Joke’s on Me 2

Learning to converse in another language keeps me humble. Beginning with English, as a child I made up funny words. I’d call the small blue round Midwestern fruit, bluebodies. My dad’s bluebody pancakes still are a family favorite.

In first year high school Spanish, I wanted to say, “I’m embarrassed” Tengo vergüenza. Instead I said, “I’m pregnant.” Estoy embarazada. I was unhappy to discover my mistake, but I had to laugh. The next week, my amigo made the same error, “Estoy embarazado.” He blushed at how “pregnant “ he was when he realized what he said. We learned that phrase was a false friend, an amigo falso.

Each decade as a Spanish apprentice, I think I know the vocabulary I need, until I travel to a new country. I learned the Mexican word for carcarro, in high school. But, arriving in Spain, carro means cart and I learned coche. In 2001, my husband and I lived in Chile teaching English. In Santiago I said to a friend, “There are many coches on the street.” She wagged a finger, “No, they’re not stagecoaches or baby carriages. They’re autos!” We giggled.

My Mexicanisms were perpetually misunderstood in Chile. Thinking of making a steak dinner for my husband and me, I ordered carne de res at a Santiago butcher shop one afternoon. The butcher almost fell on the floor. “Ha ha ha! What kind of meat?”
Thinking through my vocabulary, I volunteered, “Cow meat?” (carne de vaca)
He replied, “Meat” (Aha, in Chile carne means beef!)
I giggled. “Okay, half a kilo of carne!” The man with the red apron approved.

Another day, our Chilean friend and I conversed about fresh food from the daily market. He was a marvelous cook, making noodles and sauces from scratch. I told him I liked how the food he made had no preservativos, a false cognate. He sputtered, “That’s right, it has no prophylactics! It doesn’t have any preservatives (preservantes) either!” We belly laughed.

I wasn’t finished making embarrassing mistakes. Another amigo wanted to practice English and I was interested in speaking Spanish. Using a turn of phrase from Spain, I proposed an intercambio de lenguas. He snorted. “Are you sure? An exchange of tongues?!?” We cracked up. Well, let’s make that a language exchange… (intercambio de idiomas)

Take heart, adults learning a second language. From speaking Spanish, I’ve discovered making mistakes is not the worst thing that can happen. Never being wrong is. If we find humor in our faults, comedy puts us on the road to self-knowledge. Taking ourselves less seriously allows us to be transformed. It may be the path to inner peas. (Peace y paz ; )

Rebecca and Friends. Photo: Evan

Have you had a lost in translation moment? ¡Olé! –Rebecca

Revised from the May 9, 2018 post.

Rebecca Cuningham

33 thoughts on “Joke’s on Me 2

  1. That really is one of the biggest barriers for many adults learning a new language. They fear making a mistake. I have a funny story from my Spanish classes. Our teacher told. us that one of her students went to Argentina, very confident that he’d be able to navigate his way with this newfound language skills. She sent him an email asking, “How is it going? Are you having fun?” His reply? “I love many things about Argentina, but unfortunately they don’t speak Spanish here…” Lol Love the pic of you at the end, Rebecca!

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Susan. As s child we make mistakes all the time in our first language, for example “I goed (went) to the store” or “I amen’t (am not) a baby.” We have higher expectations for ourselves as adults, however. We forget that communication is the goal, which can be aided by facial expressions and hand gestures. In Argentina and Uruguay the Spanish is very different from their Spanish speaking neighbors! Each country has a unique history, they have a large Italian influence. Thanks for the compliment on my Halloween costume photo. 🙂

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  2. In every regional dialect the standard meaning of a word may be somewhat different. For instance, in my language, Romanian, the word ”babă” usually means ”old woman” and nowadays it also has a pejorative tone (it is not a nice word!); but in the countryside of my region ”babă” strictly means ”grandmother” and has no pejorative connotations.

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    1. Thank you, great example! We think we have a solid grasp on our language as adults, but usage is very regional. In the US we have the example of carbonated beverages can be called soft drinks, sodas, pop or even the name of a famous brand to represent them all. If I from Minnesota ask for a pop in Texas, I’ll just get a funny look. Retaining our flexibility is key.

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  3. Last year, I found a German cousin and was excited to practice my German with him. I took 2 years in high school, and bought a Pimsler study course that I worked on for 9 months. I could read most of his letters but used a translator to be sure.

    When I wrote back trying to do it in German, I decided to translate my raw English text to see how it translated to compare with what I wrote. Wow! What a difference! I need a lot more practice before trying that again.

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    1. Thanks for your personal example, Larry. I admire that you’re continuing to study German. Writing letters to your cousin is excellent practice, what a great idea. Do you ever Skype to converse? That could be fun.

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      1. We are neighbors. Historically, it was all one region long time back. Urdu is derived from Hindi, Persian, Turkish and Arabic. It was the language of the invading armies. So there are words from all these languages in Urdu and we can understand bits of each language. Persian had a larger influence.

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  4. Cute post, Rebecca! I learned a lot. It brought to mind an exchange from that old TV show Taxi. Although this isn’t a multi-lingual example, you might appreciate it. Reverend Jim Ignatowski is holding a large juicy orange and says to nobody in particular “If we call an orange an orange, why don’t we call a banana a yellow?” 🍌

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  5. I loved the examples of mistaken phrases you gave and I have copied these into my notebook for further use – or perhaps that should be non-use. Anyway, I will remember them. The only similar one I know is ‘constipado’ (not constipation, but a cold). I used to speak Spanish fluently but with age and less time spent in Spanish-speaking countries I am losing that fluency. I continue the learning process though but as I am learning Italian at the same time I make many mistakes. In my early days I remember the hilarity when I asked a waited if he would come to my room with me and bring some milk and another time when I reeled off what food we all wanted but the waiter only registered ‘patatas fritas’ so we had a massive dish of these and nothing else. I think he was expecting English when I spoke and hence missed the beginning. By the time I go to the end, patatas fritas, he had cottoned on! I loved

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    1. Thanks, Mari, for your personal stories! Yes, constipado could make for funny misunderstandings. The milk one got me chuckling too. Amazing how quickly languages fade away when we don’t use them. I spoke decent Brasilian Portuguese at one time, but I haven’t practiced and it’s almost gone. I’ve had the same experience when I’m speaking Spanish but the person doesn’t expect it and so can’t hear me. So funny!

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  6. Haha, yes! When I first started learning French, I made plenty of embarrassing mistakes. Similar to Spanish, one does not say “préservatif” when referring to fresh produce, as the word actually means “condom” in French. Definitely a “faux amis” in that regard! But you live, and you really do learn!

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  7. I can’t call any of my own funny stories to mind, but I certainly have some. I’ve definitely been down the préservatif and Estoy embarazada route . Which gives our companions a laugh, at least.

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      1. You are welcome and you are right, although other than joining a conversational Spanish class at a nearby library precovid, I do not take advantage of my language opportunities like I should.

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