A Funny Thing Happened in the Office of Immigration

March 12, 2013

Dear Fund Your Life Overseas Reader,

It isn’t vital that you speak Spanish when you live or work or start a business in Latin America. You can get by without it.

But when you’re faced with the type of situation Steve endured in Ecuador, it sure does help if you speak some of the local language…

Rob Carry

Editor in Chief, Fund Your Life Overseas

P.S. Learning Spanish doesn’t have to be a long, dull process. Cut down on the hard work with this simple, 20-minute strategy.

IL Masthead

* * *

Of Course You Don’t Have to Speak Spanish:

But Why Wouldn’t You?

By Steve Watkins

It was an hour-long drive to the nearest Office of Immigration. Long enough to imagine the worst of scenarios as we headed north to extend our Ecuador visas. A meeting like this needs to go smoothly—no hiccups. But we were still very much in the process of learning to speak Spanish.

Once we arrived we checked in, took a number, and then spent the 45-minute wait running over all the potential language barrier possibilities.

“Numero cuarenta y siete,” called the receptionist. 47. We were up to bat. I wiped my brow and proceeded down the corridor as various verbs, prepositions and conjunctions ran through my mind.

“Gina, mi Espanol es no perfecto,” I told our case worker before we kicked off. I was hoping to score a few points for being a modest gringo. “No problem,” she responded in her native tongue.

From there we proceeded to navigate the process fairly smoothly. We completed the forms, handed over the documentation…it was all going great. Until it came to a question about my occupation.

“What is your profesión?” asked Gina in Spanish. I searched for the word in my mind so she would understand that I’m a writer.

“Escritor,” I responded.

A moment passed. She seemed surprised and almost more respectful.

“Predicador?” She loudly repeated what she thought she heard me say…loud enough for the entire office to hear.

I looked at my wife, Dana, and she looked at me. “She thinks you’re a preacher,” Dana said.

“Not a preacher, a writer!” I said, “but I suppose I preach a lot when I write.” Everyone in the immigration office burst into laughter. Any sense of nervousness or apprehension vanished, we wrapped up the process and we were out of there within minutes.

It’s the question I’m most often asked by exploring expats: “Do I have to know Spanish to live in Latin America?”

And my response 100% of the time is: No, you don’t have to…but you really should.

Imagine going to your favorite restaurant on a Friday night and ordering a succulent dish. You’ve been anticipating this all week, and finally the waiter places the steamy, savory platter before you.

But wait. All you can do is smell it. No tasting allowed.

For me, that’s the equivalent of not knowing Spanish in Latin America. Why would you pursue half an experience when with just a little effort, you can have the whole empanada?

I’m a blue-eyed, fair-skinned American whose appearance screams “gringo,” the moment I walk into a room. No one in Ecuador expects perfect Spanish from me, but I know they respect me for making the effort.