What Language Do You Two Speak?

“Iva” or “Iba”? “Haber” or “a ver”? At least I’ve got “tejer” down.

One question that I get a lot from friends is, “What language do you and your boyfriend speak?” The easy answer? Spanish and English. However, being a language enthusiast, this is something I ponder as well–what propels us to speak in one language or the other? While I haven’t figured out exactly why we switch from English to Spanish and back again, I’ll let you in on 5 facts about the way we communicate.

Fact 1

My boyfriend is from Colombia and I am from the US, and the truth is that we speak a mix of English and Spanish.

English? Spanish? Spanglish? How ’bout a mix?

Fact 2:

We tend to speak slightly more English than Spanish. Andres attended bilingual school from a young age, went to college in the states, and continues to do a lot of reading in English. Because of this his second language abilities (accent, pronunciation, vocab…) far outshine my own. I can’t always find the right nuance or expression or even term that I want in Spanish, which makes it tempting to switch back to English when we’re chatting en español. But hey, that’s all the more reason to practice Spanish, right?!

Luckily for me, Andres helps translate phrases when I’m at a loss for words. He has proofread countless emails and maybe even a few school assignments. However….

Fact 3

We both make mistakes in our second language. Whatever wise guy proclaimed that “practice makes perfect” has never tried to learn a language.

The other day I was ranting about catching a cold and accidentally said, “Cotorra tras cotorra!” or “Parrot after parrot!” when I meant to say “Cold after cold!” [Note: cotorra = parrot, cotarro = cold] Cue laughter. And, as much as I am impressed by Andres’ English, he also makes mistakes every once in a while. Sometimes a word he’s only seen in print comes out funny–last week it was “curmudgeon.” Other times the mistakes are so endearing I’m also afraid to correct them lest he stop saying them. This is the case with toes, which Andres calls “fingers” [Note: Spanish doesn’t differentiate much between fingers and toes].

Did you know…I’ve taught Andres some Southern American English? I’m fixin’ to share some more expressions one of these days.

Fact 4

Knowing both Spanish and English doesn’t always mean that we understand each other perfectly. There are English terms I use which sound a bit odd to Andres. And, of course, Colombian Spanish also leaves me bewildered. When some friends of Andres’ visited, I had a hard time following the rapid-fire string of “full,” “vaina,” and “bacano.” Suddenly, “listo” had a different meaning, there was no lisping, and add to this the confusion created by switching back and forth between vosotros and ustedes. Even though I learned ustedes first, I have been using vosotros so long that now me cuesta cambiar! See, even just writing about it makes my head spin and my languages tangle.

Did you know…in Colombia a coffee is called un tinto? That’s red wine in Spain!

Fact 5

Living in a culture that is foreign to both of us results in linguistic head-scratching. Being from two different contenints yet living in a third, there are cultural aspects at play that keep us on our toes. For example, I am the expert on the Spanish from Spain. At times I’m the translator when we go out to eat and an Iberian-specific dishes pops up on the menu. I was the first person to introduce him to the idea of a “caña,”  and I’ve had to warn him multiple times, “Don’t order callos, that’s tripe!”

No callos at this table!

And then there’s the addition of slang, lovely slang. Andres has chuckled more than once when I used terms such as “pachucha,” “piripi” and “no es moco de pavo,” which sound funny to him. One of my favorite language-related tales comes from last summer when I was staying with Andres after coming back from camp. We were discussing our plans for the rest of the afternoon when I asked, “Puedo hacer una colada?” I was referring to the Spanish “colada,” which is a load of laundry. He gave me a puzzled look but nodded his agreement. Later it came out that the only “colada” he knew of was a piña colada— “I wondered why you suddenly wanted to make cocktails at 2 in the afternoon!” he laughed.

What linguistic or cultural mishaps do you encounter when mixing languages? Spill your stories!

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  1. People always ask me this as well! As my boyfriend hasn’t had that much contact with English, we almost always speak in Spanish, apart from when we are with English friends, or if we want to talk about something secret!

    • Cassandra

      Oh, secrets are a good reason to switch! We’ll change languages sometimes based on what is being spoken around us–either to fit in or to avoid being understood!

  2. I lucked out…or maybe not. My boyfriend is completely fluent in English, C2, because he studies translation and interpreting. Still, I try to get him to speak Spanish with me so I can improve. Sometimes we end up falling back into English, though. I have just found other people I practice more Spanish with, so there isn’t that constant pressure of needing to practice with him.

