Saturday, November 17, 2007

Hot for All the Wrong Reasons

I’ll never forget the night I made a big mistake. I was teaching English in Southern Mexico and I was dating a beautiful young lady named Gladys. Neither she nor anyone in her immediate family spoke English so the responsibility of communicating in a foreign language rested on my shoulders. Yeah, there were times when I missed a date because had I misunderstood the time. There were other times when I said something in Spanish and everyone smiled and pretended that they had understood what I said. But after a few months in Mexico, I was feeling pretty confident with my Spanish skills. Maybe a little too confident as it turns out.

I was eating dinner with her family one night. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t just her immediate family. Her grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a few other people who I didn’t even recognize were with us. There were delicious flat Mexican tacos on the table with spicy green and red salsas that made my mouth water with delight. It should have been a perfect night for me to keep my big mouth shut. After all, with the constant conversation taking place at the table, I was only catching little snippets here and there and I should have been content to just sit back and relax. In the end though, my little snafu wasn’t really my fault because I think that someone asked me a question regarding the weather in Chiapas. Instead of simply answering, “Yes I like the weather” or “No, I do not like the weather,” I had to describe how the weather made me feel. What I wanted to say was that “I was very hot these days” and had I simply remembered that using the verb “tener” instead of the verb “ser” could be dangerous, I would have stayed out of hot water. Unfortunately for me, I did end up conveying the fact that I “was very hot these days” but the way in which the words left my mouth probably made Gladys’ mother squirm in her seat along with the rest of Gladys’ family. I do remember what Gladys’ face turned red. According to what I had just said, I was hot alright but it wasn’t on account of the weather. I will leave it to your imagination in terms of an exact translation for what I had just said.

Whenever someone says something excruciatingly embarrassing, there is always that torturous moment of silence that follows. For me, it seemed that time had come to a complete standstill and I suddenly imagined that this could go one of two ways. One, everyone could break into hearty laughter, slap me on the back, and make fun of the stupid foreigner who says stupid things in Spanish. Two, the silence would continue and I would be forever banned from dating Gladys. Well, at least these were the thoughts that were running through my head. In the end, of course, everyone did laugh and for a few minutes I was the center of conversation at the dinner table. A few days later, no one seemed to remember what I had said but of course I never forgot.

What is the point of this little story? Don’t be afraid to make mistakes as you learn Spanish. If you never open your mouth, you will never gain the confidence that you need to speak Spanish well. In my experience, I have found that people throughout Latin America as well as native Spanish speakers in the U.S. are quite forgiving because they appreciate people who are trying to learn Spanish. If you make a few mistakes a long the way, they will only serve to help you improve your Spanish speaking abilities. Learn to laugh at yourself. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you might as well give up on learning any foreign language.

Nathan Ryan is webmaster at the Spanish Help Net. He has taught English and Spanish around the world. For more information, visit This blog can also be found on The Spansish Help Net Website Blog.

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