So two fellow exchange students and I were wandering around San José. There were a few groups of what looked like high school students scattered around the park. To our surprise, a couple of groups asked to take pictures with us. Turns out they were all on a scavenger hunt for their English class, and it was worth points to take pictures with a gringo. Bonus if there was more than one gringo. We felt pretty popular.
Anyway, usually when I say something wrong in Spanish, it’s because there’s a word I’m struggling to find, or I have to be imprecise because I don’t have the vocabulary for exactly what I want to say. On the other hand, there are times I am completely confident in what I am saying and don’t understand why people start laughing until I realize I’ve said the wrong thing entirely.
The first time this happened, my Spanish was in its infancy. It was my first semester of Spanish and I could say little more than, “¿Hola, como estás?” One day, I was at a bookstore with a friend, an exchange student from Mexico. I decided to show off my newly acquired vocabulary, so I pointed at a book with a bloody face on it and said, “Tengo miedo… (I’m scared…).” My friend looked at me in surprise and started laughing when she realized what I had said was not actually what I meant. In reality, I had said “Tengo mierda,” which means something different entirely. I didn’t know the word at the time, since they don’t usually teach that in class, but I guess it’s something I unconsciously learned from years of being around Hispanic friends and strangers. So yeah, that’s how I learned my first curse word.
I managed to make it through two entire semesters without incident, but then in my fourth semester of Spanish (might have been my third… heck if I know), it happened again. We were in pairs describing our dream house to each other. The professor asked for a volunteer to tell the class about her partner’s house. I was feeling pretty confident and pulling for that participation grade, so I volunteered. I started by saying that my partner wanted a big house because she wanted to have a lot of men, confusing “niños” with “chicos.” The professor’s eyebrows lifted and the class started laughing as my partner vehemently denied that she had said any such thing. I don’t remember if she ever chose to be my partner again…
Here in Costa Rica, I meet with Ticos every week for a language exchange. One afternoon, my amigo and I were speaking Spanish, and he asked me what I usually eat for breakfast here. This is how the conversation went from my perspective:
“My mamá tica makes these fantastic quesadillas on corn tortillas with fried egg, cheese, ham, and tomato sauce.”
“Ham? Are you sure?”
“Yeah! It’s delicious.”
(Is this weird? I can think of stranger things the people here eat…)
He started laughing and informed me that I had crossed the fine line between ham and soap. There’s only a difference of one letter in Spanish (“jamón” and “jabón”). I made some joke about liking to keep my mouth clean and we moved on.
The next incident happened in the same conversation when I informed him that although it varies, you could probably find a good apartment for one person in Denton for about seventy thousand dollars a month. Numbers are hard, ya’ll.
Yesterday, my mamá tica told me I don’t say “todos” correctly. “Renee, it’s ‘todos,’ not ‘todos.'” I asked her to repeat that sentence three times before I caught the difference. Turns out there’s a glaringly obvious (or almost nonexistent, depending on if you’re tico or gringo) distinction between the “r” and “d” sounds. I glanced at my tico uncle and he put fingers on his head to imitate horns. “Toro” means bull. So for the past however-many-weeks-I’ve-been-here-I’ve-finally-lost-count, instead of saying “all the exchange students” or whatever, I’ve been saying “bulls the exchange students.”
The more you know.