    • Cassandra

      You did luck out! Think about how difficult it would be to introduce your boyfriend to your family if neither of them could speak the other one’s language. And, in your case, you’ve sought out other people to practice Spanish with–good for you!

  3. Wow, interesting post! I just assumed your boyfriend was Spanish, I had no idea he was Colombian! It must be nice to be able to complain and vent to him in English on the days where the Spanish just doesn’t seem to want to cooperate (I hated those days while in Spain!!). Add to the fact Andres speaks Colombian Spanish, and you get to learn even MORE Spanish vocabulary! Does he teach you a lot of Colombian expressions? Did you and Andres meet in Madrid? Or in the US? Does his family still live in Colombia? Because if they do, you could potentially go visit! (My cousin in France has been dating a Colombian guy for awhile now and has been to Colombia twice to see his family. Her pictures are amazing!)

  4. Cassandra

    Hi Amelie, thanks for your response!

    It has surprised a few people when they find out Andres is not Spanish. We met in Madrid, and his family still lives in Colombia. So, hopefully we’ll get to visit one of these days–maybe in the winter since the weather is nice year-round! Do you know which region your cousin visited?

    Andres teaches me a few Colombian expressions, but mostly they come up whenever I say the word I know in Spanish and it turns out that he says something different. For example, at Christmas I mentioned a “belén,” or nativity scene, and it was confusing for a moment until I explained what it was–he uses the word “pesebre.”

    It is a huge relief to be able to use English with him on days when I’m frustrated, tired, or simply have my mind in English mode after teaching all day. Humorously enough, he learned British English–zed, anyone? 🙂

  5. Of course we get this question too. Mario has frustratingly good English, meaning English is the “easiest” language for us. I always express it as economical: which language is easiest for the both of you? With Mario, it’s English … and with his parents, obviously Spanish. One of his friends tries to speak to me in English and I always automatically respond in Spanish because his English isn’t that good. It’s easiest to speak in Spanish. I don’t know if I’m making a lot of sense…

    • Cassandra

      Good point Kaley–what language you decide to speak can depend heavily on who you are with! The same goes for us. Sometimes it’s Spanish, sometimes it’s English.

  6. The British “zed/zet!!” (I´ve seen both variations.) I personally can’t stand it. Does he also say things like “get on” (well with s.o.), “busker,” “iron/fish monger,” and call an eraser a “rubber?” I’ve told a handful of students not to call it a rubber as that is a slang term for un preservativo en inglés. (This reminds me of when I got corrected in class in 2010 when I was trying to call preservatives in food preservativos. That was a big laugh for my teacher. I wanted to say conservantes!!)

    SBC and I, as you will see if we all get the chance to hang out it May, speak both languages. We tend to speak Spanish more than English, mix in Catalán quite often, and invent words on a regular basis. We also play around with Asturian colloquial phrases, accents, and grammatical alterations. However, I am still learning new Spanish phrases and words all of the time.

    Being tired, mad, confused, scared, etc. always tends to switch me back into English mode. Once I was with a Catalan beautician and I meant to say something to her in Spanish but I was simultaneously mentally making my lesson plans for the day and I started asking her questions in English. It is interesting how quickly our brain can change from one language to another but at times the record skips and you don’t even realize that you’re communicating in the wrong one until you repeat yourself once or twice.

  7. Hey Cassandra,

    My cousin visited Manizales, the city where her novio is from. I have no idea where that is since I am not familiar with Colombia’s geography. But I know they also traveled a ton around the country since the novio wanted to get her to visit as much as possible (she was also there for a good 6 weeks so they had the time to travel). From what I can see, Manizales is surrounded by mountains, including volcanoes. It is so beautiful from the pictures I’ve seen!

  8. Cassandra

    @ Kat – You and S certainly have a juggling act with Catalan in addition to Spanish and English! Kudos to you for being eager to learn Catalan while at the same time improving your Spanish. Hopefully you can teach us some Catalan phrases in May!

    Andres doesn’t use a ton of Britishisms–he uses a lot of American slang due to his time studying abroad in the states. However, sometimes bits and pieces of his original training shine through…

    It’s fascinating to examine what makes us change between languages; just like with your peluqueria experience, I find myself switching and only later realizing that something triggered the English/Spanish button. A similar thing happened to me at a time that Andres and I had declared an all-Spanish day–I suddenly started speaking English without even realizing it, later remembering that I had received a message in English on my phone which must have unconsciously caused the shift.

    A few times I have found myself accidentally responding in Spanish to my students during English class. Many of the lower-level classes have been told that I don’t speak Spanish, yet are completely unfazed when I let a “Si” or “Claro” slip out every now and then. “She doesn’t speak Spanish!” they’ll remind each other. Perhaps they register only what they were expecting to hear.

