Spanglish as a 2.5nd Language

24 02 2011

There are a lot of qualities one needs to be a successful social jerk worker. Patience, understanding of child development, knowledge of family systems, creativity, proximity to a punching bag…

But there’s one that will serve you better than almost anything else–a working knowledge of Spanish.

Yesterday I found myself doing an unannounced home visit. For those of you fortunate enough to work in a field where you don’t have to surprise people, and possibly their angry dogs, in their own homes, let me explain–this is what we have to do when people aren’t coming in for services, answering their phones, what have you. Got to make those numbers!

I found myself face to face with a very sweet Puerto Rican grandma (abuelita, if you will.) I think she was very sweet, anyway. She didn’t speak a word of English, aside from “thank you.”

We made it through the visit all right. She gave me an update on her grandson, let me know where her daughter was, and had me visit with her granddaughter. Also, she may or may not have given me a cookie. (Hint: it was delicious.)

My Spanish is actually  pretty good. But I’m not a native speaker. Even if I pack up and move to Ecuador for a couple of years, I’m not going to sound like one. There’s always that edge that native speakers have–the colloqualisms, regional terminology, subtle pronunciation differences–you pick them up the more you use them, but it’s just not the same as growing up with it.

It’s what makes me, and a lot of other people, self conscious. What if I pronounce something wrong? What if I use the wrong verb? Well, you probably will. But when you’re dealing with someone who speaks much less English than you do Spanish, they’ll be grateful for the effort. I always remind myself that I would never make fun of an English language learner, so why do I worry that someone would do that to me?

Making do with the language skills you have is a necessity. It’s part of the job. But sometimes, hilarity ensues.

My co-workers and I (all of whom spoke Spanish as a second language) have in the past:

  • Asked a 4 year old, “Te quiero?” (I love you?) instead of, “Tu quieres?” (You want?) when serving snack.
  • Inquired “Cuantos anos tienes?” (How many anuses do you have?) rather than “Cuantos años tienes?” (How old are you?)
  • Informed the parents that it was “Sock day!” (media día) rather than a “half day” (medio día.)
  • Tried to act like we required the mother’s date of birth, after messing up pronouns when asking about the son.
  • Announced that there were many “bichos” in the room we were meeting in. (This can mean that there are lots of flies. In Puerto Rican slang, it means that there are lots of penises. Guess where everyone in that room was from?)
  • Thought that it was acceptable for kids to call one another “pato” since it just means “duck.” (It actually also means something else.)

So yes, I have at times sounded like an idiot. I’ll give you all a moment to recover from that profound shock. But I’ve also learned a lot, and been able to use my imperfect language skills to accomplish things I didn’t think I could.

It’s a good thing humility and flexibility are also invaluable in social work.




13 responses

24 02 2011

You’re giving me flashbacks about all the trouble I got myself into working at a Puerto Rican nursing home (I’m originally from Texas and speak Mexican-type Spanish… when I said “catch the bus” my coworkers heard me describing a sex act… whoops).

24 02 2011

The rule seems to be that if you are at all unsure of what you’re saying, or if any word has two meanings, you will accidentally say something sexual. Glad I’m not the only one 🙂

25 02 2011

La nota está muy chistosa 😀


25 02 2011

Gracias! Yo trato 🙂

P.S. It took three tries to make that come out right. Autocorrect is trying to destroy me.

25 02 2011
clarita rodriguez

Im so behind on your writing. You made me laugh this morning. Im surprised being youre half puerto rican and all lol.

25 02 2011

I know, right? I should probably just convert to 100%, it would make things easier.

25 02 2011

What I simply do not understand is what makes a sock a boy (media) rather than a girl (medio). Or what makes a day a girl, rather than a boy. ‘Tis a mystery to me, even after two whole semesters of Spanish classes!

25 02 2011

David Sedaris has the best take on this. Something along the lines of, “Why refer to Sir Dishrag or Good Lady Crackpipe if they are incapable of disrobing and occasionally making a fool if themselves?” I’m paraphrasing, as unfortunately I don’t have Me Talk Pretty One Day on front of me. Though I highly recommend it.

26 02 2011
Weekend Links 7 | Fighting Monsters

[…] SocialJerk discusses the usefulness of a second language as a social worker. I can affirm that even a few words of mispronounced Urdu or Turkish can make a massive difference in building a relationship. […]

27 02 2011

I love the mistakes you have shared…they are so funny 🙂

But joking aside, I’m sure that your clients all appreciate the fact that you have taken the time to learn Spanish and forgive you for your occasional errors.

It shows that you care and have at least a partial aptitude for languages. The mere fact that you have reached the point where you recognize that you have made these errors shows growth on your part in terms of your knowledge of the language…

I too would like to learn some Spanish because it seems to be the second language in New York… Do you have any suggestions on where to take an inexpensive introductory class?

28 02 2011

Thank you! I think showing that effort helps a lot in building relationships.

I have no idea about introductory classes, aside from community colleges. But I will say that I wouldn’t spend too much time in a class. If you really have no background with Spanish, then a class to learn some basic vocab and grammar is a good idea. I took Spanish throughout high school and college, and I never felt competent. I learned so much more in a week of dealing with Spanish-only parents. Actually using it is so vital. (There’s also the slang and regional dialect issues, which is rarely dealt with in classes. They tend to teach a very proper, Spain manner of speaking, which isn’t what most people in NYC use.) There are meet-up groups for people who want to practice Spanish. I would recommend something like that.

Good luck!

2 05 2011

I think I laughed at this more than I should have. All in good fun though.

4 05 2011

No such thing as laughing more than you should! I’m glad you enjoyed my ridiculousness 🙂

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