Learn Spanish: On Being Incoherent in Public


Not Your Father’s Plumber

If you want to master a foreign language, first you must be willing to be incoherent in public. Forget the word “embarrassment.” Rejoice in your new freedom to make a fool of yourself.

I don’t care what your IQ is, you are going to say some truly remarkable things and possibly never realize it.

Worse, perhaps you will.

Recently, I made some curtains. I wanted some lead weights to sew into the corners to encourage them to hang properly. Fishing weights would serve my purpose, so I asked a friend for the word as it was not in my little dictionary. She told me, I ‘memorized’ it and, convinced that I had the situation in hand, went to Super Carnes, my local grocery/department store where I addressed the young man at the hardware counter:

Buenas tardes. Tiene plomeros?” (Good afternoon. Do you have plumbers?)

No. No tenemos plomeros aqui. Quizas al frente en Conivan.” (No. We don’t have plumbers here. Maybe across the street at Conivan Hardware.)

Fffft! Por supuesto tiene plomeros! Plomeros por pescados! Si?” (Fffft! Of course you have plumbers! Plumbers [that go via] fish! Yes?)

The young man’s eyes became very round. “Por pescados?” (Via fish?)

Si! Cuando quiero coger un pescado necesito usar un plomero!” (Yes! When I want to catch a fish I need a plumber!) Here insert a mental image of me wielding an imaginary fishing pole and casting a line into the aisle.

Ohhhh … quiere un PLOMO.” Now insert a large smirk on the clerk’s face. “Oh, si. Si! Tenemos plomos. Cual tela quiere?” (Oh … you want a LEAD WEIGHT. [Smirk here.] Oh, yes. Yes! We have lead weights. What size do you want?)

Nor was that the only occasion I have engaged in this kind of Mrs. Malaprop conversation. How about the time I asked a store clerk to show me the “playa y oro sandales” – asking for beach (playa) instead of silver (plata) and gold (oro) sandals. Or the time I informed someone that my earrings were very drunk (borracho)? That would have been instead of cheap (barato).

A common thing new learners try is pronouncing English words with a Spanish accent – after all, there are about 3000 English words which are cognates, very nearly exactly the same as their Spanish counterparts except in how they are pronounced. Much of the time that works out, but it can be tricky, as a friend who set out to buy grocer-ias found out. The word grosería, as she learned with red cheeks, means a grossness or a rudeness. Not at all what she had in mind.

Now if you will excuse me, I am going to put on my earrings, which are still quite drunk, even after all these years, and hunt down a plomero, because there is a leak in my fregadora (sink), not to be confused with my refrigeradora (refrigerator).