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How I Became a Polyglot…Lost in Translation


One of the coolest things my mother did for her children, as we were growing up, was to make our birthdays an extravaganza celebration. Our special day always had a theme with hand-made invitations, costumes and decorations. My brother, Dub, has a birthday in October, so his parties centered around cool weather things. One year he had a Football Party and we welcomed the star quarterback of the local high school team as the celebrity guest. Another year his party had a TV Heroes theme, and everyone dressed as their favorite TV idol. I was Morticia Addams and Dub was Napoleon Solo, the Man from U.N.C.L.E. 

My birthday is the end of August so we had all summer to make plans. Where most little girls had pajama parties or celebrated Barbie along with their birthday, I had super events that included a Hawaiian Luau and a Mexican Fiesta. 

For my 9th birthday we had the crème de a crème of all parties, with a United Nations theme. It was the rage of the neighborhood, because everyone dressed as a delegates from a different countries. We tie-dyed an old sheet and I draped it around myself, Super-glued a fake jewel to the center of my forehead and became the delegate from India. Dub represented Mexico, touting a sombrero, serape and a moustache, drawn on with an eyebrow pencil. I was a ravishing Rani, and Dub was one cool hombre. 

So, as you can probably guess, even as a child, I’ve always been a “Wander” Woman with a passion for exotic people, places and things. I guess it’s my mother’s fault. 

However, my infatuation for everything “international” hit a brick wall when I was required to take a foreign language in high school. My maiden name was Douphrate, so I figured I’d be a natural at French. Oh contraire! I know, I know…French is supposed to be the language of love…but it didn’t love ME! I could do the vocabulary, conjugate verbs, and make A’s on everything that was written, but when it came time to go to the language lab and actually “parle la langue” I became a blabbering idiot. 

So, the next year, I opted for Latin. I loved it so much that I took two years in high school, as well as two more years, in college. For me, Latin was like working a big crossword puzzle (which I love) and since it’s a “dead” language, I DIDN’T HAVE TO SPEAK IT! Yay!

I’ve bragged to John (several times, okay many times) that with my “stellar” Latin base, I don’t really need to take language classes and can get by in any country that speaks a romance language, with Latin roots. He just rolls his eyes and gives me his famous “yeah, right” look. I know in my heart that he’s right, but it sounds good. 

So far, other than a few months in Korea and being around several Belizeans that spoke Creole, our primary focus has been learning to communicate in Spanish. Here’s what we’ve done to make that happen. Whether you are trying to learn Spanish, Mandarin or Swahili, hopefully these tips will help.


Of course, the easiest way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself and travel to or move to an area where that language is officially spoken. We’ve been in Spanish-speaking areas for almost two years now, and believe me, you will pick up what you hear. But suppose you don’t have the time or means to travel, you could:

• Attend a Meet-up group for folks learning the new language. 
This is what we did before we started house sitting.  Most are free and you will enjoy meeting a lot of other people in the same boat as you, when it comes to new language challenges.

• Visit a community in your town where the new language is spoken and attend cultural events within the community.
For example, if you are trying to learn Spanish you could attend a Spanish-speaking church and go to the “los posadas” celebrations during the holidays.

• Eat at an ethnic restaurant.
Ask for their menu in English, as well as the new language. We do this a lot, so each time we go out to eat it’s a leaning session, as well as a time to pig out on scrumptious cuisine.

Study the language every day for at least 15 minutes, an hour is better. John is much more disciplined on this than I am. He routinely studies and practices at least an hour each day, on Spanish lessons. He uses these programs:

