Learning Spanish: It’s the Little Successes

by Gray Cargill on September 27, 2011



Should you learn the native language before traveling to a foreign country? This is a question that plagues many travelers. I know many people around the world speak English, so you can get by without knowing a country’s language, but I feel guilty if they have to accommodate me by speaking what is to them a foreign language–in their own country, no less. Think about how often Amerians say (in what is usually a very snotty tone of voice): “If you’re going to come to the US, learn the language.” Shouldn’t it be the same when we travel somewhere else? If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s double standards.

A couple of years ago, I decided to stop saying “I’d like to learn Spanish some day” and actually learn it. I started studying. I’ve got what I think is a pretty good language program involving a workbook and CDs. But I haven’t progressed very far. What’s lacking is daily motivation. I live in Vermont. We don’t have a large Spanish-speaking population here. I don’t have an opportunity to practice in a natural setting. And let’s face it, in this world, the tyranny of the urgent often takes over. Other things take priority and push the Spanish study to the background so that when I start planning a trip to a Spanish-speaking destination, it’s like I have to start all over again from scratch.

After my frustrations with language in Paris, I didn’t have a lot of hope that I would fare better in Spain. I knew more Spanish words and phrases than I had French, but how was my pronunciation? And would I remember what I had learned, or would my mind go blank when I most needed to pull up those phrases? I didn’t know; I’d never had to put it to use.


English translations are often provided in non-English speaking countries

On the day of my arrival in Madrid, I spoke little Spanish. I didn’t have to. Before I even had a chance to open my mouth, waiters, hotel desk clerks and other service workers took one look at my pale skin and red hair and greeted me in English. At first, it was a relief. Who was I to keep them from practicing their English? I rationalized. By day two, though, I was ready to dip my toes in the Spanish language pool. I mean, this is why I did all that studying, right? At first, the results were a little comical.

Shortly after I arrived in Barcelona, I found a table in a cafe off Placa Catalunya, which is a fairly touristy area. Menu items were in Spanish and English, and it was clear that my waitress spoke some English, but I wanted to try to order in Spanish. I did fine, until I got to my beverage. I asked for a té helado. The waitress frowned at me, a puzzled look on her face.

My confidence wavered. “Té helado?” I repeated. She looked at me like I was speaking with a mouthful of marbles. I must be pronouncing it wrong, I thought.

“Iced tea?” I said, hoping she knew that English phrase. Her face cleared, she nodded and wrote it down. But I wanted to know, for future reference, how to really say it in Spanish. So I asked her:

“Cómo se dice ‘iced tea’ en español?”

She repeated, “Iced tea.”

“Si,” I said. “But how do you say it in Spanish?”

She looked at me like I was crazy, and in perfectly good English replied, “You say iced tea. It’s universal, like Coke or Pepsi.”

Oh. Okay then.


Knowing the language helps you figure out what you're ordering in a restaurant

Things turned around at dinner the following evening. I was dining al fresco, enjoying the sultry night air. My oh-so-smooth waiter knew quite a bit of English. After I ordered my food, he asked me what I would like to drink, and for some reason, I decided I wanted wine. I don’t normally like or drink wine, but I wanted to try something local, and I’d already sampled two Spanish beers during previous meals. So I asked him, “Do you have a house wine?”

He cocked his head at me, a question on his face. He didn’t understand.

I hadn’t practiced the phrase at all, nor given it any thought before my trip, but of course, when I put my mind to it, I realized I knew all the words in Spanish to explain it: “Vino de casa?” I said.

He looked embarrassed. “Oh—house wine, of course. Rojo o blanco (red or white)?”

“Blanco,” I replied. He went off to get my wine, and I leaned back in my chair, feeling quite smug. I didn’t like the wine very much, but I drank it all anyway, because dammit, I’d ordered it in Spanish.

It’s the little successes.

La Rambla

La Rambla

My second success came during my long, frustrating search to buy a travel-sized shampoo in Barcelona. I hadn’t brought any with me, and my hostal didn’t provide it. I went to El Corte Ingles, the mega-department/grocery store, certain they would have it. Shockingly, all they had was full-size bottles of shampoo. How could this be? El Corte Ingles has everything! It’s like the freaking Mall of America, only in Spain. As I wandered all over the city that day, I stopped into every pharmacy I ran across, and still, no travel-sized shampoo. It was like the quest for the Holy Grail. How could nobody have travel-sized shampoo in a tourist destination like Barcelona?

