Language(s) in (Southern) Mexico

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Language(s) in (Southern) Mexico

Postby Axon » Fri Sep 01, 2023 6:47 am

Time for another language-based travelogue in the same style as my previous ones. This time, for a change of pace, I did not go to East Asia, but instead stayed in my home continent of North America. I went to Mexico for the first time!

I spent five days in Oaxaca, four in Puerto Escondido, and one on a bus. I traveled once again with the same intrepid travel partner from my Laos trip - this marks the 13th country we've traveled to together! I've always been curious to hear them speak Spanish, as they studied to the AP level in high school and grew up going to Mexico for family reunions several times but never spoke it at home. Once in Mongolia I was negotiating a car ride price in Russian and Chinese and another driver came over and started speaking Spanish. My mind went blank but my friend came to the rescue (though we ended up going with a third driver who spoke English and several more languages better than I did).

Anyway, in preparation for this trip I put my Greek on hold and practiced a lot of Spanish with Glossika, Easy Spanish videos, and grammar books. This was, after all, the first time I'd ever gone to a Spanish-speaking country. The best my Spanish ever got before was when I was living in Monterey and regularly used Spanish at grocery stores and restaurants as well as for work, even giving a few less-than-fluent presentations from time to time to very patient clients in the agriculture industry. Spanish is also the first language I started formally learning, back in 2009 in high school. With all that time learning, living in California, plus listening to Spanish radio a lot when driving over the years, I have pretty strong comprehension.

I got to Mexico City early in the morning to change planes to Oaxaca and was immediately surprised by how much Spanish I had to use. I was addressed in Spanish by everyone and rose to the task, only asking for clarification in English once about the directions to the next gate. I didn't speak English at all until I got to the hotel in Oaxaca and met up with my friend, who had arrived the day before.

From a Spanish practice point of view, Oaxaca is incredible. I noticed several times that people of all ages spoke slowly and clearly to us on purpose when we were having trouble, always patient and never condescendingly. This included a long and in-depth conversation in a restaurant about the particulars of different types of mole and mezcal, two local specialties, where the waiter expertly adjusted his speech to keep the conversation flowing even during points where all I could do to contribute was nod my head knowingly and say "Sí." The reaction to my use of Spanish was never negative and that gave me the encouragement to ask about all kinds of things and strike up plenty of tiny conversations. "What does the name of this restaurant mean? Has this area changed a lot in the last few years? Who's this politician I keep seeing campaign posters for?"

Puerto Escondido was actually similar even though there were many times more foreign tourists. There, we had our only experience of someone not adjusting their speech for us (a surly hotel front desk attendant) but otherwise we were able to speak Spanish at our own pace with plenty of restaurant and food stall owners. My travel partner remarked that some of the conversations even seemed like they were out of a beginner's textbook: "What's the difference between these two dishes?" "This one has meat and this one does not have meat." "No meat?" "Yes. No meat. Only vegetables."

My friend and I walked from Monte Alban to the Oaxaca old town, a trek of about two hours through mountainside villages no tourist would have any reason to go to. That was the only place someone greeted us with "Hello! How are you!" the same way people did when we were out of place in China. That area (as well as the area where we were staying) reminded me irresistibly of Indonesia in the way the streets and houses were laid out, even down to the fonts and designs used on signboards. That feeling never left during the whole trip. In fact I even had Indonesian slip out once when I said boleh? to a waiter. Luckily it was understood as ¿vale?, which means about the same thing.

Nobody local complimented us on our Spanish, just taking it for granted that we would try to speak it. Indeed, the vast majority of foreign tourists I saw all had fair to excellent Spanish. A large number of the tourists I overheard were French or German. I suppose Americans mostly go to Cancun or Baja California - though of course my sample size is small. The only person to compliment me was a Spaniard at the same hotel, and that was near the end of the trip when I was plenty warmed up and used to switching to Spanish.

