When is Spanish Not Really Spanish?

by Translation Guy on November 3, 2009

When a native English speaker tries to speak it, that’s when. Today, in the US, we’re seeing more and more Hispanic immigrants, and we sympathize as they learn our language, with its many slang words and colloquialisms. And, when the tables are turned? Well, it’s just as difficult to go into a Spanish speaking country and try to fit in.

I was all excited about using my “school learned” proper Castilian Spanish on my first trip to Barcelona. But, as I was preparing for my trip, I discovered that the official languages in Barcelona are both Spanish and Catalan, a mixture of Spanish, French and Portuguese, that is spoken little outside Andorra and the Catalonian region of Spain.  And, what’s more, many people in Barcelona speak very little Spanish on a daily basis, though they’ve studied it in school. Hearing the language spoken for the first time when I arrived in Spain was a frightening experience as both the Spanish and French classes of my high school and college years melded together. I got by using a lot of Spanish and English and a little French. But, my classroom Spanish couldn’t help me at all when it came to carrying on a casual conversation with a local.

So often, it seems, nothing prepares us for language in a foreign country except being there and being forced to speak it for a period of time. Years of Spanish in the classroom won’t prepare you for local slang – in fact, even years of speaking Spanish in one Latin American country may not prepare you to speak Spanish in another. Colloquialisms are prevalent in everyone’s speech; even regions dictate words and word usages.

Consider, for example, our own strange English slang and phrases. I’m often reminded by my children of how silly our expressions are. Just the other day I used the phrase “every pot has a lid” in front of my six year old while my husband and I were discussing marriage. As she quizzed me about how the conversation had turned to cooking, I realized how difficult even our own language can be sometimes. Just imagine the questions I got when I told her to keep her cart before her horse!

For those in the language and translation field, there’s certainly something new every day. Mastering the language from an academic standpoint doesn’t provide the cultural knowledge it takes to really speak to someone in another language. And, expressions are created nearly every day in every culture, by every generation. I have to ask my children the meaning of their expressions nearly as often as they ask me the meanings of mine.

It makes this field all the more interesting, and all the more important in the US as our immigrant population continues to grow and as businesses reach out to that particular population through marketing and advertising. There’s certainly no better time to be part of a field that brings cultures together through language translation than today.


  1. Trying is all that matters. I’m a native speaker of English and I always make mistakes.

  2. Spanish slang is even more localized than English slang and sometimes people from one Spanish-speaking country get confused talking to people from other Spanish-speaking countries.

  3. BeBadChad says:

    My favorite Spanish slang is “Estar bueno/a”. It means to be physically attractive. Not to be confused with ser bueno/a, to be good.

    For example: ¡Hay que ver lo buenísimo que está Chad!

    Meaning: Chad is really hot! :)

  4. Dominique says:

    Ser un cachondo!

  5. John_Doe says:

    I don’t speak Mexican…

  6. Dominique says:

    You mean you don’t speak SPANISH! Duh…

  7. John_Doe says:

    No, no, look at the content of this post! There is such a thing as Spanish and another thing called Mexican.

  8. @mazon says:

    You said it Ken. Catalan even has its dialects – western and eastern. Western Catalan has unstressed vowels: [a e i o u] distinctions between e and a and o and u. Whereas eastern is a completely different ball game. Which Catalan do you speak Ken?

    • Ken says:

      I speak all dialects of Catalon with native fluency…. because I call 1-800-Translate! That number again….

  9. Dominique says:

    Ken can probably speak both sets of Catalan. Afterall, he’s the TranslationGuy!

  10. Junior says:

    You’re too funny Ken!

  11. soyncNese says:

    Masz juz plan na wakacje? Jesli nie to polecam wakacje w mielno

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