=pork
    Carne=meat
    Cena=supper
    Cocina=cooking
    Comida=food, eating
    Como=how, what
    Cual=Which
    Cuando=when
    Cuanto=how much
    Comida=lunch
    Desculpe=excuse me
    Desayuno=breakfast
    Donde=where
    El cuarto=the room
    El nombre=the name
    El paseo=the walk
    Ellos=they
    Encanta=loves
    Entiendo=knows
    No entiendo=I don’t understand
    Es=is
    Esta=It’s or this
    Estan=are you?
    Este=this, in
    Frio=cold
    Guapo=good looking
    Habla=speak
    Hacer=to do-to make
    Hasta=until, as far as
    Jabon=soap
    Jamon=ham
    Jugo=juice (also zumo)
    La Paz=peace
    Llamo=name
    Los/las=the
    las mujeres=women
    luna=moon
    madrugata=dawn or early morning
    manana=morning (from midnight to 12:00 noon) or tomorrow
    Manteca=lard or fat
    Mantequilla=butter
    Mediodia=noon
    Medionoche=midnight
    Mujer-woman
    Muy=very
    Nieva=snows
    Nunca=never
    Pescado=fish
    Pimiento=black pepper
    Pollo=chicken
    Por Que=why
    Que=What
    Quien=Who
    Ser=to be
    Sol=sun
    Sopa=soup
    Soy=I am
    Ternera=beef
    Usted=you
    Vista=view, eyesight

    Enganado=mistaken, deceived

    Phrases
    Que Tal=? How are things?
    Dónde está el baño?: Where is the bathroom?
    Como estan ustedes=how are you
    buenas tardes-good afternoon
    pura vida: life is good
    Una más cerveza por favor: One more beer, please.
    Hola, Me llamo Jaime Duarte =-> Hello, my name is James Dwight.
    tengo tres años aquí -> I’ve been here for three years
    tener hambre/miedo -> to be hungry/afraid
    Lo siento=I’m sorry

    Days & Months

    Hoy=today
    Ayer=yesterday
    Manana=tomorrow
    Minuto=minutes
    Hora=hour
    Diaws=days
    Semana=weeks
    Mes=months
    Ano=years
    Lunes=Monday
    Martes=Tuesday
    Miercoles=Wednesday
    Jueves=Thursday
    Viernes=Friday
    Sabado=Saturday
    Domingo=Sunday
    Enero=January
    Febrero=February
    Marzo=March
    Abril=April
    Mayo=May
    Junio=June
    Julio=July
    Agosto=August
    Septiembre=September
    Octubre=October
    Noviembre=November
    Diciembre=December

    Directions:

    North=Norte
    East=Este
    South=Sur
    West=Oeste
    izquierda=left
    derecha=right
    hacia arriba=up hill
    hacia abajo=downhill

  • J. D. Chinn Jan 13, 2013, 11:38 am

    US citizens are rather smug and sometimes arrogant regarding lanuages. We are generally the only monoliguistic speack culture on the planet. AMy findings are that learning a new language is not only a challenge, but but learning anything new to improve oneself should be welcomed. Learnig a new language is not an overnight project-it takes study and practice from many sources. I live a couple of miles from the Mexican/Arizona border and traveling to Algodonas, BS, Mexico really helps. But suggestion (at the very least) is to make PC or Android note of all the Spanish words you already know then add as many that you can look up or are suggested to you, write them down with their meaning, including phrases. Practice pronouncing them and it’s good to have an interested partner to bounce them back and forth. Soon your vocabulary will expand and you’ll be learning the basdic words i.e cuarto, muy, soy etc. The added benefit of improving your life and achieve the feeling of personal growth.

    My references (are the PC, Spanish for Dummies; Pimslers CD’s and on my Galaxie S III, Babel, and many other free applications.

    • Dennis Mar 5, 2014, 2:56 pm

      Too bloody right. And one thing worse is a smug American is a smug American who has horrific pigeon Spanish with alarming and flamboyant arm gestures.

  • Monica Perez Jul 1, 2012, 5:01 pm

    I would like to share about a wonderful free Spanish language instruction website called http://www.DuoLingo.com and another Spanish language instruction website that has a “free” partial access, called http://www.busuu.com, where, in return for helping others learn your native language, you can gain privileges on their website.