By the end of our trip we were both more fluent than at the beginning, though we were both constantly making noticeable simple errors of agreement and tense. We could both hear ourselves making these errors, but whatever engine running the grammar software in our minds was too slow to keep up with the output speed demanded by our mouths. My friend surprised me with some of the vocabulary they knew and I didn't, like the word for the tiny shops on street corners, misceláneas. I know that comes from having just been in the country before, since that's exactly the type of word I would have had to look up specifically when learning from videos and yet see a dozen times a day when walking around.

Of course, Oaxaca is known for its large Indigenous population. I kept my ears wide for snatches of conversation in any local languages, but to my shock I never heard any. (Right when I arrived in the airport I thought I did, but it turned out to be something Slavic). At Monte Alban and in a few places around the city of Oaxaca, there were signs in local languages, mostly Zapotec. There were a few kids' books in local languages at the library we visited too. I'm just now kicking myself for not asking the librarian about this topic! The local accent of Spanish was incredibly easy to understand and identical in every way to the Spanish I grew up studying. They say "chico" instead of "pequeño" for "small" there, as well as a few other small differences in vocabulary. I also only heard "usted" a few times and otherwise exclusively used informal conjugations. Perhaps these differences are Mexico-wide and I just don't know them from lack of exposure to idiomatic Mexican Spanish.

Even though I've been back a few days, I talked to myself in Spanish for a little while today while driving and was happy it came out so easily. It's a great feeling to have finally needed and used my Spanish for an excellent vacation!
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Re: Language(s) in (Southern) Mexico

Postby PeterMollenburg » Fri Sep 01, 2023 11:27 am

Axon wrote:I also only heard "usted" a few times and otherwise exclusively used informal conjugations.


Hi Axon. I enjoyed reading about your trip to Mexico, thanks for sharing. It sounds like you had a great time.

Can you please elaborate on the above. I thought the Spanish from Spain took the prize for the most use of informal you forms in the Spanish language (tu and vosotros/-tras). I believe vosotros or even vos forms aren't used in Mexico, so are you referring to the use of 'tu' and it's associated conjugations in the 2nd person singular (as in Spain, for example) or have I missed something here?
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Re: Language(s) in (Southern) Mexico

Postby tastyonions » Fri Sep 01, 2023 1:43 pm

My impression is that use of "tú" with people who are young or of similar or lower age to you is pretty widespread in Mexico.
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Re: Language(s) in (Southern) Mexico

Postby Axon » Fri Sep 01, 2023 6:11 pm

PeterMollenburg wrote:
Axon wrote:I also only heard "usted" a few times and otherwise exclusively used informal conjugations.


Hi Axon. I enjoyed reading about your trip to Mexico, thanks for sharing. It sounds like you had a great time.

Can you please elaborate on the above. I thought the Spanish from Spain took the prize for the most use of informal you forms in the Spanish language (tu and vosotros/-tras). I believe vosotros or even vos forms aren't used in Mexico, so are you referring to the use of 'tu' and it's associated conjugations in the 2nd person singular (as in Spain, for example) or have I missed something here?


Correct, vos forms are not used in Mexico. I heard a table of Spaniards using -ais conjugations and smiled to myself because it reminded me very much of textbook Spanish again, far removed from the Spanish that I heard day-to-day in California growing up.

As tastyonions says, people just tended to use "tú". I think the only time somebody said "usted" to me in the singular was at a restaurant where I was actually addressed as "caballero." In textbooks, people in restaurants always use the formal conjugation for guests, but that didn't happen for me. I'm in my late twenties, so perhaps now the range for "similar age" is wide enough to include anybody younger than me and people in their forties. We have several people on the forum with a lot more experience in Spanish-speaking countries than I have, so I'd be curious to hear their experiences too!
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Re: Language(s) in (Southern) Mexico

Postby bobbywil » Mon Oct 30, 2023 6:24 am

Hi axom, I’m glad you enjoyed your trip to Mexico. It sounds like you had a lot of fun and learned a lot about the culture and history of the country. I’m curious, what was your favourite place to visit in Mexico? Do you think a non-Spanish speaker can explore as much as a Spanish speaker?

