For me, the answer to that question is, “never!” But there are degrees to which it’s true or false.
You can travel to Spanish-speaking countries and not know a lick of Spanish. And still have a wonderful time. But you will be limited in what you can and cannot do.
At the very least, it pays to learn a few words and sentences to grease the squeaky wheel. “How are you?” “Where’s the bathroom?” “What time is it?” “How much is this?” And also know what responses you would get to those questions.
The Costan Rican Times explored the idea of not just travelling to a Spanish-speaking country with no knowledge of the language but of living there as well!
The very idea strikes me as absurd! Why would you move somewhere and not at least make an effort to learn the language. You’re in the perfect immersion environment and you can still utilize many wonderful language-learning resources such as Fluenz or Pimsleur or even Google Translate to reinforce what you hear everyday. You can simply work your way into the language with time. Fortunately, it appears as though not all ex-pats are giving Spanish the cold shoulder in the Costa Rica.
It’s possible to live in “little U.S.A” in Costa Rica and get by with no Spanish. People who do that are limited in what they can do. They stay sheltered in their comfortable town, call only specific taxi drivers, and go only to upscale bars with English speaking staff and clientele, and they are happy.
Most expats prefer to learn about the language and culture around them and participate with the country in general.
It helps to have an understanding of basic Spanish such as polite phrases (which go a long way!) and basic sentence structure, that way you have a base and can build on it with each activity you do and each conversation you try. After just a few months you will have surprised yourself with how much you learned little by little.
Exactly. If you don’t have fluency before you move to a country, make an effort and you’ll slowly start getting there.
It’s possible that you won’t ever be mistaken for a native speaker. But that’s alright. I’ve found that, in my travels, a little humility and a little effort can go a long way towards helping folks realize that you appreciate their country and their cultre.