How To: Talk to Anyone in Belize
By Adam Swenson
The heart of missions and outreach is effective communication. Christ’s love is deep and wide and unfailing, and for us to share that we need to radiate love in our action as well as in our words. Here are a few tips about the nuances of communicating in Belize that will open doors for you to have meaningful spiritual conversations.
Drop By Unannounced (With Another Belizean)
Teams are always amazed at Belizean hospitality when we do home visits in Belize. We stop by the house unannounced and shout “Buenas,” and wait to see what the response is. If the call “Buenas” comes back we walk up and talk for a bit. In America when people come by unannounced we typically have a negative association with that, as we’re expecting door-to-door salesmen, political canvassers, or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In Belize people are typically happy to talk to you. Schedules aren’t as crazy as they are in America, and people will generally be curious and open minded about what you’re up to. Your warmth, caring, and honesty will pave the way for some great conversations and create the potential for some real “God moments.”
Often Belizeans you are dropping by to visit will be initially shy. Just relax and be loose and they will match you.
If you speak only a tiny bit of Spanish (as I do) and you’ve listened to people talking animatedly in full-speed, slang-filled Spanish you learn that this is not the language you learned in the classroom. For me to understand Spanish it needs to be spoken slowly and with enunciation—not the way anyone in Belize would naturally speak! But if I make it clear that I can’t understand them, they will often slow down and use smaller words.
We need to keep this lesson in mind if we’re talking with someone with limited English. Speed, poor enunciation, and slang are all things that make the language harder to understand. If the person you are talking to has a limited grasp of English speak slowly and clearly and keep the word choice simple.
Separate Your Questions
Instead of saying “Would you like to stop here? Are you tired? Or would you like to keep going?” just ask “Are you tired?” Ask one question at a time and wait for an answer.
Sharing is Caring
Ask people about their community. If you want to share Christ with them, make sure you let them share something with you first. Ask them about their family, their community, or about Belize. Much better to take a posture of humility and come into the conversation as someone eager to learn from them. Think of it as earning the opportunity to share with them.
Spanglish? Yes, Por Favor.
I speak Spanish … really badly. Spanglish would be a better word for it. Many of the older people out in the more remote villages do speak some English, but they are much more comfortable in Spanish. They might be shy to speak English because they know their English sentence structure might be off or their vocabulary is limited.
English is probably the most difficult language to master, so that’s quite understandable! I’ve found that if I try to communicate in Spanish, they often realize their English is better than my Spanish and they’ll try speaking English with me since I tried speaking Spanish with them. If you smile and make a couple jokes at your own expense in the process, they will often view this type of communication as a fun challenge and dive in. The willingness to try to communicate even if you know you’re not solid in Spanish will open up a path for them to reciprocate.
Feel Free to Talk About Where You Live
I like in Minnesota, which gets very cold in the winter: cold enough that the lakes freeze over and you can drive a car on them, or even bring little houses out there and go icefishing. I tell that story sometimes to Belizeans who I am just meeting (if it seems appropriate). It will generally get them interested and engaged in the conversation. Then you can ask them about how hot it gets in the summer in Belize and how they get through that (often without air conditioning).
It’s fine to talk a little about the weather at first to just get things loosened up. If you go from there to talking about your hometowns and then about your families, this is a good way to start in broad terms and then get progressively more personal and into more spiritual topics. Talking about the weather may not be a great segue to talking about God’s love for them, but talking about family can sure lead to a discussion of spiritual things.
Adam Swenson is a missions consultant at Thirst Missions. He’s fluent in Spanglish.