Imagine the scene. 22-year-old Eileen is standing in the San José, Costa Rica airport, minutes from missing her flight. She has actually almost missed a flight before on this trip through Central America, from Guatemala City to Tikal (Flores airport), whereupon she ran up the gangway and actually knocked on the closed aircraft door to get on the plane. Thus, she is already on guard to the potential of missing another flight. The airline check-in person has decided to speak to her in English, which admittedly, is better than her Spanish, at least in terms of airport vocabulary.
“Do I need to pay some kind of exit tax?” she asks.
“Late,” he says.
“Yes, I know I am late, I am worried about missing the plane. Should I go pay the exit tax now?”
“I know, I’m just about to miss the plane, what can I do?”
In a panic, ready to miss the flight and sob big tears of frustration, it suddenly occurs to her that they are not actually speaking the same language.
“Are you saying that I am “tarde,” or this is something I can do “más tarde?” The difference is slight. Tarde is late, while más tarde is later.
“That’s what I said,” he said. “Late.”
“No…” she said. You mean “later,” as in “not now.” “Late” means atrasado, as in I’m going to miss something.
It’s common in English that a couple of letters make a big difference between related words. Late vs. later. Alone vs. lonely. Interesting vs. interested. As an ESL, and later EFL teacher, I developed elaborate pantomimes and stories to show the difference. Don’t even get me started on the difference between fun and funny. Okay, fine, get me started. Riding a roller coaster is fun. Dogs in hats are funny. One is pleasant, the other one makes you laugh.
Of course, Spanish has the same property, of being just as specific as English is. It’s not the same to estar aburrido (be bored) as ser aburrido (be boring), for example. I try to be patient with myself, and with others, as we go along. Also, I recognize that I am not as much of an authority on Spanish as I am on English.
But there is one gringo mistake that has been driving me to distraction lately, and it focuses on enseguida/seguido. Seguir means “to follow.” Enseguida means “right now,” while seguido means “all the time.”
So when someone says, “Mi amigo va enseguida,” it means “my friend is going right away,” vs. when they say, “mi amigo va seguido,” which means “my friend goes all the time.” This happened to me recently, a friend said her friend was going “enseguida” when she meant “seguido,” and I was like, “oh, should I go say goodbye?,” because I thought her friend was going someplace else. He was not going someplace else. He goes frequently. See the problem?
For some reason, though I can muddle my way through a veritable word salad in English, in Spanish, I literally cannot parse this mistake on first listen and I often legitimately misunderstand the enseguida/seguido misuse, though this is growing less as I have become more aware of it.
And for some other reason, though I can smilingly correct people’s English (if they want me to), in texts with adorable emojis and parentheses, there is no amount of nice I can apply to the situation of correcting another foreigner’s Spanish. It always comes off as snarky and condescending (which by the say, is not what condescendiente means in Spanish). And since there is apparently a freeze on foreigners correcting other foreigners, I am left to a) cringe every time I hear the use of “enseguida” to mean “seguido,” b) misunderstand the sentence and c) wonder if the Spanish speakers understand what the foreigner is trying to say.
On the other hand, maybe there is a high native language tolerance to these kinds of mistakes. Or at least, a high Spanish language speaker tolerance. After all, this is a country (along with some others in South America) that has decided to reconfigure the meaning of the expression “de repente,” which I was taught means “suddenly” to mean instead, “perhaps,” or “possibly.” The first time I heard this was at a friend’s house. “De repente podemos ver una peli” he said, which sounded to me like, “we could watch a movie all of a sudden,” as though a screen might drop down right then and there, and the lights could dim. What the person actually said was, “perhaps we could watch a movie.” Which makes more sense, movies not being something that tend to happen to one all of a sudden. In the end, it was Requiem for a Dream, which, sudden or not is damned disturbing.
Also, I want to be understanding, because, as the photo above intimates, “it’s tough.” It is not easy to learn a second language, to spend much of your days in a tongue that is not quite your own, and to possibly make a mistake every single time you open your mouth. I’m sure I make mistakes all the time as well. In fact, writing this piece has made me wonder which of these kinds of mistakes I make all the time, and how many people’s teeth I am setting on edge sin querer (without meaning to).
De repente lo hago seguido. “Perhaps I do it frequently.” Or, depending on how you read it, “suddenly I do it all the time.”