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Do You Speak English?

July 2, 2013

Caliente a-hoy?

I could see my Mexican driver try to decipher my mangled Spanish. We were driving from my hotel in Mexico City to the training facility where I would be teaching a Microsoft Exchange class (in English) this week. The hotel insisted that I allow myself to be driven by one of their drivers. Actually, it didn’t take much convincing. I discovered one of the best ways to stay safe while traveling outside the US was to listen to the locals.

The driver apparently decided he must not have heard me correctly. Without taking his eyes from the road he asked,

Que?

I don’t speak Spanish. If people ask, I tell them my most useful phrase is ‘Hablo muy feo.’ It’s intentionally bad Spanish grammar that means literally ‘I speak ugly.’ But, I figure you get better by paying attention and practicing. So whenever I travel I try to get by with a phrase book and 3 years of high school French.

I knew I was getting the syntax wrong, but I decided to plow ahead.

Caliente a-hoy?

Yes, it was the exact same phrase that he’d just failed to understand. I could see him think on it for another few minutes. Finally, he turned to me and with absolutely no trace of an accent he asked

Do you speak English?

Why yes. However could you guess.

What were you trying to say?

Ah. . .I was trying to ask if you thought it would be hot today.

Ah! That was why you used ‘caliente.’ But, ‘a-hoy.’ What was that supposed to mean? That’s a word that American sailors use in cartoons, right?

Yes, I guess it is. I was trying to say ‘Today.’

That wasn’t it.

Yeah. I figured that out.

The word you were looking for was ‘hoy.’ And the h is silent.

His English was nearly flawless so I asked him,

How did you learn English?

By practicing with Americans. If you pay attention and practice you can pick up languages quite quickly.

He really was a nice guy. I learned a couple important lessons. The obvious one is that appearance are just that, an appearance. I wouldn’t have guessed when meeting him that he was fluent in two languages. And upon meeting me, he might have assumed I actually knew a little of a language before trying to use it. The second lesson, of course, is that the h is always silent!

I had an opportunity years later to try out more of my language skills when my wife, oldest daughter and I went to Colombia to adopt three girls, aged 10, 8 and 6.

20130702-000425.jpg
Colombian Flag

My Colombian daughters spoke no English and my Spanish was not much improved. Fortunately my wife spoke passable Spanish, and my 16 year old spoke “sister.”

We spent three weeks in Cali, Colombia during the adoption process. One night during dinner I was trying to tell the girls not to play at the table. What I managed was

No fumar a la mesa.

The girls about fell off their chairs. The word I was looking for was ‘jugar,’ to play. ‘Fumar’ means to smoke. I’d just warned my pre-teens not to light up during dinner.

Yep, I speak English. At least slightly better than I do Spanish.

(Photo credits: flags.net)

Rodney Bliss is a blogger, author and IT consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and 13 children, who have all learned to speak English better than he will EVER speak Spanish.

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