Regardless of where you stand on the Spanglish debate, for those of us who live in both languages there comes a time when you will inevitably put your foot in your mouth. Case in point: I was trying pants at a cute little store in Buenos Aires. I came out of the fitting room, checked myself in the mirror and said, “Estos pantalones no hacen nada por mi,” literally, “These pants don’t do anything for me.” Only in Spanish, that sounds absolutely ridiculous, which is exactly why the confused sales woman asked, “What were you expecting them to do?”
In terms of language, that was a pretty bad trip. Later that same week, as I was riding in a taxi, the driver took the service road instead of the main highway. Concerned, I asked the driver, “¿Por qué toma la ruta de servicio?” To which he replied with what I might have taken as an insult to my Argentinian pride, “Are you from Uruguay or something?” The word I should’ve used was “colectora,” rather than the literal translation of “service road.”
These mistakes don’t just happen when I’m back visiting family in my native country. They also happen at much less appropriate times, such as when I’m presenting in front of a large audience. Usually, Murphy’s Law is in full swing during these occasions, and the more important the audience the deeper my foot goes into my throat. A good example is the time when I was sharing the importance of networking with great speakers at conferences. I said, “They usually have a very large rooster of contacts.” The good thing is that I usually catch myself just as the words are leaving my mouth. “Or is it roster?”
As bad as that sounds, that wasn’t half as bad as when talking about leveraging the Latino advantage in the workplace I said that, “Latinos create strong bondage with other people.” Not two seconds had gone by and I added, “I mean bonds, bondage is something else, right?” But of course it was already too late and the audience was laughing hysterically, while I hoped nobody was recording the presentation for a quick YouTube upload.
Spanish language learners suffer through these mishaps all the time as well. How many times have you heard people say about a situation, “Estoy embarazada” (I’m pregnant) when what they really want to say is, “Estoy avergonzada”? Or, “Estoy constipada” (I’m constipated) instead of ,“Estoy resfriada” (I have a cold)? , “No me realicé” (I didn’t make myself) instead of , “No me dí cuenta” (I didn’t realize). Or, “Te voy a introducir a Pedro” (I’m going to insert you into Pedro) instead of, “Te voy a presentar a Pedro” (I’m going to introduce you to Pedro).
Although these false cognates, literal translations, and similarly sounding words that mean entirely different things in Spanish and English are usually a source of confusion, they can also be a great way to poke fun at yourself. Which is the best way to deal with the situation even for public speakers like myself. Just as I publicly acknowledge I’m prepositionally challenged, most of the time when I make a mistake I self-correct, or I candidly ask for help from the audience when I forget a word or I can only think about it in Spanish. The trouble is what do you do when the audience doesn’t speak Spanish?
My friend Brian is fond of reminding me of the time when I was sharing a story about trying to get his girlfriend to come for a walk with me. I had run into her early in the morning as she was walking her dog. “But she was wearing… what do you call those shoes you wear in the house?” And he looked at me in disbelief and asked, “Slippers” And I just went on, “Right, she was wearing slippers so I knew she would say no to my invitation.” From that day on, every time he sees me he says, “What do you call the… slippers???” I tell him that until he learns to speak a second language, he won’t earn the right to tease me.
The truth is that if you only speak one language you save yourself all of this trouble. But then again, you don’t get all the benefits of being multilingual and multicultural.
So here’s my recommendation for those fortunate enough to be suffering from embarrassing (or shall I say “pregnant”?) moments such as the ones I just shared: lie back, relax and enjoy the ride!
An earlier version of this column appeared on Fox News Latino and Huffington Post