Take Your Passion Cruising

Kathy Parsons’ mission: learn the language (and teach it to cruisers)

Kathy shopping in the market - Fort de France, Martinique My big passion as I have cruised has been exploring language and culture. I have always loved getting to know other cultures: it is what drew me to the Peace Corps in the 1970s and part of what drew me to cruising almost 15 years later.

Cruising provides a perfect pace for getting to know cultures.

You shop in the markets and eat in your own kitchen – or on the streets. This is so much more satisfying than living in hostels and hotels and eating in restaurants – where everything you do is a commercial tourist transaction.

As cruisers, we can hang in a culture a while and get involved. To get to know a place and a culture, it always helps to have a mission, and though I usually have several “missions” (things that I am seeking out or interested in), so often my mission has been to get to know the language.

Really, if you can’t talk with local people then you miss out on so much

It’s like watching a movie with the sound turned off. Hardware store. Photo: Marcie Lynn Or you are relegated to dealing only with the designated cruiser “handlers” – those locals whose job it is to help cruisers get their needs met ashore.

The richness of the culture is captured in its language – when you learn a bit of the local language, you get to be another person for a little while, you get another life. You get a new set of emotions and personal characteristics, because they don’t match English one-to-one. To be “sympa” in French is so much better than just being “nice”. And in Spanish, there are all these nice verbs for doing things in a relaxed, friendly way: paseando (strolling), platicando (chatting) ….

So, because I love becoming part of new cultures, I pay attention to the words that people use in the countries where we cruise. I mimic local speech whenever I can, and write down words and phrases that I hear. But even more effective:

I find myself a local “teacher”.

I ask locals to help me learn the local dialect – and they accept happily, flattered by my interest in their language. Plus I am always willing to return the favor and teach them some English – but only if they want! Children make great language teachers

My teachers are seldom actual “teachers”. In the French islands of the Caribbean, some of my favorite teachers were women who were from continental France but had paired up with local men, had children and become part of a huge island extended family. They were super because they had a somewhat outsider’s view but were immersed in local culture and traditions. I would ask “Do people here … (whatever)?” and they would answer – “Well, personally I would never because I wasn’t raised that way, but everyone from here does that all the time.” There is nothing more enlightening than hearing people complain about their in-laws.

I always ask my “teachers” about much more than just language – I ask them about the cultural norms: when you greet people and how, all the little courtesies, how you can relate to children, etc, etc. My teachers become my friends. Oh, and my best French pronunciation coach was one teacher’s five-year-old son.

Along the way, I started teaching.

Spanish class in MargaritaSome cruisers asked me to teach them Spanish in preparation for cruising Venezuela and the Western Caribbean.

I love to teach: before cruising I taught business computing as part of my business. I gave my classes in my students’ cockpits, at picnic tables on the beach, and at local cruiser bar/restaurants. It was the perfect environment for teaching language: I gave homework that required them to get out in the streets and chat up the locals — and then report back on the often humorous interchanges.

My friends were amazed because I could make education-hostile cruisers eagerly stay up late doing the homework I gave them, and I loved the challenge of teaching adults something that could give them such immediate rewards.

So then my students asked me to write a book.

And I began – teaching classes along the way. I developed my course book as I taught, and it provided the basis for what later became my book Spanish for Cruisers.

Discussing clearance procedures and vocabulary in Venezuela I loved my “research”. Every place I go, I HAD to seek out locals to fill in the blanks for the local language. I HAD to get to know diesel mechanics from Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, because I had to find out what words they were using.

I HAD to get to know the people working in the boatyards because I had to figure out what they were calling all the terms that made up boatyard work. If there was an upholsterer in town fixing cruisers’ sails, I had to meet him, because I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get direct information. I had to find out what terms the dock attendants understood in the marinas – they might not be using “nautical” words at all.

So my research has always given me a reason to get to know people. It made me reach out because I just couldn’t pass up an opportunity that might not happen again. The result (Spanish for Cruisers) was a book that only a cruiser could write! Researching French desserts

Years later, when I began writing French For Cruisers, the research got really interesting, because in addition to all the nautical and mechanical topics, it was critical that I cover the phrases that would let cruisers enjoy the food and wine of France and the French islands.

My research was now taking me to markets, to bakeries, to French and French-Creole restaurants. I ate, I drank: Research was tough! And I HAD to cruise the French canals!

So for me, research and fun are closely linked. They keep me curious – and they allow me to have an impact on the cruiser-local interactions. So many cruisers are out there communicating with the locals because my books have given them the tools to do so. Where will this passion take me next? — ¿Quién sabe?

6 Tips to get you talking
  1. Speak! The more you speak, the easier it gets. You learn by making mistakes. Don’t wait until you’ve got it right, start talking!

    “Your mission is to amuse the locals with your attempts to speak their language.”

  2. Learn the basic greetings and courtesy phrases such as “please, thank you, excuse me, and you’re welcome” and use them every chance you get.  Greet people you pass on the street, and always those you approach in a store or office. Using these greetings and courtesy phrases will help your hosts see you as a courteous person, and will also loosen your tongue, making it easier to get out even the more difficult words.

    Also learn to say: “I am sorry, I don’t speak much Spanish/French.” This wins you points because you are letting people know that you don’t expect them to know English, and you wish you knew their language.

  3. Learn the pronunciation rules. Practice pronouncing key words and phrases in your phrase book. The more practice you can get speaking aloud, the easier it gets, and the better you sound! Practice with words that you will actually use.

    Find a local to sit down with you and listen to you pronounce the words in your phrase book. It’s a great way to make a new friend.

  4. Cheat! If you don’t know the correct word, try the English word with Spanish/French pronunciation. (This is an excellent reason to learn pronunciation.)

    When you are shopping and don’t know the word for what you want: pronounce a common brand name with a Spanish/French accent.

  5. Develop your own little speech describing yourself, your family, your voyages, and whatever you’d like to share with people, using the sentences in this chapter as a base. Then start practicing it on the people you meet in markets, restaurants, the marina office, etc. Embellish it with additional details as you become more comfortable.

    This technique helped me learn to converse when I first arrived in Nicaragua in the Peace Corps. People love the opportunity to get to know you!

  6. Take a class. If you can find a class in port, sign up for it. And/or find a local tutor to work with you during your stay.

    Combine inland travel with a week long language course. You often have the option of housing with a local family for even more practice. Certain towns are known for their language schools (eg Antigua, Guatemala; Merida, Venezuela).

About Kathy Parsons

spanishforcruisersKathy Parsons is author of the books, Spanish for Cruisers and French For Cruisers, popular language guides for boaters.

Together with friends Pam Wall, Gwen Hamlin and Beth Leonard, Kathy conducts “Women and Cruising” seminars at boat shows, answering questions that women have about the cruising life. She is the founder of this website, Women and Cruising, which provides advice, inspiration and resources for women cruisers.

Kathy Parsons has spent much of the last twenty years living aboard and sailing the US, Bahamas, Caribbean and Central America. Along the way, she has pursued a number of passions: diving, hiking, and inland travel, and learning and teaching foreign languages.

A young Kathy Parsons teaching English in the Peace CorpsBefore cruising (BC) Kathy Parsons worked as a social worker, Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua, researcher, computer consultant and corporate trainer, more or less in that order.

At age 35, she closed the business, rented the Maine house, and sailed south for the Bahamas with her husband. Finally she found something she could stick to: cruising on a sailboat.

More info

Kathy Parsons’ Language Guides for Boaters:

Related articles:

What’s your passion? Have you taken it cruising?

Let us know. Email kathy@forcruisers.com or leave a comment below.

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