The Day My Spanish Shortcut Failed…

When I arrived in South America over five years ago, my Spanish vocabulary was limited to just a few words. Learning and remembering nouns seemed particularly challenging, but I was delighted to discover that many Spanish words sound very similar to their English equivalent.

For example, an office is an oficina and a bank is a banco.

“If you don’t know the name of something,” someone told me, “add an ‘o’ or ‘a’ to the end of the English word. You’ll be surprised how often it works.” That sounded like a good idea, so I tried it, and it did work, at least some of the time. But what started as a handy crutch morphed into something else that ended up hindering my learning.

I started applying the method to Spanish words that do not sound like their English equivalent. It was a new language, which I created to amuse myself. A pocket became a pocketa and windows became windowetas. My inventory expanded, engulfing adjectives. When I was dressed and ready to leave my house, I was readyeta. When my stomach began to growl, I was hungryeta.

My bilingual friends learned the new words and usually played along. But my laziness was setting me back. I was not developing a vocabulary to call upon, and I was not practicing pronunciation, which can mean the difference between clear communication and total disaster.

One day I decided to take my favorite pair of jeans to the tailor for a few repairs. They still looked snazzy, but I was getting tired of coins slipping through holes in the pockets. After enjoying lunch with a Colombian friend, we headed to a street lined with tailor shops. I knew just where I wanted to go, a shop owned by an ancient old man who uses a beautiful antique sewing machine. I asked my friend for the real word for pocketas. “Bosillos,” he said. Bosillos, bosillos, bosillos, I practiced repeatedly in my mind, as we ambled along.

“I think we should go to another place. I have a bad feeling about this,” my friend said as we arrived at the shop. I assured him that all would be okay; I had employed the man before, and his work was excellent. I explained to the tailor the nature of the repair I needed. Although I stumbled a few times over bosillos, and the man seemed a little hard of hearing, he seemed to understand what I was saying. I left with an air of confidence, but my friend still seemed concerned. I felt a little uncertain about how well I had communicated, but I brushed the fears aside. After all, a man with such vast knowledge and such a lovely sewing machine could never let me down.

The next day, my friend and I returned to the tailor shop. The man handed me the neatly folded jeans and I stuck my hand in one of the pockets. It still had a hole. The other pocket still had a hole, too. Then I held up the jeans and let them unfurl. My jaw dropped and my eyes widened.

The tailor had cropped my favorite pair of jeans just below the knees and I was now the owner of a lovely pair of Capri pants. At that point, my friend jumped in to explain the error. “Dios mio,” the tailor replied, “I thought your friend said something else.”

“I told you I had a bad feeling,” my friend said, rolling his eyes.

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