I’ve always wanted to go to Mexico and now the time has come top visit there finally, but I don’t speak any Spanish. I wonder if that would be a problem for me. I’ve heard that Cancun is a popular destination for tourists, and it has beautiful beaches and resorts. But I also want to see more of the authentic side of Mexico, like the ancient ruins, the colonial towns, and the local markets. Do you have any recommendations for places that are both interesting and accessible for non-Spanish speakers?

I found this article about https://gowithguide.com/blog/mexico-tou ... -2023-5248. It says that Cancun received more than 10 million visitors in 2023, and that most of them came from the United States, Canada, and Europe. It also says that Cancun offers a variety of activities and attractions, such as snorkeling, diving, golfing, shopping, nightlife, and cultural tours. Have you been to Cancun? What did you think of it?
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Re: Language(s) in (Southern) Mexico

Postby Axon » Tue Oct 31, 2023 5:16 am

Bobby, that's so interesting that you ask that, because I did actually just get back from ten days near Cancun! I opened this thread to add on my new language-related travel experience and saw your question.

My wife and I went to Tulum for five days and Playa del Carmen for five days, so we didn't actually stay in Cancun. We took the bus straight from the airport. My wife speaks a few words of Spanish. Since she didn't grow up in the US, she had to really start from scratch with Spanish, so she completed a handful of Duolingo lessons. In the last few months since my last trip, I barely used Spanish, but I was pleasantly surprised that I jumped right back in at the same level I was when I left Oaxaca. Nice and warmed up.

Let me first answer your question - in Tulum and Playa del Carmen, if you speak only English, you will basically be fine but from time to time you'll have to resort to speaking slowly and with lots of pointing. About half the people working in service positions had good conversational English, and about half of the remaining people had basic English good enough for what we were doing. So maybe one in four interactions we had required Spanish. Lots of menus were bilingual or had an entirely English side, and most places in the tourist area even accepted American dollars for payment. Keep in mind that, since I wanted to practice Spanish, I was looking for places I would need to use it! I'm confident that in Cancun, particularly the hotel and resort areas, the number of Spanish speakers would be even higher.

I highly, highly recommend travel to Playa del Carmen. Tulum was not really my style, though I had some great memories there - both of the touristy and local kind. Playa has a huge tourist population and is very developed and accessible, but it's also small and walkable, and it's easy to get to places with lots of locals. It's also more affordable than Tulum, but still more expensive than Oaxaca.

To answer your other question, I don't think a non-Spanish speaker can "explore" as much as a Spanish speaker. Consider the cenotes in Quintana Roo, the large freshwater pools in the middle of the jungle you can swim in. We went to a smaller and out-of-the-way cenote compared to the largest ones in Tulum. There were still some 30-40 people there (not all swimming at once so it didn't feel crowded), mostly from other parts of Mexico. The folks working the admission gate didn't speak any English, so if I hadn't spoken Spanish I would have basically been mute from start to finish - from handing over the money at the entrance to leaving. Instead I was able to ask questions at the admission, get a flotation vest just in case, chat with some of the guys next to us, and listen in as a group of friends joked with each other about jumping in the water. If I hadn't understood, maybe I would have thought they were laughing at me, and maybe I would have been more wary about leaving my bags on the shore next to the other guys if I hadn't been able to strike up a conversation.

Consider also the snorkeling tour we took in Cozumel, a short ferry ride away from Playa del Carmen. All the people advertising the tours were speaking with us in English and negotiating prices with us. Out of the 14 people on the boat trip, 10 were Spanish speakers. The captain and snorkeling guide both only spoke Spanish. It takes a certain kind of mindset to be able to go on a 4-hour tour and not be able to understand or communicate with your guide. Now, perhaps if you needed to, someone else might be able to translate for you, but on the boat we actually didn't interact much with the other passengers. Even though I regularly made grammatical mistakes in Spanish, I was able to have several little conversations with the guide about different types of fish and about his own experience snorkeling and diving.

