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When in doubt just check with the Tiger

By Debbie Leffler • Updated Sep 5, 2019 at 9:47 AM

There I was at a restaurant in Chile, needing to use the baño (that means bathroom). I was able to ask “Where is the bathroom?” in Spanish, but when I got there, I was faced with two doors. One had a capital letter M on it, and the other had a capital letter H.

Which was for me?

In English, the M would stand for men. But then there should have been a W for women, and instead, the other door had an H.

I chose the M door but I wasn’t quite sure about it. I later figured out I had made the right choice, because the M stood for “mujeres” (which means women in Spanish) and the H stood for “hombres” (which means men in Spanish).

These sorts of dilemmas happen when you are in a country where your native language is English but most people speak Spanish.

I like to think I’m superior when the Chileans make mistakes like when one of them said his child “threw down” instead of “threw up” when explaining that his child got carsick. But really, “throw up” is a strange expression in our language — an idiom. And when another Chilean, who was a gracious host during my stay, was cooking and said “Remember me to soak the beans” instead of “remind me to soak the beans,” I wanted to feel superior about her mistake, but really, what IS the difference between “remind” and “remember?” Oh yes, one is the command form of the verb. But I am helpless when trying to come up with the command form of verbs in Spanish.

Not that I never studied Spanish. I took three years of Spanish in high school, and a semester of a course called “Spanish For Educators.” Not to mention how often, before traveling to Chile, I practiced using the Duolingo app on my iPad.

I can blame Duolingo for some of my mistakes. It was teaching me the Spanish spoken in Spain, not in Chile. So when I referred to a car as “carro” (the word Duolingo taught me), my Chilean hosts thought that was odd since they use the word “auto” (pronounced “OUT-toe) for a car. And Duolingo had me learn the fancy and difficult word “bolígrafo” to mean pen, but in Chile, they use the word “pluma” instead.

I can’t blame it all on Duolingo. No, I’m just not fluent in Spanish. So during family dinners, I sat there mute, looking dumb, while the conversation flowed animatedly around me — and I only understood maybe every 10th word. Sometimes I got the gist of it, but I couldn’t think of any intelligent responses or comments to add in Spanish. Sometimes the family would laugh uproariously at something, and I had no idea what the joke was about. I hoped it wasn’t about me.

I have much more compassion for people who don’t speak English fluently. They are just as intelligent as we are — and if we were speaking their native language, they would certainly join in the conversation, and they would have interesting, intelligent things to say.

There was one night I was lying in bed in Chile, feeling lonely, desperate to be part of a conversation I could understand and participate in. It was midnight. So I called my son in California. It’s three hours earlier there, and I was happy to converse in English with him.

I was in Chile for almost three weeks. One of my daughters was expecting her first baby and I was there to meet my new grandson. I was waiting for her to “deliver” the baby. In Spanish, there are two very different words for “deliver” — one that has to do with having a baby, and the other which is used when someone is delivering a package or a pizza. Why do we use the same verb in English to deliver a baby and deliver a pizza? As an English teacher, I thought that was very interesting.

When I did attempt to speak in Spanish, I made many mistakes, much worse than saying “remember” instead of “remind.” I could always tell, by the quizzical way a person looked at me, that I had said something that didn’t make sense.

Example: there were guests at the house and I wasn’t sure who someone was. So I asked “Quieres?” which means “Do you want?” instead of “Quién es?” (Who is it?)

Another example: Someone had injured his ankle and I wanted to know if it was getting better, only I never could remember the Spanish word for ankle. I kept asking about his “botilla,” which means arm, instead of “tobilla,” which means ankle.

Fortunately, some things need no translation. I was hungry and someone gave me an item which was yogurt with some odd topping in a compartment to put onto the yogurt. I had no idea what the topping was, until I saw on the packaging something very familiar: Tony the Tiger. I tasted the topping and — yes — it was Frosted Flakes, my favorite cereal.

Thank goodness for advertising logos. I felt right at home with Tony the Tiger.

Debbie Leffler is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. She can be reached at [email protected]

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