Eight Things I Can Now Competently Do in Spanish… and Five I Still Can’t

It’s often hard to know how much progress you’re making with a language, since the incremental daily changes are near-impossible to measure as they happen. We don’t walk around going, “hey, my vowels sound just a little better today than they did on Tuesday!” Language development is a long-term process, something that happens over months rather than hours. Still, there are times when I manage to do something or make some point in a conversation that I know would have been absolutely impossible for me a year or even three months ago. These are the moments when I realize that I am still progressing, that my Spanish hasn’t stagnated at good-enough-to-buy-bus-tickets-but-not-good-enough-to-win-an-argument-about-homophobia (which, for the record, is right about where it is right now. But onwards! And upwards!). It’s important to acknowledge these little victories, if only for the fact that it keeps me motivated and hopeful that I can keep improving, every day.

A few of the things I can now accomplish in Spanish:

  1. Get something notarized without ruining any important paperwork (I am most self-impressed by this one. It’s a very confusing process, even in English!)
  2. Translate answers to questions as someone is speaking — again, without ruining anything important.
  3. Get from Bogotá to Manizales using three taxis, a plane and a bus without getting lost or ripped off.
  4. FedEx a document (to be fair, at this point I could probably fill out a shipping label in my sleep. Or in Mandarin).
  5. Get a haircut and actually have it turn out pretty much exactly as I want it.
  6. Explain why I’m a vegetarian and have people actually understand it. Insofar as most Colombians understand the concept of vegetarianism (anything more than “So you don’t like meat?” is progress).
  7. Give directions that are at least intended to be helpful and accurate.
  8. Take a yoga class without looking like a confused fool.

A few things I still can’t do:

  1. Make good jokes.
  2. Win the aforementioned argument about homophobia.
  3. Correctly write dates without double-checking the order of the days and months.
  4. Convince my attractive co-worker that I am obviously the perfect woman. Then again, I couldn’t do this in English, either.
  5. Explain American football.

Colombian Weeks Have Eight Days

Cultural differences are one of those things you can’t really be aware of until they cause problems for you. That is, we take our own cultural norms for granted, and often only notice changes when they confuse or challenge us. I’m talking here about minor things, of course — not the differences that are immediately apparent, physically or otherwise. No, these are little things, like the fact that people here don’t eat much for dinner, or that 90% of the time, you’re better off saying “señora” instead of “señorita.” These are the things nobody explains to you — the trial-and-error differences you’re left to discover on your own.

There are tons of these little peculiarities hidden all over here like malicious Easter eggs, just waiting for me to discover them by screwing something up or misunderstanding someone. One of my favorite Colombianisms (and by “favorite,” I mean “kind of makes me twitch violently every time someone says it”) is their method of counting — or miscounting — days.

Let’s say it’s Friday, and you’re making plans with a friend to go out dancing next weekend. Those of us who pledge allegiance to English as our first language would usually say something like, “Let’s go next Friday,” or “in a week” (I don’t know what you folks across the various ponds say, but I’m going to assume it’s something similar for the sake of having backup, okay? Okay). These are logical, relatively clear ways to denote time — and, most importantly, they don’t involve counting.

No such luck here. Your average Colombian, when attempting to make plans in the same time frame (although let’s be honest, your average Colombian wouldn’t be planning something a week ahead of time. But give me some willful suspension of disbelief), would say, “Nos vemos en ocho días (See you in eight days).”

WHAT. What, even.

Let’s talk my least favorite subject for a moment: math. If today is Friday, there are six full days between now and next Friday. FULL DAYS. Therefore, next Friday is the seventh day, yes? We’re all still together here? One of my Colombian friends tried to defend this mathematical nonsense by explaining that the full saying is “Hoy en ocho días” (“Today, in eight days”). Disregarding the grammatical issues, I’ve never encountered any other place that counts whatever fraction of the current day is left as a full day when planning things.

And it gets better. As part of my counterargument, tentatively entitled “Where The Hell Do You Get That Extra Day?!” I tried to clarify this nonsense. If you’re doing something tomorrow, I asked, do you say “in two days?” Of course not, answered my friend. Two days isn’t the same as tomorrow.

