Ordering Chocolate Cake With Ice Cream…Sort Of

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”


“Caca con helado, por favor.”

I remember, back in the late summer of 1999, sitting in a small restaurant in the jungle city of Iquitos where I had recently moved. I had just successfully ordered lunch in Spanish. Everything had arrived perfectly, as requested.  Un vaso de vino tinto, sandwich de queso bien caliente, y papas fritas.  I was doing good!  My chest was all puffed out with pride.  I was learning the language!  Well, why not have some dessert, I thought.  And, so, in my very best basic Spanish I asked for chocolate cake with ice cream.  Yum!  A perfect ending to a successful dining experience. The server looked at me with a quizzical look and, in that moment, I knew my limited Spanish had taken a nose dive.  “Caca,” I said.  “Caca con helado.”  After a little chuckle, the server smiled and said, “postre?”  I realized immediately what I had been asking for, and it wasn’t cake! Together, we shared a bit of laughter and created a fond memory of my first days there.

Don’t be afraid to try out the language.

It’s the way you learn, make friends and can create some pretty fun memories. Talk to the locals. Put your embarrassment aside. The locals are thrilled to have you try, even if it’s not perfect. I found that many times they are as interested in practicing English as I was their language.  They would speak English and I would speak Spanish.  Somehow, we found a way to communicate and both had a chance to practice the language we were each learning.

Try some non-verbal communication.

A smile, hand gestures, facial expressions and a look of general confusion. a little humor and a few words in their language will get you a long way.  People in other countries want to help you.  They appreciate your attempt to communicate.

Try not to fall into the “Do you speak English” trap?”

It’s easy to do.  You are feeling a little awkward.  You don’t know the all words to communicate clearly.  You are not wanting to feel embarrassed and finding out if they speak English seems a lot easier that struggling through a bad conversation.  Just remember, if you don’t try, you won’t learn, and it shows respect to the person and their culture.

An in-country extended stay is a great way to learn the language.

I found that living an hospetaje in Peru, when I first moved to Iquitos, was a perfect way to learn the language.  I would sit with the cook in the kitchen after dinner and she would talk to me and talk to me and talk to me.  I would listen and think, I have no idea what you are talking about. I had arrived to Peru knowing only a few words in Spanish and and couple of verbs.  I thought I was doomed in the language department until Salina made me her language project.  She talked to me every night after dinner for the 6 months that I lived in that house and, as a result, I became somewhat conversational.  During the 18 months, when I lived in my own place, I was able to sit with local families outside their homes in the evening and talk about life.  Not always sure what the other was talking about, we always seemed to somehow understand to have the best of times, sitting under the stars in a city called Iquitos, in the heart of the Amazon.

Signup for a language immersion class.

Look for an immersion classes near you at a local language school or college or university.  If you want a more authentic experience you can go to a program in another country where you have the opportunity to practice speaking with the locals.  Antigua, Guatemala and Cuenca, Ecuador a two cities that offer language immersion programs. There are many programs around the globe. If experiencing the culture while learning the language appeals to you, research the programs in the country of your choice.

Take a class at your local college or online.

Purchase an online or computer language course.

There are number of excellent online language courses available and also lessons on CDs/DVDs that guide you through the process of learning a language.

Translator Program and Apps

There are language translation apps for both iPhone and Adroid phones, as well as electronic translator devices that provide you with phrases in the language of your choice.  Initially, these can be useful when you are just learning a language by helping you to say a complete phrase or sentence when you want to use more that a few disconnected words. This option can be useful when it is important that your communication is clear.

Have you learned a second language?  What worked well for you?  Do you have any fun stories about trying to communicate in a foreign country?  Please share below.








  • Woa! When I first came to DR, I spoke maybe 2 words of Spanish or … 2 words of Dominican might be a better way of putting it. But I quickly learned two questions that helped learning immensely with a little bit of body language and pointing …

    como se dice …

    como se llama …

    This is my third language, first two French and English. The understanding of French grammar, etc was a big help.


    • Loca Gringa, thanks for your comment. Yes, a few key phrases, like those you mentioned can come in handy when learning a new language. Good for you learning 3! That’s awesome. Being able to speak the language of a country, if even a little, makes travel and living abroad much more interesting and fun. Thanks for your comment!


  • Moving in with a family who insisted on “adopting” me when I had shared a bus ride with their eldest son who was returning home for the Christmas and New Year holidays was my ticket to learning Spanish. I was on the road from Ecuador to Chilé in late December 1973. My traveling companion insisted I could not spend the holidays in a hotel in Santiago and must come stay with his family. They lived in what was then a small town along the railway between Santiago and Valparaiso. There was not a single person in his family, neighborhood or anywhere in the town at all who spoke English. I stayed nearly two months with them. We communicated with sign language and words I occasionally looked up in the dictionary. The two younger siblings who were 19 and 21 brought out their English notebooks from grammar school with pictures they had drawn of pears and plums. Mami and I would visit in the garden and she would tell me all about her fruit trees and vegetables and who knows what else as I could not literally understand more than one word in 100. However, we somehow understood each other. I watched Chilean soap operas with her, “Estamos presentando Esmeralda”, and news programs. Most afternoons I would accompany the two younger siblings when they went out visiting friends. Eventually, I absorbed the language much as a baby would, although I had the advantage of already knowing much about tenses and syntax. When I did eventually leave and travel on to Argentina, people who first met me asked if I was Chilean, since I spoke with a Chilean accent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A Chilean accent. 🙂 That’s great! I absolutely love your story of learning Spanish and what a delightful experience this must have been for you! What I found living in South and Central America was the ease with which people took you into their homes and treated you as a member of their family. It was so welcoming. Your story is a perfect example of that. And the whole family’s willingness to help you in learning the language is such a special memory. I can almost see you and Miami walking through garden together. Thanks for sharing such a lovely story and memorable experience.