On not Speaking Spanish (Very Well).

Monolingual English speakers from the US sometimes ask why (more) people in Nicaragua don't speak English, sometimes in amusing ways and sometimes in annoying ways. Some of them forget that in the US, many monolingual English speakers think that people who speak less than good English are less intelligent (and this also seems to apply to people who speak different dialects of English).

It's well to keep in mind that while mono-lingual Spanish-speakers tend to be more polite about those of us who don't speak good Spanish, at least some of them have the same feeling toward us that the "Speak English" people in the US have to people whose only fluent language wasn't English. If a person whose Spanish is minimal is fortunate, as I've been, someone will take some pains to make sure you know when the ladrons are around, will coach you on proper phrases for entering and leaving a store, and will treat you to water cress, orange bananas, and tell you to let her know when you leave town overnight.

If you're not fortunate, you'll have the same sorts of experiences that mono-lingual Spanish speakers have right off the bus -- you'll be cheated, underpaid, and while you'll have too much money to be forced to rent a bed in a house in a bad neighborhood, you may not strike the people around you as being fully adult until you speak Spanish fluently. Your position here, except for the money, isn't that different from the migrant to the US who hasn't mastered English. And like that migrant, you have two options -- either to live among a community of people who speak your language or learn enough language to get buy as quickly as possible, make sure you have expression in your voice and don't sound like a computer generator of Spanish phrases, and make connections with people who can help you with your Spanish in exchange for helping them learn more English (bilingual Nicaraguans) or spend some serious time in immersion schools (Juanno's six months to a year).

A friend who'd travelled in Europe said that most Europeans are amused by Americans claiming to be middle class or better and not being fluent in more than one language. Monolingualism is for the working classes. A Belgian woman said that nobody in Belgium thinks anything about learning multiple language. The country is tiny and everyone simply does it, including the working classes. The Americas tend to be more monolingual, either Spanish-speaking or English-speaking, because the areas where just having one language works are so huge.

At first, the idea of simply having to master Spanish was intimidating and dismaying. Maybe six months after I came here and could go to the market and buy the things I needed to survive, and could read legal Spanish (oddly enough, the easiest Spanish -- many cognates with English legal terms), I felt more confident. My small Spanish is now reasonable enough that people who I haven't been talking badly to earlier can generally understand me. Given the Internet, I'm not forced to learn better Spanish to have some kind of a social life (my Little USA on line).

I don't have a small sample, but my impression is that not being fluent in Spanish and expecting the same social role that one had in an English-speaking community tend to lead to some people feeling that they should take advantage of this, and to the perception that many of us are dumb with too much money.

The other thing is knowing that for most people, it takes six years of study to become genuinely fluent (to be able to think in the language, to have a close to native-speaker's understanding of the structure of the language). These are the people whose use of language is rapid, no apparent internal translation between their native language and the second language, even when they might still have an accent. The technical term for some kinds of mistakes that language learners make is "language interference" -- using the structure of one language with the vocabulary of another. Most of us who've taught non-native speakers find these all over our student's writings and have to ask questions about how their native languages work and help them analyze precisely how English doesn't do it that way ("English is redundant," one Spanish-speaking students from Nicaragua told me). The first language will always feel right. Being fluent in the second language means getting to the point where its structure feels right, too.

People who have simply retired here can get along for years with what I call Market Spanish -- you can feed and clothe yourself, and you know the numbers, months, and days of the week. You're not running a business, so the verb forms for did once and did habitually are not significant to you. You can use a handful of single first person and single second and third person verbs in the present and past tenses. What you won't have is complex conversations with your neighbors, an ability to listen to conversations in front of you on the bus or the radio. I think getting the Market Spanish down does give me more confidence that I'm eventually going to learn the rest of the, but I'm going to have to push myself for more. People can get by on Market Spanish. It's just a limited life with just that.

The other fear is that I'm too old to become fluent. The best way to protect the brain is get exercise and eat right, and drink a certain amount of coffee (newest research). Learning also protects the brain. And the other thing is that to live here fully, I have to be fluent, even, ideally, to the point of being able to write as well in Spanish as I do in English, because that's who I am.

The other thing is that really mastering a different language remaps who I am -- or who anyone is -- and the Market Spanish is a defense against that risk, that being another person with a different thought map. One person said mastering a new language is like tearing yourself apart and rebuilding. Thinking in Spanish means thinking in the ways that people here think, and everyone comes to terms with that in their own ways. One of the ways is to be the person who's lived here 15 years and who still isn't fluent, who still sees the Spanish-speakers as "them" in various ways. Most of the learning material doesn't touch on this, what linguists call the soft Sapir-Whorf aspect of what a language is inside our heads. (The extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf theory says that the language you think in determines absolutely what we can think -- the Prisonhouse of Language; soft Sapir-Whorf says language shapes but doesn't determine what ideas we can come up with, that we can invent the map to a certain extent).

