Living in Ecuador: The language barrier

Nov 1, 2020

By Akia Rahming

I’ve been living in Ecuador for nearly a year now. While there have been a lot of differences from my home country of the Bahamas, the biggest is definitely the switch in language. While the official language of the Bahamas is English, Ecuador is a fully Spanish country. It’s been interesting as I get used to the change.

When I tell people that I’m staying in Ecuador, usually their first question is if I can speak Spanish. Honestly, I really can’t; I understand a few words and phrases, but I’m still not nearly at the level where I can speak or write in full sentences like how I’ve typed this blog post.

Some folks are confused about how I can live in a Spanish-speaking country without having a full grasp of the language. You may wonder the same thing…. should you go to a country where they speak a foreign language?

A Humbling Experience

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From my experience, I can say that you can definitely survive if you really put your mind to it. One thing that you need to know about being in a land with a foreign language is that it’s going to make you feel like a preschooler all over again. Without a doubt, it’s a very humbling experience.

Don’t be alarmed by a statement like that, though. While I can say that the language barrier has felt strange in a lot of situations, it’s not impossible to deal with. You just have to keep the proper perspective. Everyone’s mind works differently, so the speed at which you understand a new language entirely depends on you.

For some people, it’s relatively easy. For others, it takes a little more time. As for me, I’m slow in getting there, but I have been noticing some progress. While Spanish is a standard class in Bahamian schools, I’ll be honest and admit that it was just another annoying subject to me.

The Value of Immersion

While I learned a few things, it was never something I was fully interested in. As a result, I never got a full grasp of the language. I do mildly regret not taking advantage of it when I had the chance, but honestly, being fully immersed in the language is a lot different than learning from a book.

The signs are everywhere
By Marcelo Trujillo

Living in a Spanish-speaking country like Ecuador means you can’t really escape from it—you’re surrounded by it everywhere.

Signs along the road, labels in stores, menus at restaurants, people having conversations around you, tuning into radio stations; regardless of where you are, Spanish will be around you constantly, both audibly and in text form.

With that being the case, your brain will work overtime to try to get a grasp of what in the world this “mumbo jumbo” is. Thankfully, Spanish is not a hard language to learn as an English-speaker.

Some Language Overlap

While there are a lot of differences between Spanish and English, the languages overlap enough for English-speakers to at least get a small grasp in a fairly short length of time. Some words sound the same across both languages; for example, “practice” (English) and “practicar” (Spanish). They both mean “to train.”

Speaking of practice, repetition is definitely one way I’ve been trying to learn. Certain phrases and words that I’ve heard again and again have already sunk in. Thus, when I hear or read them, I know what they mean. If you do things repeatedly, like visiting the same stores and restaurants or walking in the same areas, eventually your mind will become accustomed to it. If you really push yourself to understand what’s around you, it will slowly sink in.

The Will to Do It

On that note, I have to say that when it comes to learning a new language, you really have to want to do it. If you don’t intend to learn the language, then it’s not going to just “come to you.” Try as you might, it’s really a mental workout. Thankfully, we’re living in the 21st century.

Just Google it!
By @jannoon028

One thing I can definitely recommend assisting you is the Google Translate app. Since most of us have smartphones and tablets, having this app around is pretty sweet.

What I like about it is that you can type what you want to say in your own language and it will translate what you said into the other language. It can speak out loud for you if you can’t pronounce it properly.

Scanning With Your Camera

You can even use your device’s camera to scan items like menus or the text on boxes, which will then be translated into your own language. While the translation isn’t always 100% accurate, most of the time it’s good enough for other people to understand what I’m trying to say. But I can’t rely on Google Translate forever.

I intend to start a course soon in order to get into studying the language. If I’m going to be here, I want to be able to speak like a normal person. It’s hard and definitely a little embarrassing to speak in broken Spanish or say nothing much at all if I have someone with me who does speak it fluently.

It’s Worth the Effort

So, I’m hoping one day I’ll be able to move past that. But don’t let the thought of awkward or tough situations shy you away from visiting or even moving to a foreign land. While there will definitely be situations where knowing the language is essential (like dealing with legal matters and other important situations), you won’t die trying.

Ecuador, in particular, recognizes that English is a widely-spoken language. As a result, it’s taught in schools. I’ve met many Ecuadorians who’ve lived in the United States for several years and learned to speak English that way. While you’re not always going to find someone who can speak the language, there’s definitely a percentage of the population that can, primarily in the bigger cities.

Minus the awkward and tough situations, learning a language is actually rather fun. If you don’t know how to laugh at yourself now, you’ll most likely learn when you’re stumbling over simple words and phrases in your new language. Even if it takes a while, there are so many tools at our disposal these days that fortunately the learning process is easier than ever before.

Are you a language learner? Let us know what have been some of your challenges and successes. 


Editor’s Note:  – TCI is a full-service provider of expat education and transition services. Our private platform allows our global expat community and our Expat Alliance of in-country expats and experts to interact so that all can successfully embrace the expat experience.  Learn More…

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