When I speak Spanish my train of thought often passes by a lingering preoccupation that hovers in the front of my mind: try to sound smarter than a second grader. It’s not a grandiose goal for a college-educated individual, but it is a realistic one, and these days there is something to be said for unadorned realism. Realistic or not, however, it is not always easy to achieve. A single slip of the tongue, one misplaced letter, and you are back in Dumbsville. It is exactly this fear that paralyzes many language learners, so I recommend that you ignore it. Besides, if you don’t keep talking, you won’t end up with comedies of errors like these.
At a planning meeting for a retreat I noticed that the meal list budgeted a half-pound of angel hair pasta for 80 people. That seemed like an inadequate amount, so I asked if we needed more. My credibility was shot though when I said caballo de angel instead of cabello de angel. One letter was the difference between angel hair pasta and angel horse pasta.
One day in class a professor asked me how I was. “No tan casado como ayer,” I answered—not as tired as yesterday. “Really?” he said. “Did you get a divorce?” Cansado is tired, but casado is married. I had actually told him that I wasn’t as married as the day before.
In the Spanish Mass you end prayer petitions with roguemos al Señor, let us pray to the Lord. During a Mass with a group of high school students, Emily ended one such request with “Reguemos al Señor.” Afterwards she was confronted by snickering students. Her letter change switched from the very rogar—meaning to pray—to the verb regar—meaning to water, as in your lawn. “Let us water to the Lord!”
Speaking of chuch, I mentioned to a Mormon woman here that I come from Utah, Mormon Ground Zero. We got into a conversation and at one point, for whatever reason, I said, “The Mormon Church has many traditions.” Except instead of tradiciones I said traiciones. I got a strange look and then I had to explain what I meant when I said, “The Mormon Church has many betrayals.”
Mark Twain famously remarked, “It is better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” I’ve done plenty of doubt removing here in Spanish. Fortunately there are billions of people in the world and if you make a mistake with one person, you can always find someone else who doesn’t know that you’re a fool. At least not yet.