For me, holding onto the prospect of really being fluent is like planning to dive off the high board, and ending up remapping, to a certain extent, how I think and what I think about. Spanish isn't as extreme as Chinese or Russian, but it's not English and its history is not England's and the US's.

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Aprendiendo a hablar español.

Hi guys. If you just want to learn spanish so you can comunicate with people, well besides taking classes from a local, reading newspapers, and books,and listening to the radio and television in spanish, talk with everybody you come in contact with in your day with your broken and limited spanish. Must of the people will be gracious and appreciative of you making the effort to learn their language and happily correct any mistakes. If you want or need to learn a more sophisticated spanish then you´ll need to enroll in a very good school. Most of us nicas don´t take the time to learn the name of every weed, tree, flower or bird, that´s why the weed is monte, that caimito tree is just a palo or arbol, that orchid is just another flower and that woodpecker is a pajaro, well a pajaro carpintero. Learning how to spell, and the right use of conjugaciones verbales, where to use the acento and all the grammar rules is great and some of us need to take a refreshing class, I know I do. Learning to know what a word or sentence, when read or heard means is great but sometimes that is not enough. Because to know precisely what someone is talking about, knowing the meaning of those words and the grammatical structure doesnt allways give you the true meaning of what you´re hearing or reading. That comes only with time and you getting out and talking to the people out there. Although Parense and Ponganse de pie mean the same in one scenario, stand up, on another one they mean different things, Parense-stop. That and all the little nuances and idiosincracias, los doble sentidos and juegos de palabras that makes every country in latino america unica, takes a life time to master. I´m still working at it, both in spanish and english Even though we speak the same language we do not speak the same lengua. Learn to have fun while learning, there is no better way. Hasta la proxima.

Para mí, es necessario estudiar, escuchar, y hablar

I bounce around from studying very specific things more formally, then listening to others, and practicing speaking. For me, I do best with a target in the formal study -- what I wanted to do was learn how to say "I was in Matagalpa yesterday." "I ate breakfast ." Then I try saying it: "Estaba en Matagalpa ayer." "Me comí el desayuno." If my neighbors can understand me, I've won.

I have a couple of acquaintances who have some English but it's easier if we use my some more Spanish and then ask "como se dice and work from there, but I have to write things down to have a better chance at remembering them.

Most people are quite kind about my Spanish. I've had some vendors who hadn't met me before just beam that I could speak any Spanish at all (up in the market); I've had one store owner tell me my Spanish was bad, but I've been doing business with her for a while.

I keep re-watching Sandino, which only has subtitles in Spanish for the English language bits. I probably need to pick up a few more movies -- have La Yuma, which does have English subtitles. I probably can get some of the things I watched back in the States from Amazon.

Rebecca Brown

Great thoughtful post

I enjoyed this post tremendously. On the perfect vs. imperfect tenses, as a Latin and Greek major in college I got it then, so found it easier when I studied French and Spanish later on. In English, it's often difficult to translate the imperfect, as we have no simple cognate for it. When I do my Augustine Latin translating in the latinstudy group, coming across the imperfect is always a challenge.

I think that the best way to learn a language is immersion, whatever age you are. You are in the perfect area for Spanish immersion, and I envy your position.


Where I live (roughly, in the middle of nowhere) you get a good introduction to minimalist Spanish. While being here has probably made my Spanish worse, being here is an interesting way to see what minimalist Spanish might be.

Verbs have one tense. You will hear "me voy ahora", "me voy la semana pasada" and "me voy mañana". Correct? No, but easily undersood.

Nouns are minimized as well. My favorite example is monte. Yes, it means weed but I have yet to find someone here that, when pressed, can come up with a name for any of the weeds. Anything that is not a known fruit, vegetable of flower is monte.

While I don't think this is a good place to be to learn Spanish, it certainly can show you what is necessary to communicate. If this is where you are, the easiest way to supplement this is turn on the radio. You learn about the culture of where you are as you passively learn the language.

when im up at the farm..

there are some people i can sit down with and have a great conversation with..and others they cannt understand a word im saying..or i them..a lot depends on who ure talking too..if they or u really want to talk to one another..u can get by with minimal spanish..my spanish is terrible..truthfully i have a harder time understanding people in some of the marcados in mga

Use of present tense

Present tense in spanish can be used (correctly) for the near future. But not for the past. Saying... "Me voy manana" is ok. Had the speaker said "me voy la semana que viene" instead of "la semana pasada"... it would be acceptable spanish. Here are some other uses of the present tense..



