Opinion: Life in Two Languages Means Placing Foot Firmly in Mouth

For those of us who live in both languages there comes a time when you will inevitably stick 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 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 (mal viaje? Won’t work). Later that 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 happen to me pretty frequently, even at the most inopportune times – like when I’m doing a presentation 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 mouth. Like the time I was discussing the importance of networking with great speakers when I said  speakers “usually have a very large rooster of contacts.”  I usually catch myself as the words are leave my mouth: “Or is it roster?” I said.

And there have been other mistakes. One day I was speaking about leveraging the Latino advantage in the workplace when I blurted out:  “Latinos create strong bondage with other people.”  Then I  quickly added, “I mean bonds, bondage is something else, right?”Of course, it was already too late. The audience burst out laughing, while I hoped nobody was posting the clip on YouTube.

It’s not just English learners going through this -- Spanish language learners go through it all the time. 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” (embarrassed)? . 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 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 ran  into her early in the morning as she was walking her dog. I said: “But she was wearing… what do you call those shoes you wear in the house?” And he looked at me in disbelief and said, “Slippers?” And I just went on. “Right, she was wearing sleepers 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 has no  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! And don’t forget to laugh.

Mariela Dabbah is the CEO of www.latinosincollege.com and an award winning writer and speaker.

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