Learning Spanish: The Trials and Triumphs

guest post by Shannon Marshall


My face is BEET. RED. My heart is pumping; my mouth is dry. Are they talking about me?! I’m pretty sure I heard the word “gringa!”

Okay, I admit it. I was being just a taaaad paranoid, but I remember feeling SUPER self-conscious. I couldn’t understand conversations going on around me! And this was on my trip to Puebla, Mexico (my first-ever abroad experience!) – after 6 years of taking Spanish in school!

I eventually felt more comfortable being an English-native speaker in Mexico. But, I still found myself in some awkward situations!

I asked someone (in Spanish, of course!) where to find the zócalo (city centre). As soon as she heard me speak (I only stumbled over one, itty-bitty word!), she immediately switched to English. Grrrrr! At least let me try!

Oh, and is there a limit on how often you can ask someone to repeat themselves? I had to pick up Advil at the pharmacy, and I asked the pharmacist to repeat herself THREE TIMES (¿Puedes repetirlo? ¡No entiendo!). Andddd I still didn’t understand. Smh. But after the third time, I just smiled and nodded, my face a bit flushed.

And for the motherload of translation mishaps! After having been in Mexico for 3 months, it was time for a haircut and colouring. Can you see where this going? Anyway, my sister and I asked for some caramel-colored highlights to match our current style at the time. After about an hour, the hairdressers removed our towels and…. TA-DA! Our hair was PLATINUM BLONDE. White, even. We had to walk around in hooded sweatshirts for the next couple of days. In 90-degree weather.

Shannon Mexico 1

These faux pas make for some great stories! But I also knew I wanted to feel more comfortable striking up conversations with the locals and getting around. I decided to get serious about practising my Spanish with native speakers.

I’m a visual learner. Hearing new phrases was not enough for me to learn them. I began carrying around a small notebook (this was before I had a smartphone!). For really important words and sentences that I foresaw myself using in the future, I would ask, “¿Puedes escribir esta palabra/frase para mí?” “Can you write this word/phrase for me?” I reviewed my notebook every night before bed. My vocabulary and fluency TREMENDOUSLY improved; I found myself talking more and more like the locals every day.

Also, my sister and I wrote down a list of questions and phrases that we could say in conversation to make Mexican friends. For example, we included, “I am from New Jersey/Soy de Nueva Jersey,” “I am in Puebla for four months/Estoy en Puebla por cuatro meses,” etc. Each morning, we read over the list, which gave us more practice and fluency.

Soon, we were speaking to more Mexicans every day, growing our vocabulary, and becoming more confident!

Shannon Mexico 5

Even though my sister and I weren’t beginners in Spanish when we started travelling, these tips can help anyone (at any Spanish level!) feel more confident approaching the locals and getting around more easily. Being able to communicate with Spanish speakers has opened so many doors for us: we were invited to a quinceañera party, a Día de Los Tres Reyes celebration, and even a wedding! We still talk to our amazing Mexican friends to this day!

Travelling is one of my favourite things to do; I hope these tips help you make the most of your trip!

Bio: Shannon Marshall and her twin sister, Jessica, have spoken their way through Mexico, Spain, and Chile. They help travellers, like them, make the most out of their trips abroad by having confident conversations in Spanish. Before your next trip, get the word-for-word phrases that will have you talking to Spanish speakers as soon as you land: https://speakwithlocals.leadpages.co/speak-spanish-as-soon-as-you-land/.

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Please Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click through and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. All thoughts, feelings and opinions shared on this blog and in this post are my own.


One thought on “Learning Spanish: The Trials and Triumphs

  1. usaabroad says:

    Such a great post! I’m in the process if learning Spanish right now and even though I studied it in school, it feels a bit like I’m starting from scratch! Having a notebook of phrases you hear is SUCH a good idea. Thanks!
    Laura | eternal-expat.com

    Liked by 1 person

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