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