At Home in Puerto Rico - sign in Puerto Rico "Colon Appliance Parts"

language in puerto rico

As Americans who enjoy travelling, it’s interesting to compare how we are received in the various countries we have visited.  While we do make a point to learn at least a few go-to phrases in a country’s language before any trip, let’s face it, there’s really no hiding the fact that we are from the US.  Given enough time, we can usually begin to get a sense of how the locals view visitors from the states.

In Japan, arguably the most polite nation on earth, we felt valued and welcomed.  The lady behind the counter at the Daikanyama FamilyMart would flash a knowing smile every time she heard me ask for coffee in my best broken Japanese.  This was our experience pretty much across the board there. 

On the other hand, as much as we enjoyed our visit to the Dominican Republic, we found it difficult to shake the feeling that a decent percentage of the population sees dollar signs when they see Americans.  I’m told it’s similar in Jamaica, outside of the resorts..

One of the things we LOVE about Puerto Rico is that even though it’s part of the United States, it feels like a foreign country.   Banana trees, iguanas, narrow roads, unfamiliar foods, the sound of Bad Bunny blaring in the distance, and of course, a foreign (to us) language leave no room for mistaking that we are not in Texas anymore.

spotted on the walls of Fort San Cristóbal

how NOT to feel “at home in puerto rico”

Growing up a military brat, I am perhaps more conscious than most about going out of my way to avoid coming across as the stereotypical “ugly American” in another country.  I’ve witnessed, and regretfully on occasion, even adopted that smug attitude of entitlement and superiority enough times to develop a strong aversion to it.

In part because of this, I think I was overly timid our first two years on the island.  For any interaction that was beyond my level of Spanish, which was most of them, I would sheepishly ask “habla inglés?”  In and of itself, this is fine of course.  The problem was the twinge of guilt or inadequacy that I internalized and then subconsciously projected during these interactions.

Turns out, this self-flagellation was completely counter-productive and unnecessary.  For the most part, we actually feel as welcomed here as we did in Japan.  In fact, I get the feeling that most Puerto Ricans think well of Americans from the states and are proud to be Americans themselves

In the last year or so, I flipped a subtle switch where I no longer allow myself to feel ashamed for switching to, or even starting with English when necessary.  My guess is at least half of the locals around here speak excellent English and seamlessly make the switch.  In those cases where they are not bilingual, yes, it takes a bit more effort.  However, it’s nice to know where we stand right at the start of our interaction.  We can usually meet in the middle with our mutual limited language skills (and a little help from Google translate!).

language in puerto rico

It’s not lost on us how fortunate we are to have this opportunity for both ourselves and our boys to become bilingual all while living in the country of our birth.  Unfortunately, the learning process, at least for me, has been more gradual than anticipated.  In the meantime, while it may not seem like much, this subtle shift in attitude has been incredibly liberating.  In fact, there is no question that this too has been a contributing factor for me personally feeling more at home in Puerto Rico.


One comment

  • I visit every year, have a Spanish speaking boss, and am trying with Duolingo and fluencia. Still when he rattles off something at 200 mph, I get the lost and confused look on my face and he slows down for me. 3 1/2 more years until I am planning on making the move, hopefully I can get better in that time.

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