Monthly Archives: July 2012


I value communication–probably a prerequisite for being a writer, but also a reason for studying other languages. For example, Spanish is one of the three most widely spoken languages in the world, and the first language of many people living in the United States. So, one of my primary goals for my five-week stay in Lima was to return truly fluent in Spanish.

Part way through the trip, I realized that wasn’t going to happen.

The tour was an amazing combination of learning in classes at the Universidad de Pacifico, getting to know my Peruvian family, learning how to navigate Lima solo, and weekend tours. We visited the dunes at Ica and the birds at Paracas, climbed Waimu Picchu to view Machu Picchu from above, explored Cuzco, flew into Iquitos, and stayed in a jungle lodge on a tributary of the Amazon where we fished for piranha. It was a fantastic experience. However, whenever we got together with the other ISA summer students, we slipped into English. We weren’t supposed to, but with only five weeks, it happens. Also, whenever there was someone who was more fluent in Spanish around, it was easy to let them take the lead and translate.

The other obstacle was that English is the global economy’s language. Most people I have encountered in other countries, including Peru, speak some English. They usually want to practice–and they’re not all highly educated. Many people in rural areas have only a few years of schooling, but Quechua kids selling art in the plazas of Cuzco, craftsmen, and our guides in the Amazon all spoke a native language first, Spanish because they learn it in elementary school, and enough English to converse and carry on their business. How many high school dropouts in the U.S. can speak multiple languages? How many college grads? Even though I studied three languages, without the environment requiring and facilitating regular practice, they’ve all become quite weak.

While my Spanish grammar and vocabulary improved dramatically while I was in Peru, I still could not claim to be fluent for a job that requires consistently proper grammar and a broad vocabulary. That would take a least a year of living in the country with minimal use of English.

The good news? When I was on my own, I had extensive conversations with trades people, the ISA driver, my hostess (who wants to learn English but will not use it with students who are there to improve their Spanish), and other people. While we sometimes had to pull in Spanglish or their English, for the most part we used Spanish. I even handled talking to the dentist on my own!

So, while I can’t label myself as bilingual, I know I’ll be adequate when the need for Spanish arises–if I don’t forget!


Asking for help.

One of the most important life skills is the ability/willingness to ask for help. This is especially true when traveling.

Asking for help

In Peru, some of my fellow students were far more fluent than I was, but handicapped by reluctance to ask a stranger for assistance. My viewpoint is that if you are ever in a really bad situation alone, it’s going to be a stranger who helps–so practice talking to people every day! It’s also the best way to practice a language you’re learning and to get a feel for the local culture.

That said, I do not start gabbing with strangers who come up to me on the street. They might have an ulterior motive, like diverting attention from the partner who’s the pickpocket. Instead, I choose people who are working or otherwise look like they have a purpose.


  • Asking for directions, I usually go into a store and speak to someone who works there.
  • At a bus stop, I’ll ask someone dressed for work for help. If they’re wearing business clothes, there’s also a good chance they speak some English and want to practice.

Best experience:

I was having trouble getting the right bus home in Lima one night, so I asked a woman in business clothes which number I needed. She started to explain, got interrupted by a phone call, and automatically left on her bus. When she realized what she’d done, she got off, walked back to me, and rode an alternate bus home with me, as our destinations were within a few blocks of each other.

Worst problem:

People want to help even when they have no idea where you’re going–they’ll give you crazy instructions rather than appear unfriendly. So I keep asking along the way, to correct as needed.


Healthcare abroad

My daughter had no health insurance when she was in Mexico and stepped a sea urchin. She suffered for days before going to a hospital in the middle of the night for help. The bill was less than ten dollars.

I lost a crown (cap on my tooth) in Cuzco. ISA found the least expensive yet competent dentist.

For the first appointment, I wrote out the essential details in Spanish and had the ISA staffer who took me to my first appointment check to make sure it made sense. She made a couple small corrections and I told her to leave once I met the doctor.

The dentist doesn’t speak as much English as they’d thought, but it’s a familiar environment, he has visual aids, and my Spanish has progressed enough to communicate with him on my own.  He works alone and has only one patient at a time—a much more tranquil atmosphere than the usual large office. His competence was immediately evident and, since there were no distractions, he was completely focused on the work he was doing. I decided to have him do less urgent work as well, since I don’t have dental insurance in the States. Compared to what I’d have paid for the same work, I’ve saved almost enough to cover the cost of my plane ticket down here.

I’m going to get his email. If I ever need major dental work again, I may come back here for it!

Sheri McGuinn

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