Probably the best thing to improve your experience in Mexico is to pick up at least some basic Spanish vocabulary. In the main tourist areas, people will speak some English, but it’s definitely not something to count on. Outside of very touristy places you shouldn’t expect English at all. I find that the most common needs for Spanish come from figuring out menus and if you want to do any shopping at a market, since they won’t have prices posted. If you already know even a little Spanish, you’ll go a long way with it. Mexicans are nice and patient as you maul their language, and you’ll get it sorted out.
Mexico versus Spain
For folks who learned Spain/European/Castilian Spanish, there are differences in Latin America to be aware of. For a good breakdown, check out 5 most important differences between Spanish in Spain and Mexico by Language Tsar.
Here is a quick rundown of the major things we’ve noticed that could trip you up:
- There is no vosotros or 2nd person plural (informal) conjugation in Mexico (or Latin America generally). You just always use ustedes (formal).
- The verb coger means, um, having sex, in Mexico. Use tomar instead to save yourself from some funny and very embarrassing moments.
- In Mexican, limón is a lime, not a lemon. They don’t generally have lemons here, and if they do they’ll probably call it limón amarillo. (Though, oddly, té limón is lemongrass tea. It’s complicated.)
Basic word list
This is a bare minimum that is nice to know for being polite and figuring out where to pee.
Hello hola (o-la)
I don’t speak Spanish. Do you speak English? No hablo español. ¿Habla usted inglés?
Please por favor (poor fav-oor)
Thank you gracias (gra-see-as)
Excuse me pérdon (pair-don) or disculpe (dis-kul-pay)
Yes / No sí (see) / no (no)
Help ayuda (ah-you-da) “help me” is ayuadame (ah-you-dah-may)
Bathroom el baño (ban-yo) or el sanitario (san-i-tahr-ee-o) (you will also see a sign for WC quite often)
- Women’s room sign: Damas (D) or Mujeres (M)
- Men’s room sign: Caballos (C) or Hombres (H)
Where is…? ¿Donde está…? (for example, ¿Donde está el baño?)
For a good starter list, Ted Campbell’s A Spanish Cheat Sheet for Travelers in Mexico covers the essentials. You should also learn some numbers as well.
The most well-known tool out there these days for learning a language is Duolingo. It’s free and available on the web or as an app (Android, iOS). This has the focus of teaching the language so if you just want quick travel phrases, it will probaby not have the right emphasis, but it’s still a fun app for practicing with.
If you prefer video, there are a ton of them out there, especially on YouTube. Just make sure you are watching vidoes that are teaching Mexican Spanish. One teacher that we both enjoy is Butterly Spanish, but again she is focused on teaching the language more generally and is not focused on travel phrases specifically.
There are also online schools that will pair you up with a native-language teacher, where you meet over Skype. These are a great way to have flexible classes and ensure you have a native speaker. They are also normally very affordable. We know of at least 3 schools based in Oaxaca that offer this, in addition to in-person classes while you are in Oaxaca:
- Cooperativa de Español de Oaxaca This is a cooperative run by teachers we’ve learned from in Oaxaca who have also become friends. Highly recommended because they are very focused on tourists and travelers and teaching practical Spanish to use when in Mexico.
- Instituto Cultural Oaxaca (ICO) ICO’s website isn’t great, but this is the school that we have both attended, in person and online, and we can recommend them.
- Oaxaca International Spanish Language School.
There is also a great program called Chatterbox that can connect you with a conversational language teacher from a refugee background.