After 15 years of trying to learn to speak Spanish, I had a breakthrough.
“Stop trying to be perfect,” a wise friend told me. “You’ll never speak it perfectly. Get over it.”
My friend was right. I “got over it” and finally became fluent in Spanish.
On my way to Spanish language fluency, I made many mistakes and said a lot of unintentionally hilarious things. But if you’re not able to laugh at your funny language mistakes when you’re learning, then you’ll only be scared into silence – which never got anyone fluent.
So, in that spirit, here are some memorable English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English mistakes, from me and from others. These should make you feel much better the next time you misspeak in your second language.
My first year in Campeche, Mexico, I was always complaining about the heat. The correct way to say this in Spanish is “Odio el calor.” I, however, kept making the verb reflexive: “Me odio.” This means “I hate myself.” Everyone must have thought I had a real self-esteem problem!
I also kept messing up the “o” and “a” sounds in Spanish. I wouldn’t make the “o” sharp enough, which made it sound like the “ah” sound in English. When I said “Tengo hambre” (“I’m hungry”), it came out sounding like “Tengo hombre” (“I have a man”). Which is kind of a random thing to mention over lunch with your co-workers! We all had a laugh and they (thankfully) helped me with pronunciation.
And my very favorite story that my ex-coworkers and I STILL laugh about today: A Mexican teacher was taking me to the beach, and she said, in Spanish, “My grandma gave me a beach house when she passed away.”
I responded, “That’s great!”
I hadn’t learned the verb for “pass away,” so I had only heard that her grandma had given her a fabulous beach house. She thought I was very odd, and because I had mentioned that I’m native American earlier in the conversation, she actually thought this was a cultural reaction (as she didn’t know anything about Native Americans), until a year later we were laughing about it and she finally realized why I had said that. At the time, I was just plain embarrassed, but I couldn’t find the words to explain myself. Think about this when you have misunderstandings with any non-native speaker. There are so many ways to miscommunicate and misculturalate.
And here are some stories from Fluency Corp friends:
“A girl in Spanish class said, ‘Me gusta montar caballeros.’ Caballeros means ‘men’ or ‘gentlemen.’ ‘Caballo,’ which is the word I believe she meant to say, means ‘horses.’ Do you think she meant to tell the class she likes riding gentlemen or horses? We’ll go with the latter.”
“My aunt came here from Mexico in her 40s, and she works at a high school. One day in the halls, she said to some students, ‘Hey, gays!’ She said they gave her some very strange looks. Pronunciation is so hard! I bet next time she said, ‘Hey, guys!’ after that oopsie.”
“My cousin learned that ‘Yes, Ma’am’ is a polite thing to say in English — except when you accidentally say it to dudes! In her mind, it’s polite, and she forgets that it is only for women. Understandable! ‘Ma’am’ sounds like ‘man,’ right?”
“A friend and I were talking about Puerto Rico, and he asked what I thought they ate there. I said ‘mariposas’ (butterflies). I meant to say ‘mariscos’ (seafood/shellfish).”
“A co-worker used to use a different, similar-sounding (but off-color) word when she meant ‘codo’ (elbow). She would tell her patients to ‘dobla el (insert accidental word here).’ Someone finally told her she was telling people to bend their butthole. This had gone on for years. She always wondered why people looked at her funny.”
Um … Congratulations?
“While visiting Spain, a friend of mine was embarrassed about something and shouted out for the whole bar to hear: ‘Estoy muy embarazada! Estoy muy embarazada!’ After that, she felt even more embarrassed. ‘Embarazada ‘means ‘pregnant.’ But it sure as heck SHOULD mean ’embarrassed!’ Darn cognates!”
Mistakes are just part of the process when you’re learning any language. At least they give you some great anecdotes later on. Got a story like the ones we shared today? I’d love to hear it. And if you’d like to improve your Spanish or English skills through one-on-one lessons with native speakers, learn more about Fluency Corp’s practical and fun approach. You can also contact us for a free consultation.