  • DuoLingo
    DuoLingo is a free learning app that works best when used in conjunction with other language systems. The app allows you to progress at your own pace and provides immediate feedback when mistakes are made, along with the corrections. The app has an incredibly intuitive design, so it’s super easy to use.
  • Wlingua
    Wlingua offers a free basic system, with a premium trial. If you opt for the Premium level (which we highly recommend) it’s roughly $12 per month (less if you sign up for a longer period of time). With the Basic account you have restricted access to certain parts of the course (grammar, exercises, and readings). The Premium account grants you complete access to all of the course content. The Premium account is for those who want to learn Spanish faster. John likes this system because you can choose whether you want to work on Spanish from Latin America or Spain. Wlingua shines when it comes to grammar.
  • Rosetta Stone
    Rosetta Stone is the grand poobah of all language learning systems. It takes a different approach to teaching, than most other systems, by teaching you a new language the same way you learned English as a child – by total immersion. All courses, exercises and games are completely in Spanish (or whatever language you choose), without any English translations to guide you. This forces you to learn words, grammar and syntax by association, rather than with vocabulary lists and drills.
    FYI – Rosetta Stone has a 50% off sale going on right now. Go for it!
  • Spanish for People Moving to Mexico
    This is a really cool series of free Spanish lessons on YouTube taught by an ex-pat couple that live in Mexico. Not only is the content excellent, but this amazing duo has “tooned” the series to make it unique and entertaining.
  • Spanish Injection
    This nifty app can be used as a supplement to a regular language learning program. It allows users to play games, solve puzzles, and learn Spanish with a series of real life scenarios.
  • Fluencia
    John loves this one. Fluencia’s content is very well designed and includes tons of detailed explanations and exercises to practice what you’ve learned, as well as cultural tips and hints.
  • Spanish Dict
    Spanish Dict(ionary) is a great supplemental tool and is probably the best online Spanish dictionary for translation and explanations of usage and context. The word of the day is especially helpful too.

We have a translation dictionary on our phones handy at all times. We think that Google Translate is the best for this, because you don’t have to be online to use it. Here, in Mexico, we use this app every day!

  • Online
    One of the things that has really chapped me when I’ve been in a hurry to find something online, via a Google search, is for everything on the page to pop up in the language of the Internet server provider. When we were in Korea, I was lost when this happened. Here in Mexico, I’ve put my angst energy to good use by making it a language learning tool.
  • Movies
    We have started watching movies with the subtitles in Spanish. This is great for me, because I don’t hear very well, so we keep the subtitles “on” with just about everything we watch. Seeing the subtitles in Spanish forces me to at least be aware how to say things in Spanish. Here are a few of my favorite movie quotes subtitled in Spanish. See if you can figure them out:
    • “Voy a hacerle una oferta que no puede rechazar.” The Godfather
    • “Toto, tengo la sensación de que ya no estamos en Kansas.” Wizard of Oz
    • “La vida es como una caja de chocolates. Nunca sabes lo que vas a conseguir.” Forrest Gump,

      and of course the most famous line in all movie history:

    • “Francamente, querida, no me importa un comino.” Gone With the Wind
  • Music
    I also listen to music when I run and exercise, so I’ve started tuning my Rock My Run app to all the tropical, merengue, and salsa songs. I love “Hot, Hot, Hot” by Arrow, and, of course, I’m up for taking a Zumba class, whenever one is available! Ole!
  • Newspapers and Magazines
    Although we are not nearly ready to tackle reading Don Quiote as it was originally written, we do like to check out local newspapers and magazines to find out what’s going on.

One thing about any language is that it can sound completely different when spoken by residents in different communities or countries. 

Here’s a perfect example with English. 

As you probably know, John is from New Orleans, and I’m from Texas. The first time we travelled across the Sabine River to visit his family and friends in Louisiana, I thought I’d entered a different country…or planet! The strong Yat dialect blew my mind, especially when I wanted to get some special goodies to take home. I told the store clerk that I wanted some pecan pralines (pronounced in Texas “pee-can pray-leens). The lady behind the counter looked at me like I was from Mars. John had to step in and “translate” saying, “We’d like some “puh-kahn praw-leens” please.” Our order was immediately filled, with the customary, “Here ya’ll go dawlin.”

In Puerto Rico, a super fast, slurred version of Spanish is spoken. Words are skipped and even the locals have trouble understanding each other.

And the list goes on…it definitely pays to know your territory. 

Now, we haven’t gone so far as to do Spanish crossword puzzles or play Spanish Scrabble, but we’ve tried to make learning Español fun. 

