Slang in a Second Language

I’d like to say I’m fluent in Spanish. I guess it depends on how you define fluent. I can make myself understood. I can usually understand. I couldn’t explain the inner workings of a jet engine to you, but I couldn’t do that in English, either. I’m missing a lot of specialized vocabulary. I would struggle with legal jargon, for example. Over the years, I have gotten lazy and relied on Google Translate a bit more than I probably should. But, yeah, I can read books and watch movies and chit chat, for the most part.

But one thing I have always studiously avoided was learning slang. First of all, there are a lot of Spanish speaking countries out there, and each has its own slang. Second, slang, by it’s very definition, is time sensitive, and there’s nothing cheesier than someone using slang that’s outmoded, Daddy-o. I have no access to that cultural calendar that seems so instinctual in one’s first language, at least if you’re in with the in crowd.

Also, a lot of slang is based on cultural references that I’m not privy to. And slang often has its place in certain groups, but not in others. For example, there are things you’d say to your friends that you’d never say to grandma. Determining the appropriate audience for slang is a challenge in English. I doubt I’d be able to cope in a second language.

So my advice to anyone learning a second language is to avoid slang at all costs. It’s just too risky. You could offend someone without intending to. You may want to look cool, but you have an even better chance of looking like a fool. It never hurts to proceed with caution.

dictionary-slang
I bet this was out of date even before it got published.

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My Short Stint as a Tour Guide

The summer of my 19th year, I got a job at a unique travel agency in Orlando called BTM Travel. At the time, it worked mainly with travel agencies in Latin America. They’d book groups to come to Orlando, and BTM would do things like pick them up at the airport, and give guided tours of the major theme parks such as Disney World, to help bridge the language gap.

It was a fun place to work as no two groups were the same, and their interests would vary dramatically. I was a reservations agent, and I mostly worked in the office, helping to coordinate these tours and assign tour guides to them. We used to joke that BTM stood for “Bad Tempered Mexicans”, but I loved it there.

One day, when business was booming, they had a tour guide shortage, so I was asked to do an airport pickup. I felt a bit of panic at this because at 19, I’d only had my driver’s license for a year or two, and now all of a sudden I was being asked to drive what looked to me to be the world’s most enormous 8 passenger van.

To make matters worse, I was also painfully shy and my Spanish skills at the time were rudimentary at best. I had no idea what I would say to these people while trying not to get us all killed. Oh, and did I mention this was way before GPS or cell phones, and I wasn’t very familiar with the Orlando area? Talk about flying solo.

By some miracle I made it to the airport and managed to find my party. It was a large family from South America, and they were very excited to be in the US for the first time. It must have been a long flight for them, and I was their first impression.

So off we went in my ginormous van, with me doing my best to project lighthearted confidence, even though I didn’t know where the heck I was going, and couldn’t understand half of what they were saying. I smiled a lot, and nodded.

At one point, for reasons I still cannot explain, I wound up driving us through the parking lot of a huge industrial complex. My mortification grew with every speed bump we went over. I kind of laughed nervously and told them it was a shortcut. But I’m sure they didn’t buy that when we exited by the same road that we entered.

When we finally made it to the office, they all smiled weakly at me and seemed to be relieved to be on solid ground once again. No tip was forthcoming.  I was never asked to play tour guide again. I don’t know who was more relieved, me or the tired tourists who got the guided tour of some random parking lot.

Those who can, do.

Parking Lot

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Exploring Seattle – El Camión

Well, I’m rather pleased with myself. I think I may have discovered Seattle’s best kept secret—something most tourists will never experience. It’s called El Camión, which is Spanish for “the truck” and that’s exactly what it is. They have three food trucks in the Seattle area, plus one restaurant location, and they all serve authentic Mexican cuisine.

I’ve driven by this place for ages, but never stopped. I mean… it’s a food truck. But I have to admit it’s a food truck with a freakin’ long line every day. That many customers can’t be wrong. So the other day I stopped by on pure impulse.

Standing in line brought me back to my study abroad days in Mexico. I’d say 75 percent of the people there were speaking Spanish, and I was thrilled that I still understood them. I was wondering how I was going to pull this off, because I didn’t see a menu anywhere, but then the person in line ahead of me passed their one laminated copy back to me. Huge relief. It also added a sort of, “We’re all in this together” atmosphere, and when I was done with the menu I passed it on to the person behind me.

There was a lot to choose from. The guy in front of me ordered two tongue tacos, but I didn’t have the courage for that. But knowing I’d probably be blogging about this place, I wanted to order a bit of a variety so I could speak with some authority. (That’s the excuse I’ll use, anyway.)