If you would decide that learning to speak Spanish late in life is hard work and go to work to do so, instead of wasting your time by writing pedantic, tendentious, pseudo-intellectual trash in English that justifies your failure to progress in Spanish at an adequate pace, you would learn to communicate in Spanish more quickly and effectively.

If you'd grow up and behave civilly

...you'd be less funny.

Rebecca Brown


Very Deep.....

"One person said mastering a new language is like tearing yourself apart and rebuilding. Thinking in Spanish means thinking in the ways that people here think, and everyone comes to terms with that in their own ways".

Deep but true, I mean sometimes I sit and think....and sometimes I just sit. Very Nica....if not so Spanish.

I have come to terms with that. No counseling or steps for that one...well, just the front step, if that's the one you got to when you started to sit and think....before just sitting. It's normally just before my siesta when my belly is full of rice and chicken...two of the sleepiest foods known to man and 30 degrees in the shade.

Learn Spanish if you want to or can do. It's not law or even part of the residency process. Life can be enjoyed without it but its obviously going to be a lot easier with it...once you are past the "a little knowledge being a dangerous thing" part.

I read it better than I speak it. Its easy to get stuck in that groove...nobody's correcting me, rushing me or bothering me. So maybe I'm not better at all, I just think I am.

One of the things I've noticed

...is that I don't think I'm making progress because the more I know the more I know I don't know (OMG, the tenses -- did I do that once in the past or do I habitually do it). Then someone who visiting infrequently or someone who sees me infrequently see me again and tells me that I've made a lot of progress. Some people are just thrilled that I can speak any Spanish at all; other people wanted me to learn Spanish in a month.

My impression is that here (Jinotega), you really can't manage without knowing sufficient market Spanish. I was trying to find hot peppers in the market without knowing they were called chiles. Finally someone figured out what I was looking for and I now have my chiles in vinegar sauce. Knowing that also cast some light on friends' problems with a neighbor. His nickname is El Chileno -- The Hot Pepper One.

I can understand more than I can speak. Often, I realize while I didn't get every word, I actually got the gist of the conversation (words I know, body language, context, tone).

One man said he never studied any language formally other than French, but learned a language by being thrown into a culture that didn't speak Spanish (his native language). He's the one who said if I'd lived on a strictly Spanish-speaking island with no internet, I'd be speaking Spanish by now.

The other thing he said was not to worry about getting everything right as long as you could make yourself understood, learning by making mistakes and by talking to native speakers.

Rebecca Brown

There Is Always

a point in learning a language where mastery seems impossible. It's the point where you are reasonably capable, but begin to understand the complexity of the undertaking. It's not just verb tenses. It's the correct usage of a million different words, phrases. The colloquial use of "rebar"; "take a dump".

Buying something in the market, or interacting with the (unhelpful) Claro girl is one thing. But, as your relationships get closer, the nuances become more important. Working at it, being somewhere you can use the language daily, all important, but it still just takes time.

Brian's Aproach

When I moved to Costa Rica, one of my neighbors was British. I talked to him about learning Spanish. He was retired but had learned Spanish by doing sales work in Central America. I don't know how old he was when he started that but clearly was not young.

He said what worked for him was to just go out and interact as best he could. Then, in the evening, he would review his day of communication. If, for example, he had real trouble with a particular interaction he would try to figure out what he did wrong.

Personally, I hate just studying. To me, it is like just exercising rather than getting exercise by walking or riding a bicycle to where I need to go. So, his approach appealed to me. He studied what he needed and each day that list would get updated.

To offer one other data point from my time in Costa Rica, there was my Italian neighbor. Again, not young. He had learned English and then Spanish (I'm not sure how) in Costa Rica. But, his wife moved directly from Italy to Costa Rica. Her approach to learning Spanish was to watch telenovelas. She liked them so she wanted to learn Spanish to understand them.

I think the bottom line here is that you need to do what feels good for you and you will learn Spanish. It's just that you need to really do it. If you spend your life running around with a translator (electronic or human), always have a dictionary in your pocket or hide on the English-speaking part of the Internet, you will learn little and, for many, develop that "why don't they learn English" attitude that is all too common.

La manera mas rapida de aprender español

Italian neighbor ...Aprendio rapido porque el idioma de el es igual

los que hablamos Español entedemos muchas palabras del idioma Italiano

1_ si quieres aprender español busca amigos locales y pasa tiempo con ellos, aprenderas mas rapido que en la escuela

Yes but ...

Maybe it is different if Spanish or Italian is your first language and you want to learn the other but, for me, it was a real problem. For example, watching a movie in one of the languages with subtitles in the other was a total disaster.

On the other hand, I didn't seem to have that problem with something in Portugese. For example, I was watching a Nature or National Geographic video a few months ago. I was having trouble understanding it but was thinking it was just different Spanish. My wife walked in and said, "why are you watching something in Portugese".