That Little Language Barrier Thing
¡Hola! I'm writing from a cafe in the small mountain town of Cobán. In my 24 hours here, I've seen only four other "gringos", tourists that stand out because of their backpacks, sandals, height, and boisterous conversations. Which brings me to: Spanish. Español is the official language spoken here in Guatemala, but did you know there are 22 Mayan languages also spoken (the most common being K’iche’)? Don't worry, 93% of the population speaks Spanish (for 40% of those people, it is their second language), and depending on where you're traveling to, there will usually be someone around to help interpret your conversation between English and Spanish. However, knowing a few local phrases goes a long ways in getting around the country, because most Guatemaltecos do not learn English in school.
I was fortunate to study Spanish for a number of years in high school and into college, but if you don't use it, you lose it. Luckily, Guatemalan Spanish is not the beautiful, undulating, and slightly Italian-sounding Spanish of Argentina, or the Castilian Spanish of northern Spain. It is simple. It is what you expect it to be. I've been complimented on my Spanish language skills a number of times: by the cashier at a restaurant, by a taxi driver, and by the front desk associate of the hotel I'm currently staying in. Does that mean all I've spoken has been
grammatically correct? No. Does that mean it has sounded good anyway? Absolutely not. But they appreciate the effort, mistakes included. I think I told someone last night that my hotel was "next" instead of "close". Whatever! They understood, and still sold me the three tacos for $1.50. Y estaban muy deliciosos.
My point is, a little goes a long way. You will almost always be able to get your ideas across using broken Spanish, English, gestures, pointing at a picture or a map, etcetera. However, there are a huge number of language schools in Antigua, Xela, and the villages of Lake Atitlan, and a bit of study can help immensely, or a phrase book might even come in handy. ¡Buena suerte!
Lastly, I'll leave you with this: Oh, how hard it is to speak Spanish!