One of the many things that baffle me about Cozumel island life is how people can take so many different approaches to learning the language when they move here. While some expats go about it in the more traditional way by taking Spanish classes and joining conversational groups, there is another set of people who, in my opinion, choose to go about it the wrong way entirely.
Why do some people choose to only learn the “naughty” words first?
I just plain don’t understand people who take this approach. The usual scenario for this group goes something like this: They’ve been hanging out with their new local friends for a while and then reach a level of comfort where they feel they can ask these friends for some naughty swear words. Stereotypically, these people can’t string together an entire sentence in Spanish, much less phone an emergency operator to summon an ambulance, however, they can now swear like a cantina-drunk on payday.
Although Cozumel is a tropical island, it’s still in Mexico. Mexico, generally speaking, is a conservative, traditional country. If you walk into the cable company to change your service and use your cantina-speak, you’re not going to score any brownie points. In fact, you may not get helped at all.
Trust me, I swear like a sailor in English. I’m from New Haven – a place where we use the F-word as an always applicable adjective. Anyone who’s had more than a 5-minute chat with me has no doubt experienced at least one potty word flying out of my unfiltered mouth. But interestingly enough (and much to my long-suffering husband’s delight), I don’t swear in Spanish. Instead, I use the very old and outdated, almost chaste exclamation of Chispas! Literally translated, this means, “Sparks!” Sure, it makes a lot of Mexicans look at me and laugh, but it keeps me from getting the side eye.
My advice? Learn all of the polite words first instead.
A friend of mine, who is a frequent island visitor, once asked me how to say, “I want to go to the gym,” so she could tell a taxi driver. I gave her the phrase, but also suggested she preface it with, “I’m sorry to be a bother but…..” It’s been my experience that you can ask for a lot of unreasonable things and still get your own way if you start with that statement.
My opening line – to pretty much anyone from the bag boy at the grocery store to my bank teller – is, “Good Morning.” I learned this lesson the hard way. One day, frazzled and late, I walked into the Casa Rubber Hardware store and blurted out, “I need a kilo of nails.” The woman behind the counter stood her ground, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Good morning, how are you?”, essentially forcing me to be a polite human being to her. An excellent lesson in polite behavior for pretty much anywhere, though much more imperative here on island. Think of it this way – I took one for the team and embarrassed myself with my rudeness so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.
Here are a few of the stock phrases I use to butter my way through daily existence in Cozumel:
• I’m sorry to bother you = Disculpe la molestia
• I apologize for my Spanglish = Perdoname para mi espanol
• Thanks for taking the time to help me = Gracias para tomar el tiempo para ayudarme
• Thank you, what a nice person you are! = Gracias, que amiable eres
• Have a nice day = Que tengas un buen dia
Even Mexicans Don’t Really Swear.
Don’t believe me? Well, you should understand that Mexicans have actually morphed a lot of non-swear words into naughty words, in spite of their original purpose. Meaning, while it may sound dirty – and they certainly use it like it is – in reality, they’re not really swearing. Self-admitted word geek that I am, I’ve actually researched the original/intended definitions of some of these words, and, sadly, I admit that there might have been a few times (well, maybe several), where I’ve taken it upon myself to educate (erm…bossily correct…) my fellow expats when they drop them into their English sentences. For example:
This word is very popular with the gringos. It is incorporated commonly as an F-Bomb.
Common Usage: “I’ve been waiting all day for that pinche plumber to show up and he’s still not here.”
Actual Definition: Chef’s assistant.
I used to think this was a VERY dirty word, as it’s often used as a very vulgar reference to a specific part of the male anatomy.
Common Usage: Er, well you get the drift.
Actual Definition: A part of the mast on a sailboat.
Now, before I climb off my sanctimonious soap box, let me confess about how I first started to learn Spanish, which, unless you’ve recently suffered a blunt-force trauma to the head, you can see how it probably wasn’t the best way: I learned my Beginner Spanish from HBO and Warner Brothers TV. Seriously – I have Friends and Chandler Bing to thank for my early understanding of Espanglish. I watched a lot of television, and I read the subtitles. And while it didn’t help a lot with my pronunciation, I told myself that it was educational. And when that didn’t suffice, I then went on to marry the most adorable human dictionary I could find. Now, while I realize this is likely not an option for everyone, it’s been a fairly successful solution for me for 14 years and I can’t help but recommend it…