What a survey of Cuenca expats reveals about the importance of learning Spanish

May 13, 2023 | 0 comments

By Deke Castleman

How do Ecuador expats feel about learning Spanish?

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, CuencaHighLife conducted a survey of attitudes about learning Spanish among expats: 352 readers responded.

While we are preparing an updated survey for readers, we thought it would be useful to look at the earlier survey answers.

The results were instructive in terms of who can and can’t learn a second language and why, how to become conversant in Spanish, and what to expect from immersion in a country and culture that conducts its business and social relations mostly in Spanish.

Practice makes perfect? Not always.

Of the 318 who answered the first question about studying a second language in school, 55% took Spanish, with 42% taking French, and a surprising 23% studying Latin, while 20% took German.

From the comments, respondents also studied Russian, Portuguese, Swahili, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Javanese, Afrikaans, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, Dutch, Finnish, Swedish, Greek, none, and English.

Of the 176 who studied Spanish, 66% took one or two years, 21% took three or four, and 13% took more than four.

The people who took more than four and/or studied abroad (lucky them!) dominated the comments:

“Three years university, four winters language schools in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Ecuador.”

“I started in middle school and went on to major in it in university.”

“It was my major in college with a Latin-American studies minor. My Masters in International Business focused on Latin America and was done in Spanish & Portuguese. I studied three summers in Mexico and one in Spain.”

“I went to Venezuela years ago knowing the essential phrases & carrying an English/Spanish dictionary.”

“Fifteen three-week intensives in San Miguel de Allende.”

Out of 316 who answered the second question about studying Spanish, a majority (54%) were studying Spanish at the time of the survey. Of the others, 11 people (3.5%) studied it between one and four years ago, 35 people (12.1%) last studied Spanish between five and 29 years ago, and 101 folks (32%) last studied it more than 30 years ago.

Of 291 people who were planning to move to Latin America, 69% were totally committed to learning Spanish, while 27% were between 50% and 99% committed, and 3% were up to halfway committed.

Sometimes there’s an attitude problem.

Of 206 people who didn’t speak Spanish before moving to Latin America, exactly half (103) “dabbled and are now conversant.” Only 26 expats (10%) worked hard and are now fluent. Another 10% tried and failed. Fifty people (24%) didn’t try, and 10 (5%) never intended to try.

Culled from the comments to this question:

“I could not imagine living somewhere and not knowing the language.”

“If one lives here, there’s no excuse for not learning Spanish.”

“If you make no effort at learning a native language of any country, you have no business even thinking of living there.”

One wag did have a good excuse: “After I got a C, D, F, F, and F, my high-school Spanish teacher promised to pass me if I didn’t come back, a good deal for both of us at the time.”

Of those who learned the language, most studied with books, on the Internet, and with computer programs, though plenty also attended language school. Many also had private teachers and a number practiced with a friend or relative. A few attended a chat group.

In the comments, people cited flash cards, reading Harry Potter, reading and writing email, sinking or swimming in a small village, living with local families, and learning with study buddies; several mentioned the Cuenca Spanish schools Nexus and Simón Bolívar, and the classes at Carolina Bookstore.

In the study-aids question, 88 of the 162 respondents (54%) have used Rosetta Stone. Pimsleur (67/41%) placed second, and Berlitz (18/11%) third, with the rest split among various others in the Comments.

The ravest reviews went to Fluenz, second most to Total Spanish with the Michel Thomas Method.

Others included:

Live Mocha
Rocket Spanish online
Patrick Jackson Hear and Speak Spanish
Shortcuts to Spanish
Coffee Break Spanish (iPhone app)
Brainscape Flashcards iPad app
Synergy Spanish
Spanish in Ten Days
Spanish Lab
Spanish in Ten Minutes a Day
Living Language
Warren Hardy
Visual Link
U.S. State Department classes

Pronunciation was voted the easiest aspect of learning the language, followed by vocabulary and speaking; conjugation was the hardest by far, with grammar and gender second and third hardest.

