05/28/2013 11:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Uno, Dos, Tres... It's Not So Hard

Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher

So, you're thinking of retiring to Latin America, are you? Then you'd best learn some Spanish. At least a little, por favor. Not only will it enrich your experiences living, traveling and interacting with people in your new home country, but it will certainly save you money and could even save your life.

Sure, there are plenty of locals in Latin America who speak English and will kindly come to your rescue in every situation.... from asking directions to making an inquiry at the bank or a doctor's office to requesting a toilet plunger at the hardware store, or -- heaven forbid -- something of an even more personal nature. Pantomime works, yes, but only so far -- and at what damage to your self-respect?


Even just knowing your numbers is a good start. As a beginning Spanish speaker, I had difficulties with dos (two) and doce (12). Pronounced dohss and dohss-ay, they sounded similar enough to my untrained ear that when I was quoted a price, I had to stop and thin k -- was it $2 or $12? I'm sure I may have erred once or twice and spent more than I should have.

And once, on a small island off the coast of Venezuela, we waited in the hot sun for the ferry to take us back to our hotel on another island. It leaves at "dos," they told me. At least that's what I thought they'd said. So off we went to grab a bite of lunch and when we returned at 2 p.m, we learned the ferry had come and gone, at... you guessed it...12 noon.

Those are minor inconveniences, of course. But if there hadn't been a later ferry, we'd have been stuck.

And what if you're awakened in the middle of the night by the smell of smoke... and you see that the vacant lot across the street is on fire. Will you be able to summon the bomberos?

At the very least, you must learn your numbers so you can recite your telephone number and address in Spanish. It's not at all hard to do. In fact, that's the reason we're taught to count as children. Numbers are about the easiest thing to learn.

So, right along with all the other things you do to prepare for your move overseas, I heartily recommend getting a jumpstart on your basic Spanish skills. But it does take persistence. Repetition is key. Pronunciation is critical. And for sure, you will embarrass yourself... probably more than once.

But the embarrassment is more than made up for by the appreciative smiles of encouragement you'll invariably get from locals for even making the attempt to speak their language. They really do appreciate it, and even if your baby Spanish is nearly unintelligible (as is still sometimes the case with ours), the goodwill you create is itself a very valuable form of communication, and one that you'll never regret attempting.