When tío doesn’t mean uncle…

Javier Mariscal Exhibition at la Pedrera

While my Spanish has improved a thousand fold since my arrival, this past weekend I had a brief encounter which reminded me that every day is still a school day. My friend and I were about to leave the club when this guy asked me to dance.  It was 5am, my feet hurt, and I was tired.  I must have made a “do I really have to?” face – cause he said, “no pongas esa cara de mala leche.”  If you put this into Google translate it will tell you it means “not look so bad milk,” but I have been in Spain long enough now to know he wasn’t saying I looked like spoiled milk.  I instantly smiled and agreed to one last dance.  How could I not, after he taught me this gem of a phrase?  I love learning new dichos/sayings, even if he was telling me I was making an unpleasant face.

My experience as an ex-pat in Spain is not that of a typical foreigner.  I was lucky to be raised in a Spanish speaking household.  I grew up watching telenovelas (i.e. Spanish soap operas) and listening to Menudo and boleros.  Even my very first word- Tía (meaning aunt) – was in Spanish.  When I speak Spanish, I sound like a native speaker and therefore people automatically assume I am fluent.  The bar is set a little higher and they do not adjust their way of speaking like they might for a typical foreigner.  The only problem was that when I first I arrived in Spain, my fluency was all a façade.  Truth be told, I was more fluent in Spanglish than Spanish.  If we spoke for long enough, you would hear me make mistakes in grammar and struggle with vocabulary.  I’d never actually studied Spanish.  In school, when given the option to choose a foreign language, I chose Italian.  Twelve-year-old Adela thought – Why should I waste time learning a language I already know?  Oh how naïve she was!  I somewhat learned to read Spanish, thanks to my Catholic mother who forced me to go to Spanish mass every Sunday, but I never learned to write.  I discovered the hard way  that the conversations you have with your family and the readings of the Holy Bible, do not adequately prepare you for living and working in Spain.

I read Spanish thanks to the Bible

Rather than go on and on about my struggles of adjusting to living a life in Spanish and my new found respect for immigrants (Mami I finally know how you feel!),  I figured I’d provide some comical relief and share my top 5 Spanish 101 blunders.  I hope my mistakes help some of you Spanish students out there.   So here they are in no particular order:

1) When tío doesn’t mean uncle.  I spent my first couple of days in Barcelona like a hermit in my hotel room.  I was jet-lagged, sans friends, and without cash thanks to a banking mix up (note: if you move to another country make sure your debit card doesn’t expire the day you arrive).  I turned on the TV and got sucked into a marathon of A Dos Metros Bajo Tierra (aka Six Feet Under dubbed).  The marathon was somewhere in the middle of the last season and having never seen the show before, I was not only  struggling to grasp the Spanish, but also the storyline.  In this particular episode one of the main characters had cheated on her boyfriend.  Said boyfriend confronted her the next day, “¿Te acostaste con ese tío?” I was shocked. She slept with her uncle?!  I knew the show was a little unorthodox but incest?!  It took a couple more episodes for me to realize that tío in Spain is slang for “guy.”  Not even my first word meant what I thought it meant in Spain.

2) Numbers are fundamental.  A few days later, ecstatic that my banking issues had been resolved, I raced down to the bank to withdraw some much needed funds.  “¡Hola! Quiero uhhh 150 euros por favor/ Hi I’d like..uhhh 150 euros please.”  Hmm how do you say “bank withdrawal” in Spanish I thought.  The teller chuckled and said “Yo también/me too.  Do you have an account with us?”  Blushing because my mistake had not gone unnoticed, I said “Yes.”  He then proceeded to give me a withdrawal slip to fill out.  It was at that moment that I realized I had no idea how to spell 150.  Was it with the letter “c” or an “s”?  Was there a “q” in there somewhere?  How could I have gone my entire life without knowing how to write numbers in Spanish?  This transaction was getting more embarrassing by the minute.  I had to confess to the teller that I had no idea how to spell 150, and he was kind enough to fill out the form for me.  (It’s spelled ciento cincuenta in case you were curios)  Needless to say I went home and memorized all the fundamental numbers that day.

3) Vale does not mean yes.  Another very common word you will hear in Spain is vale.  I am not sure why, but I had it in my head that this was a type of affirmation, just a different way of saying “yes.”  Can you come to my office?  Vale.  Can you do a conference call at 530pm?  Vale.  Shall we go to lunch?  Vale.  So when someone asked if I spoke Spanish, I said “Vale.”  He looked at me funny.  “Well do you or don’t you?” he asked me again.  I said “Sí, vale – hablo español.”  He then went onto explain to me that vale actually means “ok” and not “yes.”  When someone asks you if you speak Spanish – you can’t respond “ok”.  A subtle difference, but I realized I had been using it completely wrong my first couple of weeks in Barcelona.     

Debo encontrar una verdad que es verdad para mi/I need to find a truth that is true for me.

4) Writing a contraction. One day at work, my boss asked what I was working on.  “Una carta de contracción,” I explained.  She giggled.  “Una carta de contratación” she corrected.  What I had meant to say was that I was working on a contract letter, what I wound up saying was that I was working on a contraction letter – as in a I- am-in labor-and- about-to-give-birth contraction.  Turns out adding ción to a word in English does not always give you the right word in Spanish.  This is just one example of several words that I’ve mixed up thanks to my Spanglish.

5) Ustedes and vosotros do not mix.  In Spain, they use a form of conjugation known as vosotros – it’s the informal form of you plural.  I was raised with ustedes – the formal form of you plural and therefore had never heard nor used vosotros in my life.  But when in Spain, I figured I’d try to incorporate this vosotros into my vocabulary.  What I wound up doing was saying and writing things like cuando estén listos podéis comenzar/when you (formal) are ready you (informal) can begin.  Yes I would (and sometimes still do) conjugate vosotros and ustedes in the same sentence.  This grammatical error would make any Spanish teacher cringe and is probably best avoided.

These are just a few of my many MANY blunders.  Over these last few months, Google translate, Word Reference, and Span¡shd!ct have become my best friends.  When I make mistakes no pongo una cara de mala leche.  Instead, I laugh and welcome the opportunity to improve my español.  I hope that by the time I return to New York, my fluency will have transformed from just a façade to a reality.

Now that I’ve shared some of my mistakes, are any of you foreign language students out there willing to share your language blunders?


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8 thoughts on “When tío doesn’t mean uncle…

  1. Loved this post! I was the one who took all those Spanish classes in HS/college to “perfect” my language skills and I would probably make some of the same mistakes. Contracciones! LOL

    • Thanks Patti! Good to know I am not alone! Yes I have provided my co-workers with some good laughs! I am just happy they correct me 🙂

  2. Ah, misunderstandings are an occupational hazard of ex-pat life. This very respectable, 50-something British woman I know has never lived down the embarassment of asking for a ‘pincho de polla’ instead of pollo in her local bar!! Just one letter off and yet a world of meaning away…. Thanks for your comment on my post, btw!

  3. MUY Funny! This happens all the time when I go back to the Motherland. I consider myself to be fluent, but apparently I have developed a “Mexican-way” of saying things and words are lost in translation 🙂

  4. Wow. Fascinating viewpoint. I enjoyed how you protected this topic….
    A couple issues I dont agree with but hello… thats a new standpoint.
    I am super sharp to study your following post. Can you make the next
    one more indepth? Thanks 🙂

  5. Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the pictures on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or
    if it’s the blog. Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

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