Whoever said learning a foreign language was easy should be shot.
Ok, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but still. The thought always crosses my mind when I make a giant mistake in Spanish, usually in public, as my face burns red with humiliation. “Did I really just call that girl a frog?” or “did I really just order a dick sandwich?”
It happens. Learning a new language is always trickier, harder, and usually more embarrassing than one expects when they put “learn French” on their New Year’s Resolutions.
In my case, I’ve been learning Spanish for just over a decade, and I’ve been traveling and living around Spain for the past 5 years. Am I fluent? Más o menos.
But before I even open my mouth, no one is ever going to mistake me for a native speaker (bright blonde hair, green eyes, big white teeth that I always show off and a penchant for wearing flip flops and athletic shorts). Even now when I say “I’m fluent,” I know I still sound foreign and make mistakes. Part (all) of it is pure laziness on my part. I can understand everything (more or less) and I can always say what I need to say, minus an incident on a bus after San Fermín in Pamplona where I was too hungover to form a coherent word. Learning Spanish is an ongoing process. It never ends. There is always some new mistake to be made and something new to learn.
The best way to learn a language is to go live (even for a short while) in the country where they speak it. For me and for a lot of you, that would be Spain.
Spain Spanish is nothing like the tex-mex Spanish they teach us in the States. We don’t say ándale here and I can’t remember the last time I used the formal “you” usted or ustedes (maybe I’m just rude). People eat tortilla de patata here, not corn tortillas or tacos. Burritos are small donkeys, not a tasty budget dinner option.
But don’t worry, youngins. It won’t happen overnight but if you make a conscious effort to hang out with locals, get to know your teachers, and force yourself to speak as much Spanish as possible, you’ll improve. Accept that you will make mistakes and move on. Accept you will say at least one truly embarrassing thing, and learn from it.
And don’t fret (ladies) about finding a Spanish lover to help you practice either. Over three years here and a slew of dates, mistakes and novios españoles, but mostly single, and I think I speak Spanish just as well as many of my friends who are in committed bilingual relationships.
But you aren’t here to read about my international love affairs, cough cough, catastrophes (or are you?). You want to hear the ridiculous mistakes I’ve made to make sure you don’t repeat them, am I right?
So here you go, some of the things I have learned NOT to say in Spanish, what are yours? Got any embarrassing things to add? Leave a comment and I’ll put them on the list! (don’t worry, you can stay anonymous if you want)
What do you think this word means at first glance? Here’s a hint; it’s NOT embarrassed. This is probably the classic mistake English speakers make in Spanish. Embarazada means “pregnant.” If you want to say you’re embarrassed or something embarrassed you in Spain, we say me da vergüenza. Write that down, you’ll need it later if you forget some of these ones.
Actually this is usually the other way around, when Spanish speakers learn English. Estoy constipada in Spanish means I have a cold or I am stuffed up (in the head haha). However, how many years later in Spain, and I still cannot bring myself to say constipada to a pharmacist with a straight face. So mature.
Ok, elementary Spanish, we learn that words that end in “o” are usually masculine and ones that end in “a” are feminine. Easy peasy. However, when you are in a foreign country and you are thinking on your feet, it can be a whole lot trickier to keep those endings straight in your head. Most of the time, people understand you, nbd. However there are a few instances where you really need to be careful. Pollo is chicken, however, polla is something entirely different (read here). Make sure you remember this at 5am when you are drunkenly ordering a chicken kebab, otherwise it can lead to some pretty awkward moments.
The same goes for zorro, which means “fox” in Spanish. But just a little twitch and putting an “a” on the end gets you a whole new word: a fantastic cross between “bitch” and “whore.”
Pecho is breast or chest of people, not animals, so if you want to order chicken breast, it’s pechuga de pollo, NOT pecho de pollo, chicken boobies. It’s the little things. Don’t want to start off on bad terms with your local butcher.
When Americans come to Spain, one of the first things they do is hit up the crazy night life here. Tons of bars and clubs where you can drink and dance til dawn, Spain has a plethora of night spots to chose from. However, once you have finished at the bars and you want to go get your dance on, you head out to the club. Except dance clubs in Spanish are discotecas or discos. To put it mildly, a club in Spanish is usually a whorehouse on the side of the highway aka puti club. Stick to disco and you won’t have any issues.
7. Estoy caliente
One of the biggest problems where Spanish and English differentiate is when you cannot translate word for word. Many times you can get pretty close, but a lot of words in English that use the verb “to be” in Spanish use “to have.” The most hilarious example? Man, it’s really hot outside (this happens a lot in Spain), and you want to say, “damn, I’m hot, I want a cold beer.” In Spanish, we say joder, tengo calor, quiero una cerveza fría. Literally we say in Spanish “I have heat.” If you translate it literally, it’s estoy caliente, and well, that’s referring to hot of a whole other kind, you know…seeeeeexual.
This one isn’t bad or embarrassing. Rather I just find it baffling! In Spain billón doesn’t mean billion like we know it in the US, it means trillion. 1,000,000,000,000 for me is 1 trillion but in Spain it’s billón. So confusing, can someone please explain?
This one is another false friend in Spanish. It does NOT mean preservatives, like in food. Preservativos are condoms. That’s right, condoms, rubbers, a raincoat (really, urban dictionary?) Remember that the next time you want to know if a food has certain preservatives in it (conservantes).
This just goes to show you that even the pros like me (just kidding!) still make dumb mistakes and are always learning. Nowadays, one way I consciously attempt to improve is to try to use new vocab words I hear my Spanish friends say. It usually works about 95% of the time, but man, that 5% where I completely eff up is so embarrassing!
The other day in class, I was trying to explain that this girl I know is like a total pig, really gross, eats like a pig. I’ve heard many of my students call each other marrano, meaning like a pig, so I thought I’d go ahead and whip out a new vocab word. However, I thought they were saying más rana, because the double “r’s” and then a word that begins with an “r” in Spanish are both trilled. Basically I called her a frog instead of a pig and my friends will never let me forget it.
48 Comments on “Learning Spanish: what NOT to say”
Oye, I really liked your blog but don’t generalize Spanish speaking by implying that Spanish from Spain is better! It came off that way and in my humble opinion there is a richness in the Spanish dialects here in las américas (yes, even the Spanish spoken in the States). Also before anyone tries to say anything, I am referring to South, Central, and North America when I write “las américas”. Anyway as a scholar of Latin America and the Caribbean I just was a tad bit insulted at your dismissive attitude towards our Spanish. There’s a lot of culture in these little differences and I think they are worth experiencing. Not hating, merely an observation. Enjoy Spain! It’s a blast!
[…] I lived in Spain for years, have a degree in Spanish language and literature, wrote a master level dissertation in Spanish and can even spent a summer reading old Spanish language texts at the National Library in Madrid. Not to toot my own horn, but I definitely consider myself fluent in Spanish. […]
I am Spanish American and grew up with grandparents speaking it in the home and still have trouble speaking the language so my hat’s off to those who try as a second language. It has now become spanglish not the same as in Spain at all
My worst mistakes… Once I said I was a terrible songbook ‘soy un cancionero terrible’ instead of ‘soy un cantante terrible’. My absolute worst mistake though was saying that the first Argentinians were bananas. ‘La plantanos’, it looked like ‘La Platans’…