Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mi español es terible, pero mejor

“My Spanish is terrible, but better”

At the sort-of half-way point, I need to talk again about Spanish.  I've mentioned before that one of the biggest challenges is functioning as a normal person in a society that doesn't speak English.  (The actual #1 challenge of this year is being married, but that is a whole ‘nother post/novel.)  My Spanish is much better.  In meetings and in everyday conversations I understand about 60% of what I hear.  When I speak, I suspect that I’m understood about 40%.  My brain often thinks in Spanish (the words I think I know) and I have stopped trying to translate every word into English to understand.  Now, “mesa” is “mesa”.  Not, “mesa” is “table.”  And my English is definitely worse.

I have a Spanish tutor and he is painfully patient with me.  We normally meet three times a week.  I tell him what I did over the weekend (to practice my past tense) and what I plan to do next weekend (to practice my future tense) and now he knows my full life story, family tree, what vegetables I like to eat, my hobbies, and the name of every dog I've owned.  He is making me learn the English equivalent of past perfect participles, past imperfect, imperatives, subjunctives, past indefinite.... blah! and then something called pluscuamperfecto (which I have no idea how to explain because I don't understand it myself).  Any English teacher I've ever had can attest that I don't know this stuff in English, much less Spanish.  It is SO HARD.  Sometimes I love my tutor to death and sometimes I want to punch him in the throat.  I am certain the feeling is mutual.

When communicating with my co-workers, who are eager to learn English, I have to talk very slowly.  And when they speak to me in Spanish, they must also speak slowly.  It's weird how I've learned to do this.
















When I don't, I can tell by the look in their eye that what I said didn't register.  When I speak super slowly, we make progress.  And they do the same for me.  We have found a groove.  

At home, Davis’ Spanish beats us all.  According to everyone that meets him, he has no accent when he speaks and doesn't sound like a foreigner like us – he sounds like a native Peruano.  He is often our translator when we go out and boy does he love it.

My husband’s Spanish is worse than mine, but he tries.  He is from South Carolina and if you know him, you know that his English is also suspect.  I have to translate his English into English for others.

Over the past few months I've had hundreds of “Aha!” Spanish moments and fun interactions, but I thought I’d share three of them with you that represent themes of my day-to-day challenges, or at Heifer, we like to call them opportunities:

1.  I visited a project in Cusco in January (you can read about it here) and normally when Heifer staff from the Lima office or Headquarters office visit projects, they are expected to speak to the group.  I was ready.  I practiced my speech in Spanish and felt so good about what I was going to say and just got all proud....and I delivered it perfectly.  But the reception was still cold.  Like, crickets in the room kind of cold.  I didn't get it.  I looked over at my Heifer co-worker and she whispered gently "They speak Quechua here."  

Freakin' SIGH.

Quechua is one of the indigenous languages in the high Andean region.  The women I was addressing all spoke it and very little Spanish.  So, a project partner translated my perfectly prepared speech into Quechua and then I got a round of applause and warm smiles.  

2.  I’m not funny here and sarcasm and jokes don’t translate.  I think I’m humorous enough in English and can crack a good one here and there, but...  Not here, man.  Some of my best lines fall so flat, nothing but blank faces.  I feel like such an idiot.  I've told my tutor and coworkers a dozen times, "I promise I'm smart in English.  I promise I'm funny."  

Certain phrases that we use all the time in English just don’t translate here. While travelling in Puno with a film maker,  he (jokingly) called one of my co-workers a “sour-puss” and then told me to translate it.  She looked at me (as the English expert in her life) and wanted to know what  a sour-puss was.  Geeeeez.  Break those two words down.  How to explain that?  And I was like, “It’s someone who is real uptight.”  More blank stares.  Uptight?  The more I tried to explain, the deeper the hole I dug.

And finally...

3.  There is a street vendor near my office.  When I get off the bus most mornings I stop here and get a breakfast sandwich of some sort.  For weeks, I would stop and ask nicely “Pan con huevos, por favor?” or “Bread with eggs, please?”  

Or so I thought  

The dude always looked at me funny and I kinda had to fight for service/attention.  I didn’t get it.  What was I doing wrong? Why was he ignoring me?  One day my Spanish tutor and I were walking by the vendor and I stopped.  When I asked “Pan con huevos, por favor?” my tutor choked on his own tongue.  

The difference in pronunciation is small but the meaning is huge:  

'Huevos' is pronounced 'hway-vose'  and it means EGGS.

but I was actually saying....every day for weeks and weeks....

"Pan con huevon"  and 'huevon' is pronounced 'way-vone" and it means BALLS.  

My tutor, ever so gently told me “Don’t say that Jessica.  You’re not asking for bread with eggs.”  

Turns out, I’ve been asking all this time .....  for “bread with balls” – 

and not the soccer ones. 

Alrighty, so here is the only song I know about eggs but it just seems appropriate for some reason - and a Beatles one nonetheless that Davis likes to play air drums to. Performed by someone who is actually funny.  


  1. Kids always pick up on languages better than adults & it's not fair!

    In Spain, my roommate was trying to tell our host mom a funny story about how she was "embarrassed." Well, she said "embarazada." Which means pregnant....haha!

    Todd went on a mission trip & spent the entire trip referring to sins (pecados) as Fish (pescados.)

    Or that time we were preparing for a trip to Honduras at church & our group leader kept saying "tengo 67 anos"--I have 67 anuses, not 67 years.

    It happens to the best of us!

    I still have painful memories of trying to get across to my host mother in Spain that I was intelligent & funny in English, it's a hard message to get across when you're learning a new language. It can feel kind of isolating.

    Just wait until you get home, your mind is going to explode at having to relearn English. It's a crazy, crazy experience!


  2. HILARIOUS!!!! Thank you for sharing!!!!

  3. I am laughing so hard at your bread with balls! So funny!