One of the biggest hurdles you’ll face when learning to speak a foreign language is when you transition from the classroom into the real world and start speaking with the locals. The bennifit of studying a language in a total immersion program is that every interaction you have with the local population is in their language, and thus, a learning experience. After only a couple weeks of studying Spanish at International House in Playa del Carmen, I was already feeling very comfortable with my Spanish and I was ordering tacos and cervezas like a pro!
One of the first people I met when I came to Playa del Carmen was Benjamin Armenta, a modest taco vender with a small shop on calle 6, between Avenidas 10 and 15. The place is called Taqueria Alexander (named for his son), but there is no sign out front and if you blink, you’ll miss it. Just follow your nose to the smell of sizzling barbacoa (shredded lamb) and freshly chopped onions and cilantro. I visited Benjamin often, always buying three or four of his barbacoa tacos (at only 7 pesos per!), and staying to chat and practice my Spanish. We’d chat about simple things, like the weather, the lack of tourists in the slow season, his son, and his experiences making tacos for the last 22 years in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Benjamin is a kind and accommodating man, always willing to work to understand my broken Spanish, and often repeating himself 10 different ways to get me to understand what he was trying to say.
At Hostel 6-15, where I had rented a room for the month, I lived with two Mexicans, Carlos and Maurcio. We often had dinner and drinks together and they would invite their friends over for boozy gatherings where Spanish was the lingua prima. These two characters were great teachers, always willing to share a beer and teach me local slang and swear words. Learning to say “ahuevo” (like “hell yeah”) and “cabron” (an often-endearing form of “idiot”) may sound like a waste of time for someone interested in obtaining fluency in a language, but it’s actually quite important. To really interact with the locals, you have understand the way they talk. If you’re going to San Francisco you should know what “there’s hella peeps the spot” means. By the same logic, when a friend at the beach in Mexico says, “Oye, cabron! Viste este buen trasero?” I should know to know to respond with “Ahuevo!”
Silly as it may sound, This is just the kind of practice that really helps you gain an understanding of the local language, as well as a bit of insight into the culture and spirit of the local people. It’s extremely useful to be able practice your listening and speaking skills in real world situations like taco shops and bars and dinner with local friends.
When all is said and done, not only did I learn a lot from talking with the locals, but I’m sure I’ll remember those conversations with Benjamin at the taco shop and those afternoons spent sipping beers with Mauricio and Carlos with far more nostalgia than I’ll remember the boozy nights spent partying with other English-speaking backpackers. (Although those were certainly some fun and unforgettable nights too!)
It’s important to take a real Spanish class to learn the basics and the structure of the language. My language school in Playa del Carmen gave me a great understanding of Spanish, and the confidence to go out into the world and speak it. There is no substitute for the sink or swim immersion of ordering a taco and a beer and trying to have small talk with the waiter. Don’t be afraid to sound like a stupid gringo either – they’ll appreciate your effort, and you’ll learn fast.