January 7, 2013

But Words Will Never Hurt Me

words words words by Chris Blakeley on flickr
photo by Chris Blakeley
A visiting short-term missions team from Brazil has really stretched my language skills the past few days.  Brazilians speak Portuguese, which is very similar to Spanish. That means that most native speakers of either language can generally understand the other.  It also means that those of us on the outside looking in, wind up in a fuzzy blur of confusion.

There are some positives, like the fact that in the female section of the prison today, we taught the ladies to sing a praise chorus in the four languages represented--Portuguese, English, Guarani, and Spanish.  And as always happens hanging out with people of other nationalities, I learned some new words--and who doesn't love learning new words?!?!

Despite that I have thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these folks, at the end of these full days, my head is spinning and I'm exhausted.  All this excitement has made me remember some other times language learning has caused me a headache--or at least a few laughs.

Way back when I was a short-termer to Peru, I really, really wanted to put into practice all that Spanish I'd been learning from the library-borrowed CD's always playing in my car.  You know, those touristy ones that teach you to ask where the bathroom is and how much the Coca Cola costs.  I was pretty good at those basic phrases, but the pronouns gave me some trouble.

I was determined to use my Spanish skills when giving that traditional salutation we visiting foreigners have to say at the beginning of every service.  You know the drill: "I bring greetings from the people of South Carolina, who are praying for you.  It is an honor for us to be in your presence, worshiping the Lord together."  Except this time, I realized that I'd mixed up "WE" and "Y'ALL" at that moment, and at all the previous churches where I'd shared that little speech.  "It is such an honor for y'all to have us in your presence..."  Ouch.

And my famous foible, where I didn't realize that the slang term for a woman of the night is very close to the word for t-shirts, and I THOUGHT I asked the youth camp directors if they wanted us to bring along a few t-shirts to use as door prizes, "just for fun".  They promptly declined.

This past weekend, we were invited to be the door greeters at our local church.  This is intimidating, because music in Latin America is generally played two notches higher than the loudest decibels you've ever endured. Background noise like that, teamed with having sequential mini-conversations with lots of strangers, is sure to make for some misunderstandings.  And it did.

The first folks who came in were obviously not regulars, and I pulled out my best smile to welcome them.   They'd arrived at 7 PM, about a half hour before service starts.  That doesn't happen in Paraguay normally, so I was already wondering what was up.  Over the praise team's sonic boom, she leaned in for the two customary cheek kisses, and asked me if pizza is served at 7.  "No, not that I know of."

She looked really puzzled, so I thought maybe we were having something special that I was unaware of, and I started looking around for a staff member I could ask.  Meanwhile, she clarified, "Well, what time, then?"  Hmmmm.  It's pizza night?  Maybe they're having a meeting with someone who promised to feed them?  Maybe there are snacks tonight?  After I'd run through a million scenarios, I realize that she actually never said pizza.  She had asked me if church STARTS at 7.  The words are very similar, but not similar enough to fend off the laughter from the ladies preparing the Lord's Supper plates when I explained what I was sure she'd said.

I could go on and on because messing up words in Spanish OR English is sort of my specialty.  But the truth is, in this line of work, one has to learn not to get flustered by these inevitable mishaps.  They just happen.

Tell me I'm not the only one!


  1. I spent a short term mission's trip in Mazatlan, Mexico several years ago. My Spanish was about 20 years rusty at that point, but God was helping me remember a lot of what I learned in high school. We would set up a mobile kitchen and then walk around the neighborhood inviting people to a fiesta at the plaza. One lady begged off, complaining that her knee hurt her. I put on my biggest smile and asked her sweetly if she would like me to fall on her supper. Based on the look on her face when she said "Que?", I figured out that I used the wrong verb for "to bring". I also have problems with matching the endings, so sometimes, I have introduced my husband as "mi esposa" to the Spanish speaking folks in our church. They quickly correct me. I am very grateful for their patience with me.

  2. I have yet to learn a second language or enough of one to speak to others. The best I can do is count to ten in multiple languages. However I am hoping to one day speak another language fluently. My only real concern IS saying something I didn't mean to say. (lol)

    Just wanted to stop in and let you know that I nominated you for an award. Please take the time to come to my sight Voice From The End of Town (http://hsmentormom.blogspot.com) to see it.

  3. Happy New Year! I have accidentally called Ramon "mi esposa" too! Over here, someone just recently told me that the word "guys" means cow in Nepali and the people were just too polite to tell me I had been saying, "You cows" when I said, "You guys..." Oh dear! Now I say, "You folks..." Have a nice day and may the Lord richly bless "you guys" :) ah, "you folks!" as you minister for Him this coming year (and always!)!

  4. That's a good one, Kathy!!! COWS! I don't know which is worse, when the people over-correct you, or when they let you go on and on saying the wrong thing. I think I prefer the correction, as much as it gets on my nerve to have every phrase picked apart... Blessings, friend!


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