Language learning is a long, arduous process of aligning concepts, words, and registers. Slip up with one of these three categories, and you’ll find your foot in your mouth. These slip-ups are adorable when you’re a kid; for example, I used to think that “fencing” was an Olympic sport where the fastest fence builder got a gold medal. But, when you’re an adult, these mistakes are anything but cute. What’s more, there is nothing like living in a foreign country to show you not just how much you have yet to learn, but everything you have to relearn.
My misadventures with Spanish began upon my arrival in Madrid. Seeing my second language used in real life was proving to be quite different from what I’d learned in school. Cue some funny Spanish mistakes. Let’s look at a few of the main offenders:
Pares / Impares
What I thought it meant: As I always saw this in the metro next to the exits, I assumed they were street names
What it really means: Even and odd (referring to street numbers)
Back story: My first days in Madrid were filled with piso-hunting, and the subway was the way I hopped from neighborhood to neighborhood. At each metro exit, there was a little sign that read Pares/Impares. After two or three different stops, I began to wonder how such long streets could transverse the entirety of the city. Later, a cursory Google search showed the error of my ways. (Sure, I could read medieval novels in my upper-level Spanish classes, but navigating the real-world? That takes practice!)
Found the metro…now I just have to learn my pares from my impares
Venta al por mayor
What I thought it meant: Products discounted for the elderly
What it really means: Bulk sales
Back story: When I first saw this on a hand-written sign in a store window, I latched onto “mayor” and mistakenly thought it referred to products for the 65+ crowd (los mayores). Months later I saw this expression used again, this time in relation to seeds and nuts. After pondering why older people would qualify for such a discount, I consulted an online dictionary and finally understood that the expression referred to “bulk sales”–and not just for the older generations!
I’m sure that the prizes at the feria de Córdoba were bought al por mayor with little kids in mind
What I thought it meant: Of course! / Duh!
What it really means: Of course! / Sure / Certainly / Right
Back story: Before coming to Madrid, I thought “claro” was only every used to show an emphatic “Of course!” Then, one day in conversation with a teacher, the word “claro” kept coming up. Again. And again. And again. I was a bit miffed, because when I considered the tone she was using, I thought this co-teacher was saying “DUH!” and “YES, you dumb guiri!” My ears started to become more attuned to this word, and after that I noticed it in nearly every Spanish conversation. Eventually I realized that “claro” is simply an easy, default way of showing agreement. Whereas in English we might use “right” as an informal way of agreeing, “claro” covers everything from “sure” to “CERTAINLY!” and everything in between.
What I thought it meant: Honorary
What it really means: “Hermanos,” or “Brothers”
Back story: Whenever I’d seen signs for “Hermanos Sanz” or similar, I always just assumed these guys were some illustrious characters. When I did finally learn what “hnos” stood for, it was one of those “AH-HA!” moments. (Followed closely by a “CLARO…I should’ve known that” moment.)
Whew! I’m not the only one who gets lost in translation at times
What I thought it meant: Neutral
What it really means: Nuestra. Most often seen in religious example such as “Nuestra señora de la Paloma” (Our lady of…).
Back story: Of course I knew what “nuestra” meant, but I don’t recall having seen the abbreviation before coming to Madrid. Like in the case of “Hnos,” it took seeing seeing both forms next to each other before understanding the meaning.
Something something of The Peace?
What I thought it meant: Too bad / What a pity
What it really means: Thank goodness!
Back story: I still cringe at what a heartless person I must have seemed when I used this one incorrectly. I was visiting my friend Cindy after not having practiced Spanish for months, so many of the phrases she used were new to me. One such expression I’d picked up was “menos mal.” From context I’d deduced it to mean “too bad.” One day, she told me that one of her friends couldn’t come over as promised. “Menos mal!” I exclaimed. She gave me a peculiar look, which is when I learned that menos mal actually meant. Later I went back and apologized profusely for my mistake, and fortunately my friend wasn’t offended.
Cindy and I (and no hard feelings, Menos mal!)
Salir en pelotas
What I thought it meant: To be (photographed) with a ball
What it really means: To be (photographed) naked
Back story: When Liz, creator of the blog Young Adventuress, asked me to discuss a cultural mishap, I knew that it would have to be a linguistic example. This language misunderstanding, as recalled on Liz’s blog, is still one of my silliest–and most innocent:
“[A] Spanish friend was showing me photos of her trip to the southern shores. At one point she paused and warned me, “Salgo en pelotas. Te molesta?” I shook my head no. Wise woman that I am, I knew that pelotas meant balls. And, judging from the beachy context, I guessed that she’d be posing with a beach ball. Imagine my surprise when my friend clicked the screen and there she was, jumping from the sand in glorious, naked freedom. And that’s the story of how I learned that “estar en pelotas” means to be naked.