  9. Cassandra

    @ Amelie – Ok, very cool! I looked up some photos of Manizales and it the region did look gorgeous. If only we could have 6 weeks there too, that would be fabulous!

  10. I totally pretended to know what you were talking about for most of this post. In reality, I really only know what usted means. And now I’m not even sure if I know if I spelled that correctly.

    Languages are really hard- especially ones like Spanish and English, which are spoken in so many regions/countries that words change meaning. And why is it that the ones that change meaning seem to always be offensive or embarrassing? I think “parrot after parrot” has been the most G rated example I’ve heard.

  11. My ex-boyfriend is from Argentina (though he lives in Barcelona), but we always spoke Spanish because he only thought he could speak English. I picked up so many Argentina-specific phrases from him and my Spanish friends laugh so hard when I use them.

    Another guy flat-out couldn’t understand me when I spoke English unless I went realllly slowly, so we stuck to Spanish.

    I think it depends on a combination of who has better language skills in the foreign language and who’s more stubborn. I speak good Spanish and am very stubborn when it comes to not speaking English, so all the guys I go out with always end up speaking Spanish with me!

    (P.S. Your boyfriend is so cute!)

  12. Cassandra

    @ Erika – Ahh, I should have explained this one better! “Usted” and “Vosotros” are both ways of referring to the plural “you” form in Spanish. It’s “y’all,” if you will 🙂

    I never learned Vosotros in high school or college, as I was told I wouldn’t have to use it. HOWEVER, it turns out that Vosotros is used in Spain and now I use it every day. Since Usted is used in Latin America, I use this form with my boyfriend’s parents. It’s hard to jump back and forth! Here’s a visual that might help: http://senorgarnet.weebly.com/uploads/2/8/5/9/2859231/subject_pronouns2.jpg

    You make a good point about embarrassing, similar-sounding words! I have words that I specifically avoid because they always come out sounding dirty (i.e. “cajon” vs. “cojon”–one is a drawer, the other a part of the male anatomy. eeek!) :/

  13. Cassandra

    @ Jessica – True, being stubborn can certainly influence which language you use!

    So many Spaniards are at different stages of learning English that I can understand what you mean about using Spanish to facilitate communication. Plus, you learn more Spanish that way–and, you are all set for a trip to Argentina, too! 😉

  14. Loved this—> “Whatever wise guy proclaimed that “practice makes perfect” has never tried to learn a language.” 🙂

    In Canary Islands they have a word for toes! I love that, cause I find it very confusing to all my toes fingers! It’s called ñoños 🙂 Just the word is funny, it doesn’t sound like a real word! Oh and they also don’t really use “vosotros” either, straight to Ustedes. The accent is closer to certain South American accents rather than Peninsula Spain.
    Spanish is an interesting language!
    Love the last picture, so gorgeous. Where is it?

  15. Cassandra

    How interesting, I wasn’t aware that the Canary Island’s Spanish was so aligned with Latin American Spanish! I met someone from the canarias before but I couldn’t really understand him because he had a very thick accent and spoke super-fast. I didn’t even catch if he was using Vosotros or Ustedes!

    I also didn’t know about ñoños being another word for “toes.” Good to know!

    Glad you liked the last photo–it’s a fav! It was taken in Porto, Portugal this past January 🙂

  16. Cassandra you are wrong about the cold issue, it is called a “catarro”.

    a “cotarro” is a different thing, a situation where a group of people are restless and anxious, a mess, etc

    you are right about the “cotorra”, it means parrot, but we use it mainly not to describe the bird, but as slang to describe a woman who speaks too much as in “cállate ya cotorra!” (shut up you parrot!) or (shut your mouth parrot!) it only applies to women as it is feminie.

  17. I used to get that question a lot. In my case it was trilingual: English / Spanish / Italian. 🙂

    • Cassandra

      Ohh, a third language in the mix! I bet you have some great stories about that!

  18. Borja and I have had so many incidents I don’t know where to begin. He’s only been speaking English for a little under 4 years and I’ve only been speaking Spanish for about 3…so the issues that we run into are endless. Luckily though, they’re far less frequent now than they were when we first met (before I knew any Spanish).

  19. I just stumbled across your blog and it’s lovely! Such a great post- I’m in a similar position except with Danish (and I’m pretty horrible at it), whereas my boyfriend is fluent in both danish and english. It makes having conversations tricky and hilarious- so can definitely relate! Keep it up!


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