Finally, as I was walking along La Rambla, I spotted a little pharmacy and decided to try one last time. If this didn’t work, I was just going to have to suck it up and buy a full-sized bottle. I walked into the store. There was only one other customer browsing. The pharmacist, a stocky man a bit older than me with dark hair buzzed close to his head, looked at me expectantly as I walked in. I smiled and greeted him. “Hola.”

“Hola,” he replied with a smile. “Buenas dias.”

He was one of the first people I’d run across in Spain who didn’t immediately switch to English as soon as they saw me. Which made me think maybe he didn’t speak English. So I broke out my minimal Spanish.

Me: “Yo quiero pagar una pequeña champú, viajo champú.” I thought I was saying “I want to buy a small shampoo, travel shampoo,” but what I was actually saying was “I want to pay a small shampoo, travel shampoo”–and even then, my grammar wasn’t exactly correct. But it didn’t have to be; I got the message across, and I did it all in Spanish. More importantly, he didn’t laugh at me.

Him: “Pequeña champú, si.” He walked around the counter and over to the hair care products. He found a small bottle of shampoo on the shelf and showed it to me. I was elated and bought it.

I was making baby steps in Spanish, but it’s the little successes that build confidence.

Barceona Sants train station

Barceona Sants train station

In the train station on the way back to Madrid, I started chatting with an American woman and her mother who were traveling around Spain and were coincidentally on the same train as me. There was a delay with our train and lines of people began conversing in Spanish with a staff member. There were no English announcements at Sants, so we had no idea what was going on. That’s when I learned that neither one of them spoke a word of Spanish.

Not a word? They didn’t even learn a single word of Spanish before they went to Spain??? Not even hello, please, or thank you? I was gobsmacked.

We made our way to a staff member to try to get some information about our train. He only spoke a little English, haltingly, and so supplemented what he was saying in Spanish. The two women pulled me forward. “We don’t speak Spanish. But she does.”

I pinched my fingers together. “Un poco. Muy poco.” (A little; very little.)

It’s amazing how suddenly, my limited knowledge of the Spanish language became really important. Luckily, I knew just enough. It sounded like he was telling us the train was leaving from platform two downstairs. In Spanish, I repeated what I thought I heard him say: “Dos? Abajo?”

He looked at me and nodded vigorously. “Si. Dos, abajo.”

I thanked him, and the three of us went downstairs, me leading them right to their train seats—directly behind mine–like a mother duckling. When they got off at Zaragoza, we wished each other well. I felt good knowing I had helped them get to their destination.

If your native language is English, you can sometimes get by in a foreign country without speaking their language. But I’m glad I learned as much Spanish as I did before I went to Spain. Not just because it helped me feel more confident as I was making my way around the country, or even because I was able to help the mother and daughter catch their train to Zaragoza. I’m glad because of the look on the face of the staff member in the train station.

He was looking a little frazzled, surrounded by frustrated travelers, all of them peppering him with questions about why there was a delay and where they needed to go. He obviously didn’t speak enough English to make himself understood to these two women. When he realized I understood him and could translate what he said to the other two women, a look of relief washed across his face. I made his job easier just by learning some of his language before I went to his country. I hadn’t learned a lot, but it was enough.

It’s the little successes that make a difference.

Gray January 17, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Thanks, Lisa! Panama is definitely fairly high on my list, for sure. Now that I can speak a little Spanish, I find myself leaning toward Spanish-speaking destinations more and more. 🙂

Lisa @chickybus January 17, 2012 at 11:22 am

This is great…I applaud you for what you’ve been doing with Spanish and for your accomplishments! It sounds it’s just right, too. You’ve been focusing on the crucial stuff and actually practicing in real situations. Good for you! And you’re so right–it doesn’t have to be perfect for others to understand.

Can’t wait to see where this leads you! If you go to Panama, you may be surprised at how sometimes, people don’t speak English–even in areas where you’d expect them to. If you go, you’ll have many opportunities to practice–and learn! Buena suerte!

Gray October 14, 2011 at 6:07 am

LOL, I imagine that could get you in trouble, Kirstin. 🙂 Coca…good to know!

Kirstin October 13, 2011 at 9:17 pm

My request for Coke earned me some raised eyebrows until our Moroccan tour guide correctly translated my request.

fyi it’s Coca in Morocco.

Gray October 7, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Yes!–That’s it, Christine, “feeling empowered.” Congrats on the Hindi, that’s impressive. (And LOL about the “cost”; sounds like something I’d do.) 🙂

GRRRL TRAVELER October 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Congrats on the little successes!!! They’re really quite BIG when you realize you’ve built a bridge between yrself and another culture! So it’s flawed. No one’s perfect.

