I was having a conversation the other day with Mario—in English this time. (It varies.) We were talking about my trip out west and an animal I encountered along the way: a chipmunk. In Spanish, the word for chipmunk and squirrel is the same—la ardilla. Note the article. It’s feminine. So, I was talking, and I said, “He had a mouth full of twigs. It was so cute!” And Mario replied, “I think you mean she. It’s la ardilla, after all.” Of course, he was halfway joking, but it still made me laugh. It made me think too. It’s so funny how learning Spanish has helped me understand my own languages: the quirks, the interesting word origins (etymology is so fascinating!), and just grammar in general. Guys, we do have a subjunctive tense in English. So pay attention.
The Whole Gender Thing
In Mario’s worldview, all animals with a female article should be referred to as females. I once called a snake a “he.” I don’t know why; it just came out. But nooooo, he insisted, snakes were shes. Same goes for la cigüeña (the stork) or la nutria (the otter). It made me wonder why, in English, we refer to cars and boats as she and most animals as he (until we know better).
We Have a Subjunctive Tense?
Speaking Spanish helped me understand that we have a subjunctive tense, even we don’t always do it right. Ever said or heard, “I wish I was …”? Technically, if I’m being prescriptivist, that should be “I wish I were …” Other examples include sentences like “It’s necessary that he see a doctor” or “I suggested she be taken away.” So, you know, it’s out there.
Speaking Spanish has improved my English vocabulary and word recognition. Now when I hear a word, I can often begin to guess what the word might mean if I don’t know—if it came from Latin. You see, we adopted a lot of words from Latin, especially fancier words. Spanish is a lot closer to Latin than English, meaning many more-common words are similar to our fancier words.
This year I went to the doctor, and she told me I had some condition. I had never heard of this in Spanish, and it sounded bad, so I started worrying. And worrying. And worrying. Finally, after the appointment was over, I looked it up on my phone. Ummm, no big deal. It was super common, and there was nothing to fret about. But it sounded a lot worse in Spanish! Fancy words = bad news, right?
Some words that are a bit fancy sounding in English but not so much in Spanish include: amicable (from Latin amica and similar to amigo in Spanish), piquant (similar to Spanish picante, or spicy), veritably (similar to Spanish verdad, or truth), quiescent (similar to Spanish quieto, inactive). And the list goes on and on. But knowing Spanish has actually helped me in English! Funny how that works.
Mario and I are weird, and we admit it. But we love to translate things literally from English to Spanish and Spanish to English. One of our favorite games on the metro is translating the names literally. Some of my favorites include Sticks of the Frontier (Palos de la Frontera), Guzman the Good Man (Guzman El Bueno), Pine Forest of the King (Pinar del Rey), The Moral (La Moraleja), and We Are Waters Campus (Campus Somosaguas). It’s a fun game to pass time on the metro!
But we also do this by saying weird things like, “Estoy espalda” for “I’m back” or “I love you an egg” for “Te quiero un huevo.” Any other bilingual couples do things like this?
When I come back to the U.S., sometimes I will hear a word or expression or find myself saying something, and I realize that’s just downright odd. For example, “cold turkey” or “pipe dream” or “thick as thieves.” I begin to wonder where they came from, and since Mr. Google’s always so helpful, I have to whip out my phone right that instant and figure it out. Ah, the Internet. A language nerd’s best friend.
Using Spanish Expressions In English
Why doesn’t English have a good way to say me da pereza? In Spanish, if something gives you pereza, it means that the task or the idea of doing the task makes you feel lazy, like it’s not worth it. I always want to say this in English, but I end up getting too frustrated and giving up. The good thing with Mario is I can always code switch and just say it in Spanish.
I also often come out with “You have reason” (from Spanish Tienes razón) or “He has a lot of face” (from Spanish Tiene mucha cara).