American in Spain

Forked Tongues

October 8, 2010

Recently, I had the following exchange with my daughter. It seems, sometimes, like most of our conversations can be boiled down to "Nora, what you're doing may kill you."

Me: "Nora, don't run with a fork in your hand!"

Nora: [picks up a second fork and continues running]

Me: "No, the problem wasn't a lack of forks!" 1

This got me thinking overthinking... One of the hardest parts about becoming truly fluent in a foreign language is comprehending the subtle differences between two (or more) words in the foreign language that translate back to the same word in your own.


Just the other day, I was referring to someone having lived in a city for a few years, and I said they had lived there un rato (a while). In my head, whenever I need to say "while", I say rato. But my father-in-law corrected me; he'd understood what I had meant, but he told me I should have used the word temporada, which also means "while" (as well as "season", in the sense of a sport's season or a season of a television show, but not like autumn or winter). Reflecting upon this, I think it's safe to assume that if your "while" is measured in minutes or hours (e.g. how long you've been waiting for the bus), you should go with rato, but if it's days, months, or years, it should be temporada.

Indefinite, yet quantitatively specific

One of the only mistakes my wife still makes sometimes when speaking English is of this same nature; she often will use the word "one" when she means "a". e.g. "On the way home, I stopped at one gas station." No native English speaker would say that unless they were specifically stressing the quantity of gas stations, but it's an easy mistake for a native Spanish speaker to make, since the indefinite article "a" translates to un or una, which also means "one". While the quantity of gas stations referred to by "a gas station" is unmistakably specific, we anglophones also have the ability to subtly emphasize it if we want to...which we almost never would.

Little quirks like these are one of the most fascinating things I've found about learning a foreign language.

Back to the forks...

If we were to anthropomorphize my 18-month-old daughter into a high-reasoning hispanophone adult, we could see how the command "don't run with a fork" might be misunderstood as "don't run with one fork". Therefore, one way of complying with the order would be by taking on another utensil.

1 "The problem wasn't a lack of forks" sounds like audience input into a comedy improv sketch.