One other great thing about Quintana Roo for language enthusiasts is that if you look for it, you can see the Maya language everywhere. Lots of streets and restaurants have Maya names. I even heard people speaking Maya with each other several times on the streets, whereas in Oaxaca I never heard anyone speaking in any indigenous language. I learned the word for "thank you" from one guy and then used it on a taxi driver when I heard the driver speak Maya to a toll operator. The driver said several things to me in Maya before I could let him know that I only knew the one word!
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Re: Language(s) in (Southern) Mexico

Postby bobbywil » Wed Nov 15, 2023 11:04 am

Hi axom, thank you for your reply and your recommendation. I appreciate your insight and your experience. Playa del Carmen sounds like a great place to visit, and I’m glad to hear that it has both touristy and local attractions. I’m curious about the cenotes, they sound amazing. I can imagine how beautiful and refreshing they must be in the middle of the jungle.

I wish I could speak Spanish, but I don’t have much time to learn it before my trip. Do you think it would be helpful to use a translation app or a phrasebook to communicate with the people there? Or would that be too awkward or rude? I don’t want to offend anyone or miss out on the cultural nuances.

I’m also wondering if you have any tips on how to get around Playa del Carmen? Should I rent a car or a bike? Or maybe join a tour group? I want to see as much as possible, but I also want to be flexible and spontaneous.
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Re: Language(s) in (Southern) Mexico

Postby Exotic_sunset54 » Wed Dec 06, 2023 2:21 am

Wow, Mexico sounds amazing! I've always wanted to visit Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido. It's awesome that you got to practice your Spanish and everyone was so patient and helpful. Speaking Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country is a whole different ballgame, right? It's great that you were able to have conversations about local specialties and ask questions about the area. And kudos to you for trekking through those mountainside villages! It must have been quite an adventure. Keep up the Spanish practice, it'll come even more naturally with time. ¡Qué chévere!
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Re: Language(s) in (Southern) Mexico

Postby zgriptsuroica » Sat Feb 10, 2024 5:06 pm

PeterMollenburg wrote:
Axon wrote:I also only heard "usted" a few times and otherwise exclusively used informal conjugations.


Hi Axon. I enjoyed reading about your trip to Mexico, thanks for sharing. It sounds like you had a great time.

Can you please elaborate on the above. I thought the Spanish from Spain took the prize for the most use of informal you forms in the Spanish language (tu and vosotros/-tras). I believe vosotros or even vos forms aren't used in Mexico, so are you referring to the use of 'tu' and it's associated conjugations in the 2nd person singular (as in Spain, for example) or have I missed something here?


I can't really comment on how it's used in other countries, not having left my own for a Spanish-speaking country yet, but my experience with speakers from several countries is that usted is not used anywhere near as universally as teaching materials might lead you to believe. For young people from basically every country I've met someone from, the decided tendency is to use tú by default. That said, there were several exceptions. Even those who used tú with their boss would generally use usted with eldery people, especially elderly women. I've also known some younger people from more conservative church groups who would use usted with basically everyone in public, which probably isn't too shocking considering the tendency for such groups to favor relatively conservative behavior in general. That aside, Colombians are somewhat notorious for using usted in situations where it would be odd from anyone else. You can find couples who have been married for decades and still wouldn't address each other with tú, though a friend who has travelled a fair bit in Colombia has told me that there they noticed regional differences in this, with some part even managing to have tú, vos and usted all in common usage to the extent one person might use all three on a regular basis, to really muddy the waters for language learners.

As a general rule of thumb, I would say stick to usted if you have to talk to police, unless they start the interaction less formally, and otherwise just mirror whatever the other person is using. If you're with a group of people of similar age to yourself, you're probably fine with tú unless you hear everyone else sticking to usted.
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