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Embarrassing Moments

Mistakes Make Great Memories

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Making mistakes comes with the territory of learning a foreign language. Most mistakes are benign, but when you make those mistakes in a different country or culture, some of them can be downright embarrassing.

Our forum recently featured a discussion on embarrassing moments in learning the language. Here are a few of the responses.

Arbolito: While living in Madrid while getting my Master's degree, I went to the mercado, specifically to where they sold poultry. I very politely asked for "two pechos." I had learned that "pechos" was the word for breast. Little did I know that there was a different word for chicken breasts, pechuga. So there I was, asking the man for 2 human breasts!

And I also used the word coger in Argentina, even though I have known forever that it is an obscenity there. But in other places, it is just a common way to say "to take." So I asked someone where I could "coger el autobús"!

Apodemus: On a Spanish course in Salamanca I met a Belgian girl. I asked her, in Spanish of course, whether she spoke Dutch or French. Her response was: "En la oficina, hablo holandés, pero en la cama hablo francés." Suddenly the whole room was looking at her, she went bright red and stuttered "En la casa, dije en la casa!!"

Rocer: In Chile, cabrito = young kid, but in Peru, cabrito = gay (or is it the other way around?)

A friend of mine from the U.S. was in Chile, and he learned the word cabrito. People called him cabrito because he was young. He liked the word cabrito, so he called himself cabrito. Then he traveled to Peru, and some people asked him why he didn't get married with a Peruvian girl, he said "Es que yo soy muy cabrito" (he wanted to say "the thing is that I'm very young", and he ended up saying "the thing is that I'm very gay"). People just looked at him very weird, and laughed at him. Later on, he returned to Chile, where people laughed like crazy when he told them his story.

Hermanito: Lo siguiente no me pasó a mí sino a una amiga mía, quien apenas comenzaba a aprender español. Esta entro a una tiendita mexicana y le preguntó al dueño si tenía huevos, sin saber el sentido alternativo de la palabra.

(The word huevos, which means "eggs," is also a slang term for "testicles.")

El Tejano: In Mexico, ladies never order eggs — they always say "blancos."

Glenda: I have three stories.

The first is from a friend here in San Miguel, who after eating a delicious meal, wanted to compliment the cook. She said, "Compliments to the cocino." Cocino means a fat pig. She should have said compliments to the cocinero.

Then, there is this story, from our local newspaper. A moderately experienced horsewoman comes to Mexico and is taking riding lessons from a Mexican male teacher. He doesn't realize how experienced she is, so he wants her to keep the horse roped. She is frustrated but complies and keeps a rope on the horse throughout her lesson. They are talking in Spanish about the next day's lesson, making arrangements, and she finishes the conversation by saying, "Sí, está bien ... pero mañana, sin ropa."

And finally, from my own experience. A local waiter in a restaurant we like is also an artist. My husband and I saw his work displayed in the restaurant and decided to buy it. He was overjoyed, and in return offered to pay for the slice of cake we had ordered for dessert — a very sweet gesture. At the end of the meal, I said, "Gracias por la pastilla" (the pill) instead of "el pastel" (the cake).

I am sure that there have been many more embarrassing moments which I have caused ... but probably people here were so polite I never even knew.

El Tejano: Twenty odd years ago, I was in a shoe store in Mexico buying a new pair of shoes. My Spanish was a lot worse than it is now and I couldn't remember the word for "size." So I looked "size" up in my wimp dictionary (always a very risky practice) and the first entry was tamaño. So I told the young lady that my tamaño was 9. She was very young and I was about 50, and I heard her mutter, barely audibly under her breath, rabo verde.

If you don't get it, I'll leave the details to someone else, otherwise you'll be calling me rabo verde too.

Here's another: I'm a retired painting contractor from Houston and we had a big commercial job down in the Rio Grande Valley, which is indistinguishable from Mexico itself. A gringo painter on our crew wanted to ask an attractive chica who worked at the Wal-Mart in Carrizo Springs to have lunch with him. We told him to say, "Señorita, es posible que quisieras comer conmigo? But he got confused and substituted "cojer for comer. The results were predictable!

Spanish Guide:One that comes to mind happened many years ago during a trip to Mexico when I needed to buy a razor. Not knowing the word for razor, I went in a small store and asked for algo para aceitar and got only strange looks. Sign language came in handy, and I'm sure that they then figured out the word I meant. I had used the verb for "to oil" (aceitar) instead of the verb for "to shave" (afeitar). I didn't realize what I had said until later that evening.

I traveled to Peru a few years ago with a then-teenage son, and he wanted to try using his minimal Spanish at an outdoor market. He decided to buy an alpaca blanket and asked how much it cost — quince soles was the answer, about $5 U.S. at the time. He thought that was a good deal, and promptly pulled cincuenta soles (about $18) from his wallet. He would have paid it if I hadn't caught his mistake. In order to save himself the embarrassment of handing the vendor way too much money, he decided the price was one he couldn't pass up and decided to buy two instead.

Readers Respond: Embarrassing Moments When Using Spanish

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