It’s funny how slight differences in pronunciation can make a big difference in meaning—especially in a foreign language.
My friend Sheri found this out first-hand on a trip to Nicaragua. She was in San Jorge, a small town on the shore of Lake Nicaragua and site of the ferry terminal to the island of Ometepe. (A very cool place to visit, by the way. It has two cone volcanoes—one extinct—and is covered in rain forest and farm land.)
It was late so she and a friend, who spoke no English, found a hotel to catch the ferry the next morning.
As they were checking in the owner said, in Spanish, that Sheri needed to clean it first because the wind had blown a lot of sand inside. The word for sand is arena, pronounced ah-rehn-a. No big deal.
But Sheri, who studies Spanish diligently and is eager to learn, thought she heard one of her new vocabulary words: araña, or “spider.” It’s pronounced ah-ran-ya.
Understandably, she was hesitant to take the room—it was full of spiders. In fact, she was terrified and told her friend she would rather sleep outside on the beach.
This left both the hotel owner and Sheri’s friend totally puzzled. She was refusing to take the room because it was full of sand, yet she was willing to sleep on the beach.
“My friend just looked helplessly at me, then at the owner of the hotel, and then back at me again, to see if I had regained my sanity. Then, finally, he somehow figured out that I was not actually crazy and had just mixed up my words,” says Sheri. “So, he was able to explain my bizarre behavior to the owner, and she has been very nice to me ever since!”
A little misunderstanding. But it all came out okay in the end. And Sheri learned a new word.
These sorts of situations can pop up when you’re learning a new language. But exercise a little patience—be willing to get out of your comfort zone—and you can get through them just fine. It helps that most native speakers are patient as well. They appreciate that visitors and new neighbors are willing to learn their language and will help any way they can.
Sheri is still learning Spanish. She went to Ometepe again recently for an extended visit. She’s teaching English to local adults and school kids as part of a volunteer program and offers private lessons on the side—though many students can’t afford to pay much. Often she receives food or coffee in payment.
But she’s not in it for the money. Helping Nicaraguans learn English will open up their job prospects and improve their economic situation.
She says that teaching also improves her Spanish as she interacts with her students.
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