Throwing in a late two cents worth ...
I've done a fair bit of land travel in Mexico
and Central America
. In the coastal travel or tourist areas I could get away with just English, but once inland or off the track I've really needed some basic abilty to piece a sentence together. We got caught in Costa Rica
in last year's big storm while driving most of the country ... we ended up needing to talk to truckers, teenage restaurant help, you name it. Some knew no English, some just a bit, but I think in the end our efforts to speak the language and understand the culture really paid off (*for the whole story see below). I'm no where near fluent, but I think knowing a few of the basic phrases and the ability to follow at least a bit of the conversation is very helpful.
As far as how to learn a language, my girlfriend is my expert on that as she came here from Germany
and is more fluent than me in English, with a good grasp of French and quickly figuring out Spanish. Her main advice would second the watch movies and read familiar books
post. In my area we get Spanish (mostly Mexican) television on cable. It's a great way to try to pick up the language and tempo. I'd also guess the immersion courses would be good, albeit expensive.
At least in my experience, the effort
to be respectful of the culture/people and speak the language is much more important than fluency in a particular tongue. Not coming off as the important American tourist is the essential bit - but if I were going to know one other language for cruising, it would be Spanish.
*If you care to read nuances ... while we were driving Costa Rica
there was an unusual event as a forming hurricane
hit the country on the Pacific coast. Bridges were washed out, the main pass back to the capital (and airport) was taken out by multiple slides, etc. It effectively shut down the country. In trying to work our way from the south we ran into another American group with a Costa Rican guide also trying to work the 150 some odd miles back to the capital to fly home. We linked up with them and had dinner with them and their guide where the pass was blocked. The guide spoke little English, but I tried to make small talk with him as I was sitting next to him at dinner. In the conversation it came out that he had a wife and kids
back in the south and I asked after them, etc., I thought he would likely be concerned for them living in the rain forest area in the south with a hurricane
moving in while he was driving the Americans north with no promise that he would be able to return south soon. Pretty basic stuff that any of us would do in a similar situation in the US, but this was in pieced-together English and Spanish. So they then left for a hotel
and we slept in our car on the road with the truckers in hopes the pass would open (it didn't). Fast forward a couple days and we were sitting behind a washed-out bridge with 200 other cars trying to figure out our next move. My girlfriend walked up to look at the bridge and see if anyone knew anything and ran into the guide now trying to work his way back south (the wealthy Americans actually chartered a helicopter, and not to make them out to sound bad I suspect the guide got a huge tip - they were very nice people but more fluid than most). Anyway, she chatted with him a bit and came back to say she ran into him, he says "hi" and he's trying to get alternate routes from the locals, etc. Ten minutes later he starts to pass us going in the other direction but waving frantically at us to follow. We pull out of line to follow this nearly total stranger out of town into the hills of Costa Rica (a statement requiring a completely different post regarding safety). Eventually we are in a caravan of about ten cars driving up and down gravel and mud roads barely wider than goat trails through tiny villages of waving kids
standing in the rain until finally we cross an intact little bridge and voila' we are on the highway. We have dinner with him and thank him (he bought) and later that night we are back in the capital and flew out in the morning.
I say all that not just to wistfully reflect that some of the best parts
of our trip came about through shared hardship with the locals (their hardship was obviously greater than ours') - but because I suspect that at least some of our good fortune came from treating the guide as a real person with his own real concerns in his own culture: both at the dinner and by my girlfriend chatting with him at the bridge about how his trip back was going, if he'd had a chance to speak with his family
, etc. Our Spanish was abysmal, but our interaction was meaningful - which is what communication really is about, no?
Anyway, that's my long-winded two cents worth.