“Never make fun of people who speak broken English. It means they know another language”.
I carried the above quote, ripped out of a Reader’s Digest from 1996, all across South East Asia and would show it to anyone who was shy about speaking English. It made a lot of people feel more comfortable talking to me knowing that I understood that speaking broken English didn’t make them sound dumb. In fact, it made them way smarter than me, someone who ONLY spoke English.
As I now try and remedy that by learning Spanish, I’ve found it’s amazing how confusing languages get in your head. I barely know 25 words in French and none in Italian, yet I keep speaking both those languages randomly when my brain is searching for Spanish.
So far, the most successful long conversation I’ve had in Spanish was with a 7-year-old in Semuc Champay, Guatemala and most of that was just us pointing at different things, saying the Spanish word for them, then giggling.
As we work towards (hopeful) Spanish-fluency, here are a few of the ‘Lost In Translation’ moments we’ve had along the way:
1. A family in Puebla, Mexico offered us a ride through their adult son, who spoke some English for his job at a call centre. We tried to speak to the entire family in our limited Spanish but often needed his help.It was about 20 minutes into our car ride that he corrected our use of the word papa – which is Spanish has two meanings, depending on where the stress is placed. As he kindly asked: “Can you change how you say Papa? My father is not a potato.
2. Before hopping on a bus leaving Oaxaca, Mexico I gave Bryan a kiss. Nothing too racy, but definitely not a kiss you’d give a family member. Upon seeing the slightly disgusted expression on our drivers face, I realized that I had incorrectly used the word ‘hermano’ (brother) when referring to Bryan, rather than ‘esposo’ (spouse). So this poor guy thinks Canadian brothers and sisters are a bit too handsy with each other.
3. In Todos Santos, Guatemala, we got into a rather confusing conversation. At this point, Bryan and I felt we had a basic grasp of the language and so were perplexed when our hostel receptionist asked if we wanted ‘jabón’ – a word when spoken sounds like the Spanish word for ham (jamon).
“No thanks” we replied in Spanish, “we’ve already eaten dinner”. She gave us a look and asked again.
“No, no thanks – we just ate and we’re stuffed” we said in rough Spanish.
This back and forth went on for some time – with her asking repeatedly and with increasing confusion and us always saying something along the lines of “Yes, we already ate down the street. Don’t need anything more now, thanks!”.
Turns out we had been telling her we didn’t want to eat the soap she was offering us. So she thinks Canadians are weird too.
4. While taking Spanish classes in Antigua, Guatemala, my teacher asked me in Spanish “Do you have any brothers and sisters? How old are they?” I replied I had one of both, and that they were in their mid-20’s. Her head snapped up and she intently examined by face. Turns out she had actually asked if I had a son or daughter and how old my children were. For a moment or two there, I was either the youngest person in the world to have given birth or the youngest looking 50 year old she had ever met.
After the past few months of speaking Spanish with varying degrees of success, I now have a renewed admiration for people who speak more than one language. This shit is HARD. People speak at break-neck speed, they use slang constantly, they fire questions at you so quickly all you can do is say “Si!” and hope you haven’t agreed to something horrible.
So please, the next time you’re speaking to someone who doesn’t share the same mother tongue as you, slow down, use simple words, gently correct them, then tell them how much you admire their determination to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language.