And the next question revealed a telling statistic about learning and speaking Spanish in Cuenca: 82 respondents (36%) found native speakers to be extremely patient, and 109 (48%) found them very patient, with gringo attempts to speak Spanish. Somewhat patient received 28 (12%) and only 4% voted for very impatient or blank stares.

Advice from 163 expats about learning the language boiled down to numerous variations on the theme of: Just do it. Dive in. Take the plunge. Keep at it. Make a commitment. Go to school. Don’t be afraid.

Here are some elaborations:

“Learn some basic Spanish before arriving.”

“This isn’t a one-, – two-, or three-month project. It will take years to go from zero to fluent. Accept it as part of the adventure.”

“We all learn by different styles, so find out what works for you and don’t get frustrated.”

“Study a little every day and keep searching until you find what works best for you — school, private lessons, CDs. Speak every day, trying a few new words. Label all the furniture, doors, windows, etc. to build vocabulary.”

“Immerse yourself as much as possible in the language. Have as many ‘immersion days’ (speak only Spanish) as you can.”

“TRY TRY TRY. Don’t give up. Use what you learn. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.”

“We live in a place where the people are extremely helpful when it comes to speaking their language. Take advantage of it. There is no ‘Press two for English.’”

“Ecuadorians are so polite that they’re extremely reticent about correcting you. But ask ask ask to be corrected. ‘Por favor, corríjame! Corrija mi espanol!’ When someone corrects you, you’ll never make that mistake again.”

“Spend time and speak with locals who don’t speak English. Be patient and have a great attitude about it.”

“Whatever Spanish you learn, use it — at the market, restaurants, etc. Listen to Spanish radio and watch TV in Spanish. Read whatever you can — signs, menus, instructions, the newspaper.”

“Spend the money to go to a language school, but don’t stop at basic grammar. Dive into history and literature. You’ll be amazed at how fast you learn when you have something to apply your grammar lessons to. Read, read, read!”

“Open your brain as if you are young again and listen to EVERYTHING!”

“Don’t barricade yourself behind the gringo wall. Get out there and force yourself to learn and speak Spanish.”

“Get out of the gringo places to where there are lots of locals. Practice. Volunteer to teach a local kid English and he/she can help you with Spanish. Pick a neighbor close by, so lessons can be frequent. Try free. I end up with lots of food, produce, and really grateful neighbors.”

“Make the effort and put in the time, but don’t pressure yourself. Don’t forget to live in the meantime. It takes a couple of years to really learn a language. Make it fun and not drudgery. This shouldn’t be a chore. Practice with each other and as many native speakers as possible as often as possible.”

“Don’t worry that you don’t understand much right away, or that you can’t seem to formulate sentences well. Just use what you know every single day. Be patient with yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to ask others to repeat themselves more slowly and clearly, and laugh when you make mistakes. Also, don’t be afraid to have to act out what you need, then ask the person to repeat the word for you, so you learn it for next time.”

“Laugh a lot!”

“No matter how hard you think it’s going to be, you’re missing out on so much by not having local language skills.”

“Don’t expect to become fluent in 6 months. It may NEVER happen. Relax and enjoy the process and living in Ecuador.”

“Study formally, at least until you have some fluency.”

“It’s great for the over-50 brain, so while trying to learn it, remember that you’re also exercising your mind, an additional benefit.”

“See it as an investment.”

“Don’t stress out over learning Spanish. If you’re here for the long haul, you’ll learn it. It’s inevitable.”

“Your cost of living will be less if you speak passable Spanish.”

We hope the results of this survey, especially the above suggestions, will inspire and instruct those who’ve yet to tackle or make much headway with this big, crucial, and exciting challenge to expat life in Ecuador. We can say with confidence, backed up by a number of studies of living abroad, that knowledge of the local language is a primary determinant of how long an expat will remain in his or her adopted country. Not surprisingly, those who make the effort to learn to communicate tend to stay the longest.


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