I would like to talk a little about the Spanish language.
As I’ve mentioned before, I consider it an obligation to make at least some effort to learn the local language of whatever country you are in, especially if you plan to stay there awhile and do some sort of work. But that doesn’t mean just looking up words in a dictionary or running through some levels in Duolingo. It pays to pay attention to dialect, and understand the nuances and variation of any language. I know it’s hard, but it’s important.
I started studying Spanish in middle school and continued into high school, but the “classroom” Spanish we learned didn’t do much good during my travels in Central America. Part of it was that we were obnoxious teenagers who retained information the way a raincoat retains water. But part of it was that what were taught was traditional formal Spanish that eschewed any sort of slang or idioms that most people use to communicate. And another part was that our teacher, text books, and curriculum were all based on Mexican Spanish exclusively.
That would have been extremely nice to know! Not that there is anything wrong with Mexican Spanish, and it makes sense to teach that to American students, but it is severely limiting to not know that the language you are learning is not as universal as you think! Imagine learning American English and then traveling to Scotland. Or New Zealand.
One embarrassing moment comes to mind: I helped facilitate a tour of a Costa Rican coffee farm to a bunch of Mexican schoolkids. The farmer demonstrated a tool they use, a kind of cut-off machete they call a “chinga.” However, chinga, in Mexico, is the equivalent of the expletive “fuck.” The teacher was mortified. The kids were delighted. “You must use the chinga with both hands,” the farmer told them, unaware. “And push–it–down–deep, like so.”
That was a language discrepancy between two Spanish speakers! And now you can can see the issue when it comes to learning the language altogether. So I can understand the hesitation and reticence to even make the attempt.
Learning and practicing a new language inevitably involves a stage of embarrassment and humiliation. Or several stages. You will sound like an imbecile. You will literally speak like a child. And as your frustrated adult mind struggles to enunciate with limited vocabulary, you will at some point make a mistake and say something nonsensical. Or offensive. Or hilarious.
Another story: One trip, one of the girls was getting a lot of unwanted attention from local men. We tried to teach her to say, “Dejame en paz” or “leave me alone” (literally, “leave me in peace”). To the next guy, she said, “dejame un pez” or “leave me a fish” (literally, “leave me a fish”). However, the guy was so confused that he left, so I guess it worked after all.
Every second language learner has these stories. It is a universally understood process, painful but necessary. All we can do is empathize and laugh about it later. So in the interest of comradery and comedy, I hereby offer my Most Embarrassing Spanish Story, which I partly blame on differences between Spanish dialects and use of slang.
In Puerto Rico, I lived in a field station for a while with a bunch of forestry researchers from various backgrounds. At one dinner, not long after I’d just arrived, a cockroach ran up my leg. I jumped up and said, “I have a bicho in my pants!” using the Costa Rican term “bicho” which is the equivalent of “bug.”
However, in Puerto Rico the word “bicho” is a fairly vulgar term for “penis.” It’s pretty profane, and normally just used as an expletive. Which means I had just announced to a table full of strangers that I had a dick in my pants, thrust one hand down there, and stomped off to the bathroom muttering something about having to deal with it. I didn’t learn about this until days later, when some coworkers explained the difference. I was mortified. They were delighted.