Jun 06, 2012

One Spanish Speaker Said to the Other - I Have No Clue What You’re Saying

written by Clarissa Borge

I grew up in Miami where the population is nearly 70% Hispanic and there is at least one family living there who was at one time a citizen from every Latin American country in existence. So, one would think, that in a city where nearly everyone speaks Spanish or at least understands it, communication would be simple. Spanish is Spanish, right? Wrong. Miscommunication from Spanish to Spanish is actually quite frequent because the language varies from country to country. It was actually because of this that I got into my first fight when I was nine years old. Alright, admittedly, it wasn’t an all-out brawl (mostly because I had no idea how to throw a punch at the time) and could possibly be best described as more of a- “I’m right!-- No, I’m right!” yelling match, it happened to be over something that, on the surface, seemed quite simple. 

We were “debating” over the correct way to portray the urgency of “right now” from English to Spanish. My classmate, a Cuban-American, kept insisting that ahora was obviously the correct word. I, on the other hand, am Nicaraguan-American and stubbornly yelled back that ahorita showed that it was more urgent that that, because ahora could be used as meaning “in a moment”. He countered that ahorita meant “in a moment”, not the other way around. So, we were at an impasse. However, before things became even more heated, our teacher, a soft spoken nun who, until then I had never seen angry, much less heard yell, managed to break us up and explain that neither one of us was completely right or wrong. This instantly quieted us down instantly (albeit not without sulking). She said, that because we stemmed from different countries, our Spanish varied slightly just like American English and British English; although I would even go as far as to say that there are differences between American speech from the north, south, east and west coast. I didn’t believe her or my parents when I asked them about it later. I stuck to my guns and (out of pride) believed right down to my core that I was correct and my classmate’s version of Spanish was wrong. 

However, as if my eyes (or ears, if you prefer) had suddenly been opened to the vast vocabulary of Spanish I started encountering these little miscommunications everywhere I went (because Spanish is, literally, spoken everywhere in Miami). It wasn’t until a certain fruit incident that I resigned myself that I wasn’t correct in believing that Cuban Spanish or Argentinian Spanish was wrong, it was just how words develop. This fruit incident happened nearly 2 years later after my “fight”. As I was waiting for the bus, I meandered over to the fruit vendor at the corner. She didn’t see me walk over, but when she did she started asking me, “Quieres palta?” (Do you want palta?) I looked at her very confused because what she was asking me made no sense. I had never heard of the word palta and frankly, to the 11 year-old me, it sounded like she was asking me if I wanted a good thrashing, especially since she spoke with such a hoarse voice. She repeated the question a couple more times, but when the same question only elicited a baffled (and somewhat scared) shake of the head from me she started getting annoyed and angrily told me to move away if I wouldn’t buy anything. (That I understood completely and hastily retreated to where my father stood). 
Luckily, my mother’s Peruvian friend visited us later that evening and when my father asked her if she had any idea what it meant, she quickly explained that palta simply meant avocado, which everyone I had ever known (including the Cuban classmate) called aguacate. That was the moment when I rolled my eyes and simply decided to accept the fact that different nationalities will name certain things differently. And instead of confronting it with frustration and anger that they are not speaking correctly (although, I am quite sure there are certain things that Spaniards will most definitely put their foot down and say, “No, this is the correct way to call it/ say it”, but that is a debate for another day) it was better to just take it as a vocabulary lesson and move on. 
Now, I’m glad I actually paid attention to the different names people called certain things because I can narrow down what country a person is from by the type words that they use (palta for example, is also an Argentinian, Chilean and Uruguayan word). So, living in such a hodge-podge that is Miami gave me the opportunity to learn vast amounts of vocabulary that no amount of memorizing by flashcards could ever provide. It also taught me the importance of realizing who is talking to me and to whom I am speaking because that can make a world of a difference in communication and understanding.

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