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.”
I had no idea about “de repent” being “perhaps,” and I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to “seguida” vs. “enseguida.” Thanks for the enlightenment.
well, you’re mostly living in English these days, so maybe not so important. I love reading your observations, and glad to see people help out when you need a hand over (up) there! Hope you are doing well!!!
Ay niña si te contara 🙂
You have no idea how much I agree with you! After living in four different countries with four different languages (only one of which is my native), I can tell you that no matter how long you speak a new language you will never be a native.
Either it is because you speak the language in its purest form without any kind of local variations. It has happened to me all the time, in Belgium my french was too much from the south of France, in the US my english was too east coast for Washington, and in Norway… In this little country there are two versions of norwegian: bokmaal (the language of the books, derived from danish colonial times) and nynorsk (weirdly called new norwegian when in fact it is the language that normal people has spoken for generations on the west side of the country). In addition, there are dialects. Well, when learning norwegian I learned bokmaal and I spoke bokmaal and people made fun pæof me because I sounded like a teacher. My wife has learned me her dialect but I’m not there yet. Given that I learned the pure version of norwegian, my ears catch all the small variations that make up dialects. And I have to remind me not to correct people because that is the way they talk.
The opposite is also true. Specially when I try to translate expressions. Sometimes metaphors don’t quite translate to other languages.
So, I’m with you. It is not easy to speak a second language 🙂
you’ve got a rough road there, Carlos. I’ve got it pretty easy, with only English and Spanish. I don’t speak pure Chilean, probably never will. It’s my own special mix of what I’ve learned and read and heard. There are ways people speak that I incorporate, and those I don’t or can’t. It’s just the way it goes. My people understand me. Like you understand me! Hope you and family are well! What languages do you speak to your child in?
Well, I try to speak spanish with my kids all the time. It is not as easy as it sounds though, sometimes I have to talk to several kids at once and on those occassions I switch to norwegian. Luckily my kids have learned spanish and are capable of communicating with my parents (well my 3 yrs old, the other one is 1 yr old and he just mumbles words).
Now I realize how much norwegian has affected me. I wrote “learned me her dialect” when I should have written “taught me her dialect”. I have to pay more attention I guess 🙂
That’s actually a common feature of some English dialects. I didn’t even blink!!! My friends do what you do here with Spanish and English, English to their child, but if there are more people around, she will switch to Spanish.
Haha, this was fun to read and very relatable! As my French teacher would try and remind me, better to say it wrong than to say nothing – it’s the only way you’ll improve at language learning!
It totally is. The silent period can only take you so far, and in the end, you’ll never get better if you don’t try. Thanks for popping in!