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Knowing your ‘pollo’ from your ‘cajones’ – why making mistakes in another language should be encouraged

A tweet inviting Spanish learners to share their funniest mistakes prompted a flurry of hilarious responses. English Edition editor Simon Hunter argues that these malapropisms are key to perfecting your second language

Shopping for chicken has proved a particular challenge for Spanish speakers, according to Twitter.
Shopping for chicken has proved a particular challenge for Spanish speakers, according to Twitter.Tingshu Wang / Reuters

On Wednesday I opted to take a day off from my beloved job editing the English Edition of EL PAÍS, so I could race through a freelance translation I had been commissioned to do. Like any good freelancer, however, rather than making good use of the luxury of this extra time, I spent most of my morning glued to Twitter – partly due to the political earthquake that was being unleashed throughout the country and partly due to the flurry of responses I was receiving to a tweet I had posted about making mistakes in another language.

When I moved to Madrid back in the year 2000, I only knew a few words of Spanish. The incredible social life I found in the capital, however, combined with my job as an English teacher, soon put paid to that and within a very short amount of time I was building up my linguistic skills. The Madrid of the early noughties was a non-stop fiesta for me, with a seemingly endless supply of house parties, discobares, nightclubs and after-hours – and thanks to a steady diet of San Miguel beer, and frighteningly strong whiskey-and-cokes, I had plenty of opportunity to practice my Spanish with the friends I made along the way, with very few inhibitions.

When you make one of these mistakes and people laugh, you will never forget it, and (unless you are my wife) you are very unlikely to make that same mistake again

One of the keys to the speed with which I picked up the language, in my opinion, was a complete willingness to make mistakes. Among the first of these, and one that still makes me laugh, was when I went shopping in my local market to buy some pasta. Being something of a fan of Italian food, I wanted some of those little ridged tubes – known to me, and Italians I gather, as penne. Imagine, then, the confusion and frankly shock on the face of the stall holder as I pointed at the packets on the shelf behind her and loudly shouted “¡Pene! ¡Pene!” Which of course means “penis” in Spanish.

And then there was the time while giving an English class that I misread my own handwriting and explained that “to trip” in Spanish was “pezonar” – basically I had created a new verb, “to nipple,” rather than what I wanted to say, which was “tropezar.” My mime of using my fingers to imitate legs stumbling along the table only heightened the confusion.

This of course also works the other way – my Spanish wife, who speaks English but appears to have abandoned all hope decades ago of actually improving her level – is an endless source of joyous linguistic malapropisms. If you ever get in an elevator with her don’t be alarmed if she invites you to “touch the bottom,” rather than the button. She also used to introduce my father, who was a solicitor, by saying: “This is Michael. He is a liar.” (Depending on your opinion of lawyers, that description may not have been too far off the mark.)

Even my three-year-old son is providing us with a few gems lately, our favorite being his insistence on saying “Monster fuck!” every time he sees one of those trucks with the massive wheels.

The point is that when you make one of these mistakes and people laugh, you will never forget it, and (unless you are my wife) you are very unlikely to make that same mistake again. I remember all my clangers from those early days in Spain and they helped me sort out my pollo from my cajones quick sharp.

And as the responses from my tweet proved yesterday, I’m not alone. Many people, whether they are Spanish or English learners, had a story to share. Here are some of the best I received. Who knows – they might just save you from making the same mistakes.


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