Before we left the U.S. and were ardently trying to improve our Spanish speaking skills, John put sticky notes all over the house with the Spanish word for each thing. I walked into the house one day and saw colorful tags everywhere and I thought he’d left me love notes, or set up some kind of romantic scavenger hunt for me. But alas, it was just Spanish! Sigh! (oops, I meant suspiro!)

Languages have a lot of words.  For example, did you know that English has between 600,000 and 1 million words? Sheesh!

Thank goodness you don’t have to learn them all to be proficient in any language. For spoken English, the same 100 words are used for about 50% of all conversations, and roughly 1000 words are used for 90% of all conversations. 

Here’s a few lists of the top 1000 words for these languages:

Coming from Texas, I found that, with Spanish, I actually knew more than I thought I did. (And remember, I took Latin!!!) If you focus on these 1000 words you will save yourself a lot of time and frustration, as well as, increase what you understand as you listen to the new language when it’s spoken. 

While considering pronunciation, you must first acknowledge that you don’t have to be perfect to communicate. For example, I can’t roll my R’s. I had a lisp as a kid and had 8 years of speech therapy to get over slobber-talking everything I was trying to say. Somewhere in those 8 years, the ability to roll R’s went away, or maybe it was never there…not sure. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t make my tongue do the beautiful trill that is common in Spanish. 

The good news is that no one expects me to speak Spanish like the King of Spain. I can hardly wait until we get to travel to Spain though, because there they speak pure Castilian Spanish, which often sounds like they have a lisp. I’m all over that! 

One of my favorite comedians was Bill Dana.  Even though he was not born in Mexico, he created the lovable character of Jose Jimenez, and was a master at playing with the Spanish language and creating hilarious monologues about adjusting into speaking American English. Just watching many of his acts have made me realize how funny I must sound to native Spanish speakers when I try to speak their language.


Although there are many native speaking language tutors online, we like to practice with people we meet in the various areas we’ve visited. I am so appreciative of Maria, the housekeeper, in Chapala and Benjamin, the gardener, in Xcalak for taking the time to work with me on vocabulary and pronunciation. Practice does make a difference!

John is trying to train his brain to “think” in Spanish all the time. It’s a major step in becoming fluent. For us, it’s like flipping a switch. Whenever we are out and about in town, the Spanish language switch is flipped “on” and we’re trying to keep it on while at home, as well. John writes all of his text messages to me in Spanish now and we sometimes have meals where we try to speak only Spanish. 

Even mundane tasks can become less boring when you try to translate what you are doing into the language you are trying to learn.

We have found that most people are kind and patient when they hear you are trying to learn their language, and of course, everyone smiles in the same language. As a former theatre teacher and motivational speaker I use my hands a lot and tend to “act out” any story I’m telling. I’ve put my mime (and comedy) skills to good use as I’ve tried desperately to communicate with the wonderful people that we’ve met throughout our travels. 

We learned recently that learning a second language, later in life, actually exercises the brain and helps to ward off Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. Really? Wow! This is an extra benefit we had never considered, but believe me, we are all over making our brains future-proof!

Try as we may, we’ve both made a lot of language foibles in the past few years.  And you know what…it’s perfectly okay. We’ve learned not to take ourselves too seriously as we climb daily up Mount Fluency, because if it’s not fun, it’s just not worth doing.


Study hard, happy trails and HAVE FUN!

¡Estudia mucho, feliz viajes y diviértete!

Are you trying to learn a new language? 

What works best for you? Do you have any more fun ways to add to our list? 

Let us know in the comments below!

Story Categories:

2019,Mexico,Travel Tips

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2 Responses

  1. When we lived in California John asked me for some ma yo nae. I told him I didn’t think that we had that. He said I saw it in the refrigerator. He was asking me for the mayonnaise.

    1. Jajaja! That must have been from a long time ago, if you’re the same Jane I’m thinking of. That would have been a very young John fresh out of New Orleans, or should I say New Aw-lee-enz. Their pronunciation is: my-nayz. That’s a great example of ‘lost in translation’. Thanks for the flashback!

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