In hindsight, it should've been clearer to us before we left that an almost complete lack of Spanish on the part of anyone in our family would've been a handicap. Indeed, all of the Spanish I knew before this trip was what I'd picked up from cowboy movies and Speedy Gonzales cartoons. I've now a hunger to take a class in Spanish--if ever given the time--but I am amazed at how much I've been able to understand and learn without any formal training.
Any traveler without fluency in the local language needs to get over his shyness right away. You are going to have to interact with people and you are going to have to impose upon their time. I've not found that to be an irritant to the people here in Paraguay. They've been friendly and patient with me.
Another technique I've discovered is that nouns and context will get you a long way. If you are at a lunch counter and say "Empanada" you will receive a wonderful little pastry-wrapped meat. It works even better if you throw in a por favor.
This brings me to a refinement of that technique. If you know a few works and phrases like "por favor" (please), "gracias" (thank you), "con permisso" (excuse me), and "lo siento" (I'm sorry) it can really lubricate the process.
When you are in a city, the whole world around you is a laboratory for language learning. Every poster, every billboard, every sign on a store window is an opportunity to gain vocabulary. Here context is a helper as well. If you know a few words, they can help you to learn the meaning of the words around them.
Here in South America, there is another tool available: TV. An exceeding large number of the television programs are from the good Ol' US of A, and a significant proportion of those are in English with Spanish subtitles. I've watched "The Family Man" and learned that carino means something like "Honey" or "Sweetheart." I've watched "My name is Earl" and have learned that "Diabolos!" is a profane utterance on a par with "Dammit!"
(This can be dangerous as my friend Khamis Siam learned French this way by watching movies about WWII and though the French word for German was "Bosch" which actually means "pig." )
I am beginning to be able to combine these. Last night at Shopping del Sol, a local mall, I ordered a wonderful meal with "Cuatro chipa cuatro queso, por favor, y cuatro agua sin gas."
My main problem comes when they talk back. I can't understand what they say. The sounds have a hard time resolving themselves into words. I think I just need to spend more time listening to television.
Another important factor are numbers. They are a mixed blessing. Written out in numerals, they are a universal language. Said outloud in words, I can't understand. My technique in dealing with this at the checkout is to put down a 100,000 Guarani note and to hope that is enough. If it is not, they will let you know.
I am going to investigate Spanish-learning opportunities in a formal setting as soon as I get home. Maybe sooner.