There are real pros and cons to speaking another language. The pros are much talked about, but let’s get serious. Speaking (or attempting to speak) another language leaves you wide (I mean WIDE) open for riduclosity (I know that’s not a word–but it helps make my point!)
Let me say that I’m no novice at Spanish. I feel pretty comfortable with it about 98% of the time–and fortunately, I have quite a high “laugh at myself” tolerance that covers the other 2%.
My I-can’t-believe-I-just-said-that moments predate my Chile years, and in fact I have a very clear memory of the first time I embarrassed myself in Spanish. I was in a bar on a hot summer night and was about to order a glass of wine. I noticed that the cute bartender was adding ice to the drinks. I knew he spoke Spanish, so I thought I’d get his attention by asking for “vino sin helado.” Oops. Got his attention alright! He looked at me funny (a look I would come to know quite well, it turns out) “You don’t want ice cream in your wine??” he asked (in far better English than my faulty Spanish). Oops… Yeah, right. Slink away and stick to English, okay?
But no. I’m stubborn that way. Kept studying. Came to Chile and started embarrassing myself big-time here. Stayed with a woman 20 years older than me who used to get the silly-giggles over the dumb stuff I could come up with. Oh those torturous Sunday afternoons with the extended family when they would all sit properly on overstuffed sofas (and I tend to topple over), sipping tea, while they chuckled and begged me to “Say it again!” and chuckled some more. I swore I’d never do that to another 3-year-old again. But I took it all in stride. I’m perfectly capable of laughing at myself–and am convinced that that has been my secret weapon for making a go of it here in Chile.
One of my most embarrassing moments actually occurred some six months after the fact. I first came in 1991, with appallingly little real command of the language, despite high marks in high school and college Spanish courses (OJO Chilenos: ¡el “college” no es colegio, sino la universidad, po! pero eso es otro tema...). I was here to learn Spanish and scope out the territory for future graduate-level field work in anthropology. I got up the nerve to go to the Agrupación de los Familiares de los Detenidos Desaparecidos to interview the women of the Conjunto Folklórico. I knew how to ask my questions, but because my Spanish was so precarious, I didn’t always understand the answers, so I recorded everything. As long as I followed the general idea, I just let it roll and planned to transcribe the tapes later (an excellent learning tool, btw).
Months later, sitting at my computer transcribing, I hear–much to my horror–the following… I’m interviewing Gala, the sister of a desaparecido (disappeared one), and I understand enough to know her story is heart-wrenching. The topic turned to support from abroad and I wanted to know the forms that that support took, so I asked what I thought was a pretty straight-forward question: “¿Cómo les soportan?“
I remember clearly that she stopped short, cocked her head, thought for a moment, let a wry smile creep across her face, and then went on to tell me about the forms of support they received from around the world.
Fast-forward three months and a giant leap in language skills, and OH MY GOD! I realized that what I had REALLY asked was “How do they stand you?” I have atoned for and begged forgiveness a million times for this linguistic faux pax!! But she answered with such take-it-in-stride grace that I realized just how much experience she had with well-intentioned foreigners. Ella me cachó–she knew what I meant.
There have been many linguistic blunders over the years (no pain, no gain, right?). But it seems there is no end in sight… I did it again today. When the doctor asked what medications I took, I told him “neopren.” He must have been on Gala’s wavelength, because just he cocked his head just so and looked at me quizzically (that look that I have long since learned to respond with “QUICK! What have I said NOW?”) until I caught on and back-peddled on the glue-sniffing bit. “Oops,” I corrected, ” wait, no, I don’t sniff glue! but I do take a medication with a similar sounding name. He chuckled and noted the correct medication…and I bet the incident made dinner conversation at his house tonight as well as at mine.
So–I’ve fessed up (at least in part), how about YOU?
Aw…. Come on now… I know you’ve got some bloopers to share!! Come clean! Please help me feel better by sharing some of your own foreign-language sillinesses!
Call for Group Post:
Clare (of Musings from Inside Outside & Underneath) and I decided that this was definitely group-post worthy! She’s kicked the ball and got it rolling–now how about you? Write a post about your foreign language blunders on your own blog, link to this post and then leave me your link in the comments.
Clare, on when a frog is not a frog: I should be embarrassed… but I don’t understand