In Segovia I asked a cashier “Cuanto cuesto?” & she gruffly corrected me. Apparently I asked her “How much do I cost?” I forgot & then did it again and again…. Glad it didn’t get me into trouble.

I felt so VICTORIOUS (talking screaming inside…)in India when I’d ask questions/ answer the minutest things in Hindi, because NO one expected it. I think it’s called “feeling empowered”.

Gray October 7, 2011 at 11:19 am

Renee, thanks. Glad to know I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

Renee October 7, 2011 at 9:44 am

I can relate with my quest to learn French. It does take time and dedication and it’s easy to get sidetracked, but you must keep at it and yes, the little successes is what really count.

Gray September 28, 2011 at 8:27 pm

@Kirstin – Oh, ouch. I can see why that would be discouraging. If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t do so well in France either.

@Kent – Exactly! Once you have a few small successes under your belt, it really does inspire you to keep going. It’s a good reminder to all of us who are on the other side of it to be more patient with people trying to speak our language, to be more encouraging, to smile and let them know they have managed to get their message across.

Kirstin September 28, 2011 at 7:01 pm

My french is limited to about six months of classes over 20 years ago. I find I am okay at reading menus but my conversation french is limited to hello and goodbye.

My first visit to Paris went badly and most people we came across were not interested in trying to communicate with us, put me off even attempting to speak french..

I tried to learn a few phrases “Where is the toilet?” but found that people tended to reply in french… “ummm parle vous anglais, s’il vous plait?”

Kent @ No Vacation Required September 28, 2011 at 5:25 pm

It IS the little successes! We learned that when we were teaching English in Ecuador. We had a lot of #fails in our Spanish as we tried to communicate w/ the kids. However, as we slowly amassed successes, it inspired us to keep learning.

The iced tea thin is hilarious.

Gray September 28, 2011 at 11:14 am

Thanks, Jenna. Your adventures in Chinese sound similar to mine in Spanish. The good thing is you don’t have to be fluent to have it make a difference on your travels.

Jenna Vandenberg September 28, 2011 at 8:42 am

Congrats on your vino de casa and shampoo 🙂 We Americans do have quite the double standard when it comes to languages, don’t we? I tried to learn Chinese before heading off to Asia for a few months, but mastering five or six CD’s didn’t exactly make me fluent.

May the little successes keep adding up!

Gray September 28, 2011 at 5:12 am

Thanks, Jarmo. Central and South America are on my list, but I’ve seen relatively little of Europe and still have that desire to see more, so I made Spain my priority.

Jarmo @ Arctic Nomad September 27, 2011 at 11:04 pm

It’s definitely worth learning Spanish, but the best place to travel to for learning it is not Spain, but Central and South America, there you will actually have to speak it! and that’s the best way to learn it 😉 But it still sounds like managed to get around on you Spanish, good!

Gray September 27, 2011 at 4:43 pm

@Becky and @Nathan – That’s the toughest part: overcoming timidity, fear of making mistakes, mangling the language. But it’s the only way to get better at it.

@Mandy – I agree, I think people really appreciate the effort.

@Krista – Thank you! I’m writing that down right now–“te con hielo”. That does make more sense, doesn’t it?

Krista September 27, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Way to go!!!
I am much better at reading and hearing Spanish than I am speaking. I am always worried they will get mad or impatient with me trying just to get a sentence out, plus I am rather shy. I need to get past that though cause just being able to read and listen isn’t always fun, especially when you’re a talker, like me.

That is interesting that the lady said “iced tea” was universal?! I have never heard that before. I figure it would be ‘te con hielo’ (tea with ice.)
What you actually asked her for, “te helado” was frozen tea, which i’m sure would have been nice once it melted ;). Also, weird fact is ‘hielo’ (ice) is pronounced more like yellow or jello, depending on the accent.

Thanks for the post I really enjoyed it!

Mandy Kilinskis September 27, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Congratulations on the little successes and wonderful post. I try to learn at least the basics (hi, bye, thank you, and can i have…) before all of my trips. I’ve found that even if you don’t speak the language perfectly, or even okay, natives will still really appreciate the try.

Nathan Pralle September 27, 2011 at 10:14 am

Fascinating story — thanks for sharing. I’m with Becky — the hardest bit will be getting over the, “What if they laugh at me?” syndrome and just jump into it without over-analyzing what I sound like.

Becky September 27, 2011 at 9:05 am

What a cool post. I love hearing stories like this. I’m currently trying to learn a bit of German for my next trip, and I really think my biggest obstacle will be putting aside my shyness at using it.

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