Learning a new language requires study, persistence, enthusiasm, and most importantly, the ability to laugh at oneself. Always keep in mind that no one ever learned a language flawlessly from day one. Some people are satisfied with knowing just enough for basic communication. Others aren’t satisfied until they ‘’sound like a native’’.
Most people fall somewhere in between. In the hope that my years of speaking Spanish can be of assistance, here are some barely useful language tips to help improve your Español:
1. Not every word that is almost identical in two different languages will mean the same thing
I was baking bread, and wanted to increase its shelf life, so I went on the hunt for a preservative. I asked for ‘preservativos’ and was almost laughed out of the pulperia. The word I should have used is preservante. The word I actually used– preservativo– is the Spanish word for condom. I doubt the slogan “A condom in every loaf” would have had the buyers lining up.
2. Correct pronunciation is equally important
My Tico brother-in-law loves to tell me the story of the gringo who went into a bakery and asked if they had ‘caca’, the word for poop, instead of ‘queque’. Papa is another word where the emphasis is everything. POP-pa means potato. pa-PAH means dad. And POP-pa spelled with a capital letter–Papa– is the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church aka The Big Potato.
3. Don’t feel bad when you make mistakes
Back in the 1970s, Chevrolet introduced the Nova to Mexico and Central America. Talk about marketing errors! Apparently, no one in the entire General Motors corporation realized that Nova means, no va, literally not going, doesn’t go, not a good name for your car.
And the Russian made Lada Niva, was once a common site on Costa Rican roads, even though ni va can be translated as doesn’t even go. The fact that Lada is only 1 letter away from lata, the word for a tin can, didn’t help. They were still popular, though often likened to a tin can that wouldn’t even go.
4. Only use the words necessary to get your message across
Just as in English, there are words that can be used many ways. Take the word ‘cuesta’ for example. It can mean cost, hill, hard, or difficult. The sentence, “How hard it is to climb the hill on my 200 thousand colon bike!” could be said in Spanish as ‘Que cuesta a subir la cuesta en mi bici que cuesta 200 mil colones!’
5. Como is another versatile word
It can mean ‘I eat’, like, and how. ‘How I eat like Perry Como!’, would translate as ‘Como como como Perry Como!’, though I can’t think of any situation where this sentence would be useful.
6. Ya may be the most versatile word of all
It covers the spectrum of time. It can be past present or future. Ya comi- I already ate. Ya me voy– I am going now. Ya pronto- soon. Always spoken forcefully– Ya! So if you use it, make sure to say it with emphasis.
7. Be very careful when looking to buy a comb
Peine, the word for comb, sounds almost exactly like the word for penis. Make sure you pantomime combing your hair if you have to ask for a comb.
The word for both the stock market and a garbage bag, draw your own conclusions.
9. Negro is a color in Spanish
Negra is a term of affection. If that bothers you, you may want to try learning another language.
10. Colon is the internal organ in both languages
In Spanish it is also the last name of Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon). However, the colon used in punctuation is simply called 2 points– dos puntos. Just think of someone making a layup in basketball, and you will never forget the Spanish way of saying the colon punctuation mark.
11. The same non-reversible sometimes applies from Spanish to English as well
Take the Spanish word for ‘to bother’ – Molestar. “Tell them to stop molesting me,” is not something you would say in English, unless you were with (insert your own religious sect, business or organization here).
12. A few more random words and when to use them
“Verdad’ means right, as in affirmation. If someone is speaking to you in rapid-fire Spanish and you can barely understand a few words, saying ‘verdad’ each time they pause, will create the illusion that you know what the hell they were saying; ‘Hable despacio’ means speak slowly.
Use it for the person just mentioned, even though the person will likely speak at the same pace; ‘Diay’ means…well, diay. It is a filler word with limitless uses; ‘Mae’ is a person, more or less. So you could use the sentence, ‘Diay mae, hable despacio’ when you want someone to speak more slowly. You still won’t understand them, but they will be impressed by your apparent knowledge of the local lingo.
13. Always know the 2 most spoken words in Costa Rican Spanish
They can be used as a greeting, a response, an affirmation or as in this case a goodbye: Pura Vida!