With only a semester of Spanish in college, I served as the language expert between me and Mr. HalfFull on our South American Adventure. We are decidedly not fluent speakers. So over two months in Spanish-speaking countries, frustration, ridiculousness, and perhaps even some learning ensued.

HalfEmpty vs. HalfFull

Chocolate Grandmother

In typical halfFull fashion, Mr. HalfFull poses with his Chocolate Grandmother.

The language barrier further highlighted our halfFull and halfEmpty tendencies. I wanted to understand everything and communicate with ease, whereas Mr. HalfFull didn’t take himself too seriously and had fun making up his own words.

I cringed each time I made a Spanish error and tried to replay what I should have said in my head. But somehow Mr. HalfFull was able to laugh and didn’t stress much.

Overhearing Conversations

I was so starved for understanding that my ears were attuned to English. Whenever we passed people conversing in English, I would repeat the snippet of conversation back to Mr. HalfFull verbatim. Sometimes the out-of-context clips were rather amusing!

On the other hand, when Mr. HalfFull heard a conversation in English, his first reaction was amazement at his newfound facility with oral comprehension of Spanish. Now that’s confidence! Only later did he realize that he could understand them so easily because they were speaking his native tongue.



We took a tour in Spanish at MALBA (the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires). The guide sometimes called on people in the crowd, and I prayed he would not call on me!

Many educators believe that immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language. When surrounded by a new language, one absorbs the nuances and cultural habits and starts to think in the foreign language. It’s a bit of a sink or swim mentality where one is forced to learn the language or be excluded.

Our experience was not quite as immersive since we were with each other speaking English most of the time. I think it would be rather isolating to spend two months discussing colors, the weather, and food.

Cementerio de la Recoleta

Even though we couldn’t speak to living people, we fraternized with the dead at Recoleta Cemetery.

It’s so difficult to express myself in a foreign language when I’m limited by my vocabulary and known verb tenses. It’s not really possible to have a meaningful conversation or develop deeper relationships. Our lack of language skills was definitely isolating and did not allow us to meet people.


During our last big international trip, we didn’t have smartphones.  But they were a game changer this time.

The Google Translate app was invaluable since we didn’t have phone/data service and could download the dictionary (although being online often gave better results). We used it everywhere from restaurants to signs on the street. I know that translation is a poor way to learn a language, but sometimes you just need to know the meaning of a word.

Mr. HalfFull even used the speech feature of Google Translate to have a conversation, like the time the building manager showed up at the door of our apartment one morning. Mr. HalfFull thought the men were there to fix our leaking washing machine, but they were actually there to snake the pipes due to a clog in the building. I was in the shower and the building manager and his plumber spoke no English, but Mr. HalfFull didn’t sweat it. I’m not so sure the guys were thrilled with Mr. HalfFull’s technology since the translations didn’t always make sense. But it was better than nothing.

Castillo Forestal

Ms. HalfEmpty peruses the menu at Castillo Forestal in Santiago.

I often used the camera feature of Google Translate in restaurants. I held my phone over the menu and got instant translations as I skimmed. I often had the gist of a dish but was unsure about all the items listed. Other times, the menus were just so large and overwhelming that I knew trying to read it all in Spanish would take forever. Plus, we didn’t want to miss the one opportunity the waitress came to take our order. Service is not like in the US at all — tips are only 10%, and there are very few servers even when a restaurant is full.


Language barriers provide lots of fodder for comical moments. After our encounter with the building manager in our apartment, we learned his name. We often tried to exchange a few words with Mario in the lobby as we entered and exited the building.

After a few weeks in Buenos Aires, Mr. HalfFull developed a little confidence in his Spanish. As we entered the lobby, he was his usual boisterous self and told Mario that he loved him. Mario, the working class, macho guy, was a bit surprised. What Mr. HalfFull meant to say was that he loved Buenos Aires. Fortunately, I was there to let Mr. HalfFull know that Mario probably did not return his romantic interest!

Foreign Currency

tango steps

These are numbers I can understand!

I think numbers in a foreign language are particularly challenging. Maybe this is because math is more of a left brain function, while language is the domain of the right brain.

My mom grew up doing math in French. To this day, she still does computations in French. I found it immensely frustrating when she would help me with elementary school math homework and say all the numbers in French.

As demonstrated by my mother, even numbers by themselves are not an automatic translation. But to add complexity, most of the numbers we dealt with represented foreign currencies that were 9, 28, and 677 times less than our familiar US dollar. That makes for some big numbers, large bills, and lots of math to do in my head!

It’s not such a big deal when there are posted prices or a register with a visual display. But I always found it difficult to decipher oral currency totals.


Fernet with Coke

Mr. HalfFull tries Fernet with Coke for the first time.

Most of our Spanish interactions occurred in restaurants. I was keen on perfecting my language skills and keeping the conversation in Spanish, but Mr. HalfFull was happy just getting his order. Unfortunately, his amenable nature allowed him to nod and agree when he didn’t actually understand the question. Sometimes when you play along as if you know what’s going on, you end up with liver!

Our first meal in Buenos Aires was several hours after an overnight flight. I was tired, disoriented, and lost in the world of Spanish speakers. We walked to a café near our apartment and looked over the menu. The coffee drinks were easy to decipher, but I wasn’t sure about the ingredients in the food. I also wasn’t sure how to order since nothing had a name or number — just a list of ingredients. But Mr. HalfFull was full of confidence and took over the salad portion of our order. (I hadn’t even had a chance to analyze that part of the menu.) He saw the word repollo and thought, “Pollo is chicken, so repollo must be chicken again. I’m amazing at Spanish!” When his cabbage salad arrived, he was rather surprised.

cabbage salad

Repollo is not chicken again. But it was delicious nonetheless!

Menus were ideal in restaurants because there was context within the sections of the menu, and we could read (and sometimes translate) at our own pace. But verbal menus and follow-up questions sometimes led us to panic order. This caused us to do more research before going out in the future. We would try to look up the menu online (which often was not up to date) just to avoid more panic orders!

But sometimes even if you are sure that you know how to pronounce an item, chaos might ensue. At an ice cream shop in Buenos Aires, Mr. HalfFull tried to order a milkshake. The menu said “Milk Shake.” So that’s what he ordered, but the woman could not understand him and referred him to the English-speaking manager. Apparently, you have to pronounce it with a Spanish accent “meeeeeelkshake.” We couldn’t even get the English words right!

We Survived

Ecological Reserve

Having fun in Buenos Aires!

Our struggle with Spanish was part of the adventure. It certainly took us out of our comfort zone and gave us an increased appreciation for people who visit our country without strong English skills. But language definitely wasn’t a barrier for having fun!


  • Do you approach language barriers like Ms. HalfEmpty or Mr. HalfFull?
  • What language technology do you use while traveling?
  • Have you had any comical encounters in a foreign language?

Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on halfempty4now.com, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!