  • Susana Apr 15, 2012, 9:47 am

    I agree with Dan’s reasons three and four – especially reason four. It’s just plain impolite to move to a foreign country and not even try to learn the local language. After all, we’re living in their country – why should they be expected to know our language? But we should at least try to learn their language! I lived in Ecuador for 12 years. I moved there when I was 57 years old and had tried a bit to learn some Spanish before I moved there, but didn’t do very well. But when I was actually in Ecuador, it was like my mind said, “Okay – now you have to learn!” From the beginning, all the Ecuadorians were patient and understanding and respectful of my attempts to learn their language. I always asked them to tell me if they didn’t understand me, and they were very helpful. How well or not I spoke Spanish wasn’t the point – the fact that I was making the effort to learn their language was what they appreciated. Most of them have taken English at school since grammar school – but their teachers don’t speak English, they just read it. And they are hesitant to attempt to speak any English. Except for the teenagers. It was so much fun to go downtown and pass some teenagers and have them say, “Good morning!” and see their beaming faces when I said back to them, “Good morning! How are you?” Usually there was one in the group who would be brave enough to answer, “I am fine!” Then they’d go off, giggling and proud that they had spoken English with an American and been understood – and all that in front of their friends!

  • Pamela Mar 28, 2012, 9:48 pm

    I think you should learn some Spanish (or what ever language is spoken) in any country visited. I’m not fluent in Spanish, but I know some and it helps a lot, plus people are more willing to help you if you put a little effort forward to learn their language. I have not been to Ecuador, but I’m going in August. I can’t wait.

  • Brian Mar 19, 2012, 8:32 pm

    Great article. I personally am studying spanish not as a matter of practicality but more as an intellectual exercise and test of my abilities as a learner. I’m 27 now and haven’t interacted with the language since high school, which is coming up on 10 years ago. So basically what’s motivated me was a recent trip to Europe. I was in Spain and I thought that with my years of high school spanish and a rosetta stone crash course wold prepare me. Much to my dismay this was basically useless when I attempted to either understand someone or communicate what I wanted, thought, or felt. It felt wildly infantilized. It was very uncomfortable. So basically I wished that I had tried harder. Granted I only had three months to prepare. After returning I have become determined to learn spanish. I’ve found good resources and am dedicating a good deal of time to my efforts. I currently only speak english and I feel slightly deficient in that. I plan to travel to Argentina with a friend in the near future and am really looking forward to being able to do what I couldn’t in spain.

  • Malcolm Reding Mar 4, 2012, 5:30 am

    I discovered Google Translate on my IPhone on my last trip to Cuenca and used it very effectively in taxis and asking questions of local citizens. You can either type or speak your question or where you want to go and it will display the translation on the screen and you can even play an audio version. You can even save frequently use questions like the location of your hotel or hostel. I assume this app is also available on other smart phones.

    • Dennis Mar 5, 2014, 3:01 pm

      Still sounds like it falls under the “lazy” label.

  • Dan Feb 19, 2012, 8:53 pm

    Reason # 4 To Learn Spanish
    Part of the reason for residing in a foreign country is to experience a new culture. How can you do that if you can’t understand the people around you.
    Reason # 5 To Learn Spanish
    As a guest it is only common courtesy to learn enough to use everyday greetings or to introduce yourself. Many people will understand if you are not fluent, but may be offended if you make no effort to meet then part way.

  • george Feb 19, 2012, 3:34 pm

    I was talking to my 4 year old nephew yesterday. We had a great time visiting. I did a little research and found out that a typical 4 year old has a vocabulary of between 400 and 500 words… and a two to three year old gets along with about 120 words… So, yesterday I sat down and wrote every Spanish word or phrase I already know. I can count to ten, uno, dos, tres… (10 words), Buenos dias (Good day) counts as 2 words, Por favor (Please), and so on. Amigo (friend), carne (meat), cafe (coffee), leche (milk), agua (water), blanco (white), negro (black), verde (green), si (yes), no (no), adios (goodbye), hola (hello), fiesta (party), gracias (thank you), huevos (eggs), grande (big/large), poquito (small/little), cerveza (beer), caliente (hot), frio (cold), rio (river), pronto (soon), patio (patio), no habla Espanol (I don’t speak Spanish), padre (father), stop (alto), bonita (pretty), pollo (chicken), queso (cheese), perro (dog), sombrero (hat), pantalones (pants), zapato (shoe), casa (house), mesa (table), sandwich (sandwich), dinero (money), and last but not least is pina colada (strained pineapple).

    So, off the top of my head it looks like I know 52 words in Spanish. 70 more words and I should be able to speak like a 2 year old. That is much better than not speaking at all. Wonder if it could be that easy???

    I can learn 70 more words. No fear… With a little more research I will know which 70 words I should study…

    • Doug Feb 20, 2012, 10:43 am

      George,

      You have a positive attitude and that is what it takes to learn a foreign language. Don´t give up and after a while you will be surprised at how much Spanish you have learned. One way to learn is to mingle with native speakers and ask them to correct you. Also, you might want to look into using a language course to help you along with your foreign language studies. We used a great course called Pimsleur´s. Here is a link to their web site: http://www.pimsleur.com/

    • J. D. Chinn Jan 13, 2013, 11:59 am

      Great suggestion and list of Spanish words.

