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Overcoming the Language Barrier

Communicating with the locals in South Beach

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They say Miami is the most American city in Latin America.  To be sure, per square inch, Miami may well be the most diverse place on the planet.  As gateway to Latin America, its multicultural flavor often leads travelers to assume that the locals speak only Spanish.  This is only somewhat true: while you should be able to get around without needing to speak much Spanish, there’s always the off chance that you will need it sometime.  And taking the time out before your trip to learn a few words and phrases is a great way to make a good first impression! 

Do’s and Don’ts
As long as you’re planning to spend some time in the United States’ most exotic city, why not take a little time during the preplanning stages to learn about the Cuban and South American cultures, as well? It’ll make your visit so much more rewarding! You’ll stroll around with a newfound appreciation for local life.  Your armchair travels will come alive for you, and the things that might have once alienated you will be new and exciting adventures to experience.  That botanica on Calle Ocho will be all the more intriguing, and culinary creations like Ropa Vieja won’t just be strange words on a menu, they’ll be meals your palette has been looking forward to!

There’s nothing worse than being in a situation where you can’t communicate with someone in a strange city.  You search for words and soon find yourself resorting to charades and homemade sign language.  When trying to overcome the language barrier, there are things you should do and things you should avoid.  The biggest don’t? Don’t try to speak English in an extra loud voice—or put “o’s” at the end of English words.  The Fred Sanford school of Spanish doesn’t work well in Miami! 

For that matter, save your debates about English being America’s official language for the disgruntled online message boards and Nascar events.  Getting into a discussion over whether or not everyone who comes here should speak English is pointless.  The reality on the ground is people don’t.  And you’ll either have to adjust to that reality, or stand your ground and get some dirty looks.

Preparing for Your Trip
Ideally, you’ll have a few months before you go to plan your vacation in Miami. This is a great time to brush up on your Spanish before you go.  Here are a few ways you can ensure that your Castillian is thrillin’ when you arrive:

1.  take a course like Rosetta Stone or a buy a teach-yourself book and CD.
2.  learn practical phrases for the types of activities you plan to be doing.
3 Use free online dictionaries, like the one at wordreference.com
4.  Become accustomed to the sound of Spanish.  A great way to do this is by listening to a Spanish radio or cable TV station.  Watch your favorite movie with the Spanish playback option.  The soap operas are also a great opportunity to practice, as the dialogue tends to be spoken a little more slowly than comedy shows.
5.  Read books and magazines for Spanish-speaking children and young adults.  Often, the language in these is easier to understand, and you’ll find yourself picking up new words and phrases before you know it!

When You Get Here
Don’t keep your Spanish in mothballs, taking it out only when it’s absolutely necessary!  Use it with relish! Compliment your waitress.  Strike up a conversation with your valet about the weather.  Don’t be afraid to look goofy! While you may feel very self-conscious over your American accent and struggle to find the right words, to a Spanish speaker, a foreign accent makes you sound exotic and charming, maybe even like a Ricardo Montalban in reverse!

Try to use the words and phrases you learned from your language CDs.  And be sure to learn any possible responses, as well! It does no good to ask a question in perfect Spanish if you won’t understand the reply.  Take some time out to learn the metric system, especially things like kilometers and temperatures in Celsius.  And, while it may sound fun, avoid slang and obscenities.  Slang tends to vary greatly from country to country, and it may just lead to more confusion.  Also, spouting your newly mastered dirty words off to everyone you meet won’t sound as funny to them as it does to you!

With just a little pre-trip preparation, you can go from just getting by to enjoying a wonderful cultural experience that will broaden your horizons for the rest of your life.  It’s said that being able to speak more than one language greatly improves overall brain function, helping to delay dementia by about five years! So take the plunge and open the door to the world you’ve been missing!

Some Useful Spanish Phrases

Hi! ¡Hola!
Do you speak Spanish/English?  ¿Habla usted español/ingles?
Yes, I speak a little Spanish. Si, hablo español un poquito.
My name is David. Me llamo David.
Please repeat that! ¡Repita eso por favor!
I understand. Comprendo.
I don’t understand. No comprendo.
Do you know a good restaurant? ¿Conoce un buen restaurante?
I would like to make a reservation. Quisiera hacer una reserva.
How much is it? ¿Cuánto vale?
Where can I find….? ¿Dónde se puede encontrar…?
A clothing store Una tienda de ropa
A grocery store un mercado
a good hotel un buen hotel
Do you take credit cards? ¿Acepta tarjetas de crédito?
Do you want to dance with me? ¿Quieres bailar conmigo?
I’d like a room for tonight. Quisiera una habitación para esta noche.

About the Author:

Douglas Eames is a freelance writer, homespun philosopher and budget bon vivant who divides his time between Southern California and South Beach.

See more articles by Doug.

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