Baxter, You Know I Don’t Speak Spanish…
I’ll never forget my Adult English class end-of-year party in May 2013. One of the ladies wanted to know when the next semester started. I said I didn’t know but she could contact me in July to find out. She then said, “Yo te llamo” (I’ll call you). I thought she said, “Yo te amo” (I love you). Things got a tad awkward at that point as I replied back, in Spanish, “I love you, too?” (She didn’t call in July.)
I began learning Spanish in earnest in 2006. My church did surveys in the community to find out what people’s needs were. Indirectly, we became aware that if we did more Spanish in our church many people in the community would consider coming. We needed a point person, and no one in our leadership spoke Spanish. Like millions of Americans, I learned some in high school but quickly lost it. I picked up some slang on the farm with the migrant workers, and that was also quite useless. But I was single and had time and energy, so I went for it. I took a trip for a month to Peru in 2007 and came back far from fluency but at least with a base to begin.
Like most adults learning second languages, I still make mistakes, however. Often. Sometimes with pretty standard grammar. Like in my opening story, it is at times embarrassing. Other times it is just annoying. In light of all of this, today I want to confess several of the things that still give me headaches after 13 years.
Tú vs. Usted
A safe estimation of the number of times I have asked for an explanation of this is about 500. The standard answer is that Tú is familiar You (Singular) and that Usted is formal. But that is open to interpretation. Examples that my closest friends have given me are that you use Usted for people like your grandmother or someone you do not know when they are above you socially or you want to be very polite. But then I am at the grocery store and I hear a mother use Usted and its like verb forms to address their toddlers.
There have been ladies in my church who have been adamant that I refer to them as Usted and others of the same age and culture that are equally as firm that I address them as Tú. Some people in my church think God should be Usted when praying because we should show reverence. Others think He should be Tú because he is such a personal God.
To this day I approach praying in church and conversations with people in Spanish with fear and trembling because I do not know which form is best. Thankfully most people are very gracious and either do not mind either way or will humbly tell you which is preferable when talking to them.
Formal vs. Familiar is especially troubling when it comes to commands. Because Spanish has a different imperative for each form of You. And the Tú form actually has two words—a positive and a negative. Not to mention that if “You” is plural there is a fourth form (For example, for the Spanish verb decir the four forms are Di, Diga, No Digas, and Digan). So when I have to give a command, my brain rifles through several possible phrases; and, often, I am worried I will use the wrong one.
Translating the Infinitive Form from English
The infinite form by itself is not that hard. Comer in Spanish is literally “to eat” in English. But once you put “to eat” in a sentence, translating it into Spanish is maddening. I’ll give you a few examples of translations that I do know to show the complexity. Notice how many variations of Spanish there are for the English infinite form:
I want to eat. Quiero comer.
I want you to eat. Quiero que tu comas.
There is nothing to eat. No hay nada que comer.
I want something to eat. Quiero algo de comer.
I was the first to eat. Yo fui el primero en comer.
I am ready to eat. Estoy listo para comer.
There are other examples but this suffices. Any time the infinitive is used, especially at the end of of a sentence, I often have no idea of I am supposed to say de before it or para or que or what. Many times I just guess. Even now, I have no idea off the top of my head what the correct translation is of “It’s a good thing to eat.” This is why I often mumble in Spanish.
Pronunciation of words with gu
Compared to English, Spanish pronunciation is a cakewalk. Most things are very straightforward with zero exceptions or convoluted rules. Gu is one of the few letter combinations in Spanish that can be pronounced more than one way. Even then it is not that complex a rule. Gu with e or i makes the hard sound (just like English, like “Go”), as in Juguete (“Toy”). And before a and o it is pronounced Gw, as in Guapo, the name of the handsome villain in The Three Amigos.
Making it a tad more complicated is that Gü followed by e or i makes the Gw sound, as in Vergüenza (“Shame”). Yet even though there are only three things to remember, somehow my brain cannot keep them straight. I once read 1 Corinthians 15 at my church in an Easter service and the word Aguijón really threw me for a loop. I choked and totally butchered it.
Ser vs. Estar
Both typically mean “to be” in English, and their differences are much more difficult than grammars often explain. I have studied this deeply, and I still often guess as to which one is right. It is not as simple as Ser being a permanent condition and Estar being temporary. There are a lot of exceptions to that, and sometimes those two criteria are not boxes in which an idea can be expressed. For example, a former missionary to Spain told me that his teacher taught him that Ser is always used with bueno (“good”). And then a little while later the teacher said as they were eating, “La comida está buena!” (“The food is good!”), and my friend was confused and said so. The guy said, “Oh, food is an exception.” And with food the concept of temporary or permanent doesn’t really fit.
I think that Ser and Estar really have overlap in meaning for most Spanish-Speakers and if there are differences, they are too subtle to even matter. I think you can say a football game es en el estadio (“in the stadium”) or está en el estadio and nearly no one will care.
Preterite or Imperfect?
These two are very similar to ser and estar in that I am often guessing as to which one is correct. Both are past tense, and preterite more or less carries the idea of a completed action in the past, while imperfect is less concerned with action completion. Even though we do not have two forms of the past tense in English exactly like these, we can say “I went” and “I was going”, and those two examples can–but do not necessarily always do—help illustrate the difference.
I also know that if you say someone “used to” do something, then imperfect is often correct. That is helpful to me.
But overall I still get stuck with this. Combining these two forms with the previous two verbs, you realize that if you want to say “I was” in Spanish, you have four convenient options: Yo fui, Yo era, Yo estuve and Yo estaba. No matter how much you study and how well you know the difference between the two verbs and the two tenses, that is a lot for an English brain to process when you have to make the decision quickly.
Spanish has simple translations for the English indefinite articles a and an (un and una as masculine and feminine, respectively), but the way Spanish uses them vs. English is always not the same. The most obvious example is that Spanish says “Soy doctor” instead of “Soy un doctor”, and that clashes with my English brain. Again, I have that one figured out, but there are still plenty of times where I am not sure if I need to say un or una or not.
Definite articles (the in English) are not quite as hard, though there are four in Spanish (El, La, Los, Las). And there are still times Spanish is different. English says, “I like coffee” (meaning coffee in general) not “I like the coffee,” which is how to say it correctly in Spanish. That, however, trips my mind up less frequently than whether I am supposed to say, “Soy padre” or “Soy un padre” for “I am a father”. (I think both are correct but I’m really not sure.)
Since English doesn’t have these, they are hard to remember. Si and Sí are not the same word. And while I have those two down, there are dozens of words with or without accents I have to look up because I simply cannot recall.
I’m not mad; I’m actually quite impressed.
This list could go on and on, but the point is clear: for someone like me, Spanish will always be a second language. I will never claim fluency as a result.
And I am curious if our readership has any similar stories or issues. If you do, we would love for you to comment below. I also would love to know what high level Spanish speakers think of my confusions and if they have any tips to help. I will be a learner of this language until the day I die.