I KNOW THIS. All I want to know is, at what point in the week, then, does that extra day show up? Because as far as I can tell, there are only seven scheduled days in Colombian weeks, just the same as at home. Apparently this illogical counting only applies in increments of weeks. And don’t even get me started on how two weeks apparently contain 15 days. I just….can’t. And I won’t. I’m going to keep counting in full weeks, thanks, because at least that’s a concept that seems to translate across borders.

I can only assume that this chronological miseducation is actually why Colombians are late so often. How can they be expected to arrive on time when they don’t even know what day it is?

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #5: Inappropriate Uses of English

I’m generally against clothing with writing or slogans on it, since 97% of them tend to be brand names (I see you, Hollister. Trust me, you only have your company name printed all over those t-shirts), Busted-Tees-style statements with an overinflated sense of their own cleverness (“Keep talking, I’m fluent in stupid”) or just blatantly idiotic or offensive things that reflect terribly on the wearer (something something your boyfriend etc). Pretty much the only acceptable words to put on clothes, in my opinion, are the names of bands, sports teams, events or geographic locations. A journalist who’s into facts, how shocking.

I recognize that this isn’t a preference I share with the majority of the American public (especially the under-18 cohort), and it definitely isn’t one I have in common with the Colombian public. People here are way into t-shirts and other clothing with words or sentences written on them. But not just any string of words — they’re almost always in English, and they’re equally as often misspelled or just lacking any grammatical sense whatsoever.

There’s the lady on the bus in a t-shirt that just says “Love Smile,” “He said he would never” scrawled across the back of a teenage girl’s hoodie (never what? he would never what?!) or, my recent favorite, the guy on the TransMilenio with a “New York” t-shirt that said “Time Square” in at least three different places. And don’t even get me started on the signs and promotional material for companies — I want to grab a paintbrush every time I pass the beauty salon a few blocks away from me named “Beauty Stile.”

I recognize that the fact that I’m a knee-jerk grammar nerd who has to bite my tongue to keep from correcting people in conversation has a lot to do with why I notice these little details, but I’m also just kind of baffled by the whole concept of it. I get that people may not notice that things are misspelled (like the TimeS Square dude) or maybe they don’t care that the sentence on their shirt doesn’t actually make any sense, but I’m sort of unclear on what the market is for clothing splattered with nonsensical English words. Why not buy a t-shirt that has an actual reasonable sentence in Spanish, or, better yet, clothing without any words at all? Better to be understood in no languages than misunderstood in two.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

The Bogotálogo: My Personal Guide to Bogotá Spanish

Aside

On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up this absolutely awesome book at an author’s event last week (which, incidentally, was held at the most insanely nice private school here in Bogotá — the library looked like Colombian Hogwarts or something). It’s called Bogotálogo: Usos, Desusos y Abusos del Español Hablado en Bogotá (Uses, Disuses and Abuses of the Spanish Spoken in Bogotá), and it is HILARIOUS. It’s a really comprehensive, beautifully designed guide to all kinds of Bogotá slang, from the traditional to the very dirty, filled with vintage photos of people and places in Bogotá from the early 20th century. The author, Andrés Ospina, has worked for a while in radio here in Bogotá, and he’s incredibly witty, which clearly shows through the often-sarcastic definitions he provides for words and phrases (in the front of my book, he wrote “A little piece of my humble hometown. I’m sure it will help to worsen or ruin your Spanish.” What a guy!).

Personally, despite his insistence, I’m pretty sure it’s going to help my Colombian Spanish a hell of a lot. It’s already been a huge hit with the other teachers at school — the other day, we locked the students out of the teachers’ room and spent an hour reading the definitions to each other, and they’ve been quick to add words or phrases they insist are missing (this is how I learned how to say “spooning” in Spanish! Which will be endlessly useful, I’m sure). In any case, it’s worth a look, especially for anyone else in Colombia, or anyone with some interest in Spanish linguistics.

Here’s the link to the site, which lists most of the definitions (in Spanish, of course. Sorry, monolingual friends!). Enjoy!