Monday, January 31, 2011


The other night, while having friends over for dinner, we talked about life as non-native speakers in Chile and how sometimes you can come off sounding unnecessarily terse or shoot of an email that is unintentionally rude. This got me thinking about some of the language differences between English and Spanish that have continued to trip me up.

That there are two verbs to describe "to be" ser (permanent) and estar (temporary). Although it would seem clear cut which of these to use in a sentence, it's not always so plain. I'm sleepy? Clearly a good use of estar.  But to say "He's dead", a seemingly permanent state, you would actually use the estar verb, although I'm not sure why. In case he was just sleeping?

The verb "to know" is among those that have two categories. To know definitively, fundamentally saber and to know someone, be familiar with a place conocer. To me this is one of the strangest sentence constructions. In speaking with someone about travel, you might ask "do you know Pucon?" like it's a friend you may or may not have met a party. In response you could say "I don't know Puncon, but I'd like to someday." This, to me at least, sounds like Puncon's an awfully popular person who everyone would like to get to know, rather than a place.

Then there are then no distinction words, which are also confusing. There's no difference between "on" and "in." Or cracker and cookie. One day while packing a picnic, I asked to be directed to where the cracker/cookies might be and was shepherded off to the isle with thousands of cookies, none of which looked like they'd go well with goat cheese. But for some reason, there is a distinction made between the two types of cherries, blonde guinda and red cereza, but none made between peaches and nectarines. Both are duraznos but nectarines are "bald peaches" duraznos pelones.

Food can be tricky like this. It took me a good while relearning all the words for foods here since many have indigenous origins and aren't the same as the Mexican or Spanish from Spain that is taught in schools. Adiós elotealó choclo.

Then there are cultural differences that make writing a polite letter, email or speaking politely more difficult. How you say please is huge. It can sound demanding to use please, like someone in a position of power commanding someone to do something. By no means is "please" the magic word here. Instead it's all about intonation. To me, what sounds like baby talk.

Although I can read and understand people, these are the finesses in language I have yet to refine,  cultural differences in how people speak to one another, the subtleties. 


No comments:

Post a Comment