The prices were certainly right. I got a fish taco for $2.50 and it is the first fish taco in the history of the world that didn’t give me Montezuma’s revenge and several hours of regrets. I also got the cheesiest of quesadillas with carne asada (beef) for $6.75, and a burrito with carnita (pork) for $6.85. Believe me when I tell you that the burrito would have been more than enough. It was about the size of my forearm, and felt like it weighed about 3 pounds. I had plenty of food left over for a full meal the following day. But every bit of it was delicious.

So today, for the first time, I sort of feel like a Seattle insider, and it’s a great feeling. I’ve arrived! Oh, and I’ll be back. Count on it.

[Image credit: elcamionseattle.com]
[Image credit: elcamionseattle.com]

Spanish Proverbs

One of the things I love most about the Spanish language, and one of the reasons I chose to learn it, is that it is full of wise sayings. There is no exact translation for some of them, and that’s a pity, because a lot of them are gems. We can learn a great deal from Spaniards who bristle with platitudes. Here are a few of my favorites, which I’ve translated as best I could.

  • Mejor perder un minuto de la vida que la vida en un minuto. – It’s better to lose a minute of your life than your life in a minute. (In other words, patience is a virtue.)
  • Cada martes tiene su domingo. – Literally, every Tuesday has its Sunday. (In other words, every dog has its day.)
  • Lo comido es lo seguro. – The thing you’ve eaten is the sure thing. (In other words, you can only count on the food that’s already in your stomach.)
  • En tiempos de guerra, calquier hoyo es trinchera. – In times of war, any hole is a trench. (In other words, any port in a storm.)
  • Mucho ruido y pocas nueces. – A lot of noise, and few nuts. (In other words, much ado about nothing.)
  • Entre bueyes no hay cornadas. – Between oxen there are no horns. (Hard to say this one. Basically, you can trust those you have something in common with.)
  • Un paso a la vez. – One step at a time. (Exactly as in English, but it just sounds so much cooler in Spanish!)

That cultural tendency to want to share wisdom is one of the things I love most about Spain! There are tons of Spanish Proverb sites on the web. Check ’em out. You might learn something.

proverb

[Image credit: dondrummstudios.com]

Convivencia

There was a period in Spanish history between the beginning of the eighth century and the end of the fifteenth century known as the Convivencia, which, roughly translated, means the time of living together, when the Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in relative peace. Not to say that Spain hasn’t had a past checkered with as much violence and intolerance as any other country, but there was that enlightened period, at least in the southern part of the country, and that has always appealed to me.

I try really hard to live in Convivencia, not just in terms of tolerating other religions, but other philosophies and lifestyles as well. One of the most beautiful things about being well traveled is that you learn that your way isn’t the only way, and it may not even be the best way. Once you realize that, you become a lot more open minded.

I have never understood people who use the term “politically correct” as if it were an epithet. They assume that that tendency must be insincere and false. That speaks volumes about them. It really is possible to accept diversity without being disingenuous about it. It might take effort sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be unnatural. It may not be your custom to fast during Ramadan, for example, but how hard is it not to eat in front of someone you know is fasting? It’s common courtesy and it shows that you have the maturity to be aware of those around you.

I’m always befuddled by people who get angry every year when someone says Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Why is it so unpalatable to them that you want to include everyone in your well wishes? I personally appreciate any well wishes that come my way.

For that same reason, I don’t get people who oppose gay marriage. What they are basically saying is that they don’t want “those people” to have a chance at the same happiness that they have. That makes no sense to me. Why do they care?

The tendency to embrace the wider world is much more positive than practicing a xenophobia that not only limits you, but pours the acid of hatred on your very soul. Allowing for other points of view can only increase your emotional intelligence and open you up to a broader range of experiences. Try it. You might learn something.

tolerance

Remembering Dave

I used to work with a guy named Dave. When you work on a bridge that requires multiple bridgetenders and you are stuck in a small room with someone for 8 hours at a stretch, you get to know them pretty well. When you don’t get along, it can be pure hell. When you do, as I did with Dave, it can be a pleasure.

Dave impressed me right from the start. He was always kind, courteous, and had an easy smile. (Those qualities can be rare in a bridgetender. It is easy for us to become grumpy old trolls, so I’ve often thought that that myth, at least, was based on fact.) But what really fascinated me about Dave was that when we first met, he was teaching himself Spanish. Just because. Since Spanish is my second language, he often had questions for me.

Having seen this before, I assumed it would be a passing fancy, and that he’d quickly move on to other pursuits. No. Dave studied Spanish for about a year and a half, entirely self-motivated, and for the pure pleasure of it. I have never seen such determination, focus, or drive before or since. I kind of had a mini don’t-think-about-it-too-much-because-he’s-a-coworker-for-crying-out-loud crush on him because of this. Oh, and he was nice looking, too.