  • P & E Feb 19, 2012, 9:23 am

    I recently required surgery for a broken ankle. As I lay on the operating table with doctors and nurses firing questions at me, I struggled to understand them. I have been studying Spanish and had a real-life example of how important it is.

  • elmonica Feb 18, 2012, 3:47 pm

    Of course then there is the question of how well does one learn it, the required investment in time, and what is realistic for people of certain ages.

    Also, I think a person can learn a lot of Spanish in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and expressions, and still have difficulty listening and comprehending what is being said.

    I wonder how well the Gringos who consider themselves Spanish speakers can turn on a Telenovelas and understand 90% or more of what is being said.

    • Doug Feb 20, 2012, 10:00 am

      ElMonica,

      I think the true test of whether a student of a foreign language can be considered fluent is not whether he/she can understand the limited, rather trashy vocabulary that one will hear on a telenovela. If a student receives unsolicited, positive complements from native speakers and is told on a regular basis by native speakers that his/her Spanish (or whatever the language you happen to be learning)is excellent, that is a good sign that you are doing well in your foreign language studies. If one can make a phone call and communicate in Spanish and understand what the other person is saying in Spanish and be understood by that person, that also is a good sign that one is on the road to foreign language fluency and comprehension. We started learning Spanish from Mexican friends in the U.S. 12 years ago, but had to relearn Spanish to a certain extent when we arrive in Ecuador 5 years ago due to the different accent and word usage. You have to “tune” your ear to pick up different accents, that applies even when conversing with English speakers from, say New Zealand or Australia. It does take a lot of work to learn a foreign language and to get to the point of understanding and being understood when conversing, but it is worth the effort if you are planning on living long term in a foreign country.

  • Mark Franklin Feb 18, 2012, 9:18 am

    Good points!

  • Len Langevinn Feb 17, 2012, 11:36 pm

    Other reasons would include common sense and respect.

    Of the gringos I know here in Ecuador who can’t or won’t speak Spanish, I would be willing to bet that they are those same people back in the USA or Canada who complain about the damn immigrants who come to our country and don’t even have the decency to speak English.

    Thanks for the great article.

    • Doug Feb 18, 2012, 1:41 pm

      Len,
      I agree with your comment, there does seem to be a double standard among some Expats when it comes to learning the local language. Some folks in the U.S. loudly complain about non-english speaking immigrants. They say “if you can´t learn English, then go back home..” but some of these same “English only” expats come to Ecuador and get upset because they are expected to learn Spanish. My wife went to the pharmacy a couple of days ago and the clerk complemented my wife on her excellent Spanish. The clerk mentioned to my wife that a “gringo” came in to the store the other day and got upset at her because she did not speak any English…the gringo needed to use the bathroom and did not know how to say “bathroom” in Spanish. At least Ecuadorians are tolerant of “ignorant” non-spanish speaking gringos.

    • elmonica Feb 19, 2012, 4:57 pm

      I think Gringo expats should try and learn Spanish, although for many it will be a futile exercise.

      However, If I were to apply for Ecuadorian citizenship, I would think it reasonable if the government were to require that I read, write, and speak Spanish at a certain level. I also don’t expect the government to go out of its way to provide English speaking forms, signs and documentation, unless it is part of a plan to promote Tourism.

      • Doug Feb 20, 2012, 10:32 am

        ElMonica,

        By saying that it would be a “futile exercise” for expats to learn Spanish, you seem to indicate that Expats are too ignorant or lazy to learn a foreign language. While it is true that there are some Expats who do not take the time or have the desire to learn Spanish, I personally know a number of expats who have successfully learned Spanish to the point of being able to give public lectures in Spanish to large audiences of native Spanish speakers. I also know dozens of non-native Spanish speaking Expats here in Cuenca who are teachers and they teach exclusively in Spanish. To make a blanket comment that it is “futile” for Expats to learn Spahish is not realistic or fair. For example, last year I took a driving course to obtain my Ecuadorian driver´s license and not once did I have to ask for translation help during the course. (By the way, I passed the written driving test 20/20). I have many Expat friends here who also passed the same driving test in Spahish and then successfully negotiated, in Spanish, the complicated process of matriculating a vehicle. You´d be amazed at what us “ignorant” gringos can do once we put our minds to it. We are not asking the the government to “go out of its way”,as you put it, to provide us with forms in English or give us special treatment. We know that Ecuador is a Spanish speaking country and are content to play by those rules.

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