One of the things that always astonishes – and depresses – me about long-term expats here in Spain is how many of them have a grasp of Spanish somewhere between weak and non-existent. This might be because they haven’t been here long, or only stay for short periods, or because they’re studying but are finding it a struggle. But there are plenty who just never bother, aren’t interested, because they live in an expat ghetto and only ever interact with other English people – at the pub, restaurant, cafe, social occasions. What’s the point of living in a country if you can’t interact with its natives?
I guess it’s a matter of personal taste, but that was never the expat experience I was after. While I can’t boast a huge army of Spanish bosom buddies with whom (on whom?) to practise, and thereby improve and expand, my linguistic skills, my Spanish is decent; my accent, however, is not. When I first arrived, I already had a reasonable level; however, that didn’t stop me from getting in a pickle, and making an arse of myself on regular occasions.
Here are some of the stupid mistakes I made early on in my nine years here in Seville, which I hope will serve to a) entertain, and b) inform. Some are similar words which are easily confused, while others are so-called “false friends” – misleading words which resemble those of another language – in this case, English – while having a different meaning. They hold out the hand of friendship to you, and then cruelly snatch it away, laughing at your pain and confusion.
For many years, I was confused by the idea of a control on the motorway – how can they control my car? Using some scary super-high-tech remote sensor? But no – it’s a check, as in speed/alcohol motorway check.
As many women will have found out to their cost, embarazada does not mean doing something a bit silly which makes you blush; it means up the duff.
I also found it illogical (captain) and deeply muddling that subir means to go up, when sub is down – submarine, submerge, subnormal
One that I still haven’t got my head round is hemeroteca , which means archive – I cannot quite accept that it is not in any way connected to “homoerotic”. But maybe that says more about me.
It’s also muddling that esperar means hope, wait and expect – that’s a fairly broad net to be spreading. “I´m hoping to see you,”, “I’m waiting to see you”, and “I’m expecting to see you” – think of the room for misunderstanding.
I used to regularly order “un vaso de agua de grifa” – “a glass of spliff water”, while my now-husband died quietly of embarrassment. Grifa=jazz cigarette, grifo=tap.
As someone who writes about hotels, I’m incapable of walking (or driving, come to that) past an interesting-looking one without stopping, going inside for a nose around, and asking for a brochure. The look on the receptionist’s face (especially if it was a man) used to be a picture, as I merrily asked, “Me das un follete?” “Can I have a fuck?” Other half wasn’t too thrilled with that one, either. Follete=fuck, folleton = leaflet.
I have to admit that this isn’t mine, but it’s too good to pass up. A fellow Sevillana expat was visiting a family in Ecuador, and they were deciding which of their chickens to kill for dinner. As they chased the unfortunate bird to prepare it for the pot, my friend lamented “pobrecito polla”. She was confused as to why the family were helpless with mirth. Polla=male sex organ, pollo=chicken.
What confusions and embarrassments have you suffered while learning another language? Especially, though not only, Spanish?