And then (and my apologies to Dave’s memory if I get any of the facts wrong here) his mother died. And then a week later his girlfriend died quite unexpectedly. And a week after that his dog died. Overnight, Dave seemed to age about 20 years. He even looked like he had shrunk. It was heartbreaking to witness.

Despite the over-arching sadness that seemed to permeate his existence after all of this, he never lost his dignity. He still was courteous and he would still grace you with his ready smile. He still liked to listen to other people and cared about their lives. That, too, impressed me. He could have become self-absorbed and insular and completely focused on his own misery, but that wasn’t the path that he chose to take.

About a year after that, Dave discovered that his brother had terminal cancer, so he quit his job and moved to Texas to care for him in his last days. That’s the kind of upstanding guy he was. That’s what you do for family.

Dave and I kind of lost touch after that, but he would occasionally call the bridge and say hello. I’d get updates from coworkers and sometimes even get to talk to him myself. He always made me smile. The last I had heard, he’d gotten married. Although that popped my fragile little crush like the soap bubble it always was, I have to say it made me admire him all the more. Dave was all about embracing life in spite of having more than his fair share of adversity.

And then the other day, quite by accident, I heard that Dave had passed away. Brain Cancer. Just like that. Just. Like. That.

I’ll always remember him looking down at me from the catwalk, all angles and smiles and tanned skin, as I walked up the bridge. Most of the world has no idea what it has lost, but it has lost much.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

sunset bridge

Sunset from the bridge where I worked with Dave.

I Just Love a Good Glottal Stop

I was just listening to a friend who hails from Essex, England. What was he talking about? I have no idea. Oh, I could understand him. It’s just that I was so mesmerized by the sound of his voice that I really wasn’t focusing on the content of his commentary. He could read the phone book and I would sit happily entranced at his feet. You see, I love a good glottal stop.

A glottal stop is that sort of hiccup people use in the middle of a word, like when you say uh-oh. For example, my friend doesn’t say “butter”. He says “BU-er”. Delicious.

I think glottal stops make a savory stew out of a language that would otherwise be a bland broth. It just adds a certain something that draws you in. And dozens of languages use them.

I also love that click consonant that several African languages use. Sadly they are starting to disappear. That breaks my heart because they’re delightful.

Oh, who am I kidding? I love accents and dialects of every stripe. I can spot a Dutch accent from 50 paces, and it always brings me back to the wonderful summer I spent in Holland. Indian accents make me think of the delectable smells and tastes and rich colors of that country. If you whisper in my ear with a Spanish accent, you have me at hola.

The tonal languages of Asia fascinate me as well, although I’d be afraid to attempt one. I don’t have the ear for such things. I can’t even tune a guitar.

I can’t imagine living a life that is isolated from all the scrumptious differences that this world has to offer. I want to dive into your voice and just bathe there for a while. Would you mind?

Xenophobes don’t know what they’re missing.

hawaiian_proverb_by_kanani

Hawaiians have the glottal stop down to a science.

Language Barriers

When I was around 14 I rode the bus to school every day with a bunch of kids from migrant worker families. I was the only one on the bus who didn’t speak Spanish. It drove me crazy and they knew it. They’d say something, look over at me, and laugh. I hated being left out of the conversation. I despised the idea that I might be missing something important, which is part of the reason I majored in Spanish and Latin American Studies the first time I went to college, thus inadvertently starting down my lifelong path of pursuing useless degrees. But hey, at least now I can listen in on the conversations of a much larger portion of the population of the world, so that’s good, right?

I spent the summer after my freshman year in college in the Netherlands with my sister, who was stationed there in the Air Force. We’d go to restaurants and people would of course be speaking Dutch all around us, and once again I was completely at a loss. I spent that three months highly frustrated. But when I came home and went to restaurants, I discovered something quite interesting while eaves dropping on people’s dinner conversations: Most people have absolutely nothing interesting to say. In fact, my hyper-focus on the conversations of total strangers in subsequent weeks made me realize that I was actually better off when I didn’t understand what people were saying.

After that, during my many trips to other countries I relaxed a little and actually enjoyed the challenge of getting my point across without being fluent in the native tongue. Inability to speak makes the connections that you do manage to form all that more poignant. (Except, maybe, in France, where they take that stuff very seriously. I was once cursed out in French when I accidentally broke something at a bed and breakfast. When I asked a woman what the lady had said, she said, “You don’t want to know.”)

