Kelly (Canada) and Jorge (Mexico)

When I arrived in Mexico five years ago, I spoke nary a word of Spanish, “cerveza, baño, cenicero, cigaro” and the all important “por favor” and “gracias” were about all I had learned for my “vacation”. I met Hubby on the beach after only a couple of weeks in Mexico, not realizing that he would be the reason for me to stay. Hubby spoke English well and that is how we communicated, there was no need for us to speak Spanish to each other. In fact, there was no need to speak Spanish at all on Cozumel, everyone I met spoke English and that was the language of the community we played and worked in. My first six months in Mexico didn’t require me to study at all, though I certainly picked up phrases as I went along.

When we moved to Cancun, things did change. We were now in the big city and living downtown, if I was going to survive I needed to be able to communicate in Spanish. Hubby was working all day and I was on my own to take care of grocery shopping, etc., so I was forced to really begin sucking in the language. And suck in the language I did, I was terrible! Hubby certainly didn’t make things any easier, he is not the most patient man in the world so having him try to teach me was not working out. Often my attempts at the language were mocked, he still reminds me to this day of the funny mistakes I made that caused his ribs to hurt with laughter.

So, I was alone in the city, no money for Spanish classes, no computer for internet lessons, nothing but a dictionary and newspapers. I would sit with a paper and the dictionary and do my best to try to understand what was happening in the world. This was valuable, until I tried to pronounce the words, they all came out with French pronunciations! I realized that all my years of French in school in Canada was both a detriment and an advantage. I could understand the meaning of the words as they were often quite similar, but the pronunciation was a disaster, French and Spanish are quite different and my “Frespañol” was quite ugly. And so our relationship continued in English.

Over the years I have learned a lot from taxi drivers, co-workers, students and web sites like, but still haven’t had a formal class. My Spanish has improved immensely and I am able to not only survive but I can discuss politics, tell a joke, deal with household service providers, etc., etc.. In the last few days I’ve been listening to our conversations in the house more closely to see what we really use with each other. I realize that we are truly a Spanglish couple. It’s really mixed up, I’ll throw Spanish words into English sentences, ask him a question in English and he’ll reply in Spanish or vice versa, we very rarely have a conversation that is solely in one language, though English certainly is still the prevalent tongue in the house. He still laughs at my Spanish, but I’ve built up a tough layer of skin so I can laugh along with him now.

The one place that we do not mix is with Max. When Max was born we read a lot about raising a bilingual child and we decided to use the “OPOL” (one parent, one language) method. I only speak English with Max and Hubby only speaks Spanish. This method is working wonders, Max’s language skills surprise me everyday. He never, ever speaks Spanish to me and he won’t speak English to Hubby, no matter what language we are speaking to each other. If I do speak Spanish to him, he really doesn’t like it and he says “English mommy, English” and the same is true with his Daddy. He thinks it’s pretty funny when Daddy speaks English to him, it just doesn’t fit his world even though he knows that Daddy is bilingual and he usually only responds in Spanish.

Language has certainly caused some problems in our house, misunderstandings, miscommunication and even jealousy. The phrase “te quiero mucho” has been a source of angst for a long time. It means “I love you a lot”, for me a phrase reserved for my romantic partner, letting them know that they are special and different from everyone else. Hubby will use that phrase with others and it makes me very angry, I no longer feel special and I feel that it’s inappropriate for him to say that to friends (particularly female friends). He insists that the phrase can be used for both friends and romantic partners, no matter how often I tell him that it bothers me. I guess you can’t change old habits. I wish there were an equivalent to “love ya” in Spanish, I use that phrase with non-romantic friends, “I love you” feels too strong for me and doesn’t fit a friendly relation. I’ve asked Hubby to try to use “Te amo” with me, it also means “I love you” but it would make me feel that I was different than the friends he so casually uses “te quiero” with. Of course, being a man, he used it a couple of times and forgot so I am relegated to “TQM” once again. I’ll take it, being told “I love you” in any way should make you feel good, I’ve got to get over it I guess. As Hubby says, “Es tu pedo”, “it’s your fart”, meaning deal with your own issues!

I’m looking forward to the next few years to see how our language relationship develops. I have noticed that more and more Spanish is making its way into our home, in chat and text messages and in conversation as well. I don’t know if it will ever be the main language of the house, I think after five years of being primarily English speakers, we’re probably set in our ways. I do wish we had a secret language, something we can use to speak when we don’t want Max to know what we are saying, the spelling game just gets confusing for both of us! “Don’t give Max any more “C A N D Y””. “Que dijiste?” “C A N D Y”. “QUE?” “D U L C E S”. “Oh, candy!”. Great, Max heard that one, sigh, give him the damn chocolate bar……

Kelly writes about life with her bi-cultural family in Cancun, Mexico on her blog A Canuck in Cancun. This story was originally published on her blog here.

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