At one point in my career, the mission director asked me if I would consider serving in Japan. We knew each other well enough for him not to take offense at my answer.
“Are you kidding? I had enough trouble learning Spanish. I could never manage Japanese even in my wildest dreams — and Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn.”
There were plenty of times in the painful process of language learning that I despaired of ever being able to communicate. If I had a dime for every mistake I’ve made in speaking, or writing Spanish, the taxman would be laughing all the way to the government vaults.
However, I’m not alone in my tales of language faux pas.
One of the first stories I was told in language school centered on a foreign missionary who was waxing eloquent in Spanish during a Sunday morning service. He was preaching on the evils of sin. Naturally, that word came up often in the course of the sermon. So engrossed was he in his message that he was completely unaware that the audience was not only paying attention, but was trying very hard to keep their collective faces straight. When the missionary quoted Romans 6:23, they simply burst out laughing.
You see the word in Spanish for "sin" is pecado. The word for "fish;" pescado, is very similar. Fishing, and fish, took a terrific beating that Sunday morning.
Worse yet, was that awful moment when a missionary preacher (a different one, I hope) thought he was inviting the congregation to pray. The word for "pray" is orar, the word for what you do when you desperately need to go to the bathroom, is orinar. You can imagine what the response to that invitation was.
Most of the time, mistakes in language don’t have such humiliating results. I have trouble rolling the “r” in some words. I have learned to avoid referring to Los Chorros (the river rapids) when I am asking friends about their relatives who live there. When I don’t “roll,” I end up asking about the family members who live “among thieves.” Oh, what a difference an “r” makes. It’s a good thing that they are my friends and are very understanding about my language lapses.
It seems like the little things are those most likely to trip up language learners. In those early days of struggle as students, we were always tired. The stress of language learning was exhausting. However, we also learned to be very careful when telling people how tired we really were. When I said, Estoy tan cansada, everyone understood that I was very tired. But, with one slip of the tongue, I have just as easily said, Estoy tan casada or, “I am SO married.”
If I could speak Spanish without using verbs, I’d be extremely happy. Even after so many years working in the language, some tenses still defy me. In the beginning, a language learner is tempted to translate English thoughts directly into Spanish and hope for the best. However, you can’t say, “I am hungry” by direct translation, at least not if you don’t want people to look at you as though you were some kind of ignorant language student. In Spanish, the equivalent to the English comes out as, “I have hunger.” The same rule applies for being thirsty, being cold, and being hot. Mind you, if you did happen to say yo soy caliente instead of tengo calor, you’ll probably get lots of invitations issued by strange men (or women) to do things that you might not want to share with your mother, or in my case, with your mission director.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve referred to a woman as a man, or a man as a woman because I didn’t think fast enough before adding the appropriate gender specific ending to a word. Thankfully, doing it correctly is mostly automatic now. By the time I retire from overseas service, I’ll speak Spanish like a native and will never have to go looking for a hole to crawl into because of some language mistake I’ve made. How wonderful it will be not to ever have such a mortifying conversation as this one:
“I am so embarrassed!
“Oh, I’m delighted for you. When do you expect the baby?”*
*I used the word embarazada, which means "pregnant" in Spanish, when I should have used the word apenada.
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