During my trips to the western United States, I delight in tuning my radio to KTNN, the Navajo radio station. Much to the irritation of my fellow passengers, when not playing music, the announcers on this station can ramble on for hours in Navajo, punctuating every few phrases with something that sounds like “Aye-doo-di-Ah-Jay” to me. I find that listening to a conversation in which I don’t really have to pay attention to be a massive relief. I can just be hypnotized by the sounds and the emotions I perceive behind them and let my thoughts wander.

But I also learned another very good lesson while studying abroad in Mexico. I walked up to an American friend of mine who was talking to one of the most gorgeous men I’d ever seen in my life, and I said to her, in English, something to the effect of, “My God, but he’s hot. If he were looking at me right now the way he’s looking at you, I’d probably melt into a big old greasy puddle.” He turned to me and said, “Oh, you would, would you?” The 18 year old me wanted to die right on the spot. Turns out he grew up in California. To my chagrin, he didn’t ever take a liking to me.

You never know when barriers are going to be breached, but when they aren’t, you never know if you might not just be better off.

Language_Barrier_

[Image credit: zengardner.com]

Have we Overstayed our Welcome?

Aw, jeez, I need to stop surfing the internet. I just came across a website called Recent Natural Disasters, and it gives you all the reported disasters all over the world, 24 hours a day. I have a hard enough time avoiding my tendency to anthropomorphize nature, especially when it seems as though the planet is becoming more and more pissed off.

Typhoon Haiyan has certainly displaced thousands of people, but it’s only the latest in what seems to be an increasing number of natural disasters, from the expected to the downright bizarre. I mean, who expects flooding in Saudi Arabia? But that’s been happening, too.

And I’m stunned by how many of these events have escaped my notice up to this point. Here are but a few of the headlines from the past few months:

Massive landslide in Denali National Park, Alaska – Could take 10 days to clear

Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung volcano eruption prompts evacuation of 3,300

Mudslide traps 20 in Cross Rivers, Nigeria

Very severe cyclonic storm Phailin: India’s biggest evacuation operation in 23 years, 43 killed

Eurasia’s highest volcano Klyuchevskoi spews ash up to 3.7 miles

40,000 evacuated amid Gujarat flooding

7.7 magnitude earthquake in Pakistan kills 400, Awaran declares emergency

Flooding in Bunkpurugu, Ghana kills 1, displaces 6,000

Shanghai heat wave 2013: Hottest temperature in 140 years!

Spanish Mallorca forest fire: Worst fire in 15 years evacuates 700

Namibia African Drought: Worst in 30 years

Yarnell, Arizona Wildfire 2013: 19 firefighters killed

Central African Republic gold mine collapse kills 37, national mourning declared

Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand flood 2013: At least 5,500 killed

Colorado wildfires destroy 360 plus homes, 38,000 evacuated

Whether you believe in Global Climate Change or not, don’t you sometimes get the feeling that we as a species are no longer wanted on this planet? And if so, who could blame Mother Nature? I mean, we take and take and take, and what we give in return is pollution, destruction, and devastation. If a guest in my home were behaving this badly, I’d kick him out, too.

eruption

Lagniappe

For those of you who have never been to New Orleans, allow me to introduce you to the world’s most delightful custom: Lagniappe. This word came to the English language via the Louisiana French by way of the Spanish Creoles from the Quechua word yapay. Whew! The fact that it managed to survive so many cultures to arrive at our door tells you what a wonderful tradition it is.

Basically it means “a little something extra”, like the 13th doughnut in a baker’s dozen. It sort of reminds me of the obligatory encore that musicians will do at the end of a concert. Everybody knows it’s going to happen, but we’re still delighted when it does. Vendors in New Orleans will throw in a little something extra with your purchase if you ask. This, to me, indicates what astute businessmen these people are, because when I walk away feeling I’ve gotten a little more for my money, it makes me want to go back.

Oddly enough, my first experience with Lagniappe occurred in Asheville, North Carolina at the Open Door Boutique. I bought a dress there 30 years ago, and they included a stick of incense in my bag. I was confused, then delighted by this little extra thing. It made me feel appreciated. So appreciated, in fact, that I have remembered the experience for decades. And it probably didn’t cost them more than a few pennies. I’m sure I’ve bought things from small boutiques a hundred times in my life, but this is the only shop whose name I remember. (They’re still open by the way, but I have no idea if they still practice Lagniappe. I hope they do.)

So, for all you shop owners out there, take heed: this tiny little investment in your customers will bring you a lifetime of loyalty, and that’s worth its weight in gold.

Open Door

The Open Door Boutique. Photo credit: pearlgateway.com

So here is my lagniappe for you, dear reader: something to think about.

               “Calm seas do not an expert sailor make.”     –Unknown