Stinking Badges

One of my goals, both short and long-term, is to get a job teaching English, a job I can live on. I figured Craigslist was as good a place to start my job search as any, and in less than 30 seconds I was already overwhelmed by what I’d found. Half the jobs were either bullshit or too far away. (Apparently there’s plentiful employment in Santa Fe, the wealthy, non-pedestrian-friendly far-western “burb.” Think Oak Brook if you’re from Chicago, Long Beach if you’re from Los Angeles or Arlington, VA if you’re from Washington, DC.) Perhaps 20 percent were for 7 am lessons, great except that I don’t even go to bed until about 3 am. The remaining 30 percent were in my target neighborhood, fit my desired salary, or simply sounded cool. Some didn’t even required TEFL certification (which I don’t have regardless, although I plan to change that beginning early 2013). Most, however, required Spanish fluency.

Houston, we have a problem.

The nuances of learning a foreign language are many, and many-layered. I studied German for four years in high school yet remember, at best, half of the vocabulary and only how to say it halfway-correct. Alas, most students in our class weren’t too interested in learning, and our teacher, Frau Francik, was only too willing to oblige by pacifying us with cheesy videos of German Christmas carols, or with tantalizing discussions of what our class trip to Germany would be like. (“Would we get to drink beer even though we’re underage?” was a commonly-asked question.) Linguistically, I’ve always been able to get by without a hitch on my numerous trips to Deutschland, but I’ll credit that to the high level of English proficiency in most Germans rather than to my own half-assed knowledge of German.

German was tough. Man, was it tough. For the first time, I was exposed to the concept of nouns as genders. Not just masculine (“der”) and feminine (“die”) but also neuter (“das”), because apparently many German objects are eunuch-like, or androgynous. Indeed, depending on the type of sentence, there could be seven ways to say “the.” And the verb often comes at the end of the sentence! WTF?!?! Somehow, most of us squeaked by, and by the time senior year rolled around we were a single, close-knit class of just 12 students. Now I have to learn Spanish, another language of genders, and from what I understand, this time the adjective follows the noun. ¡Santa María! Or maybe ¡chingado! is a better word. Surely you can figure out what it means.

I used to get a rise out of feel-good, Stuart Smalley, Little-Engine-That-Could platitudes. But at some point after college – or maybe even during high school – I realized I’m just not that kind of person. It is easy to make excuses, to doubt yourself, and therefore to procrastinate. I know this too well. I had actually, kinda-sorta always wanted to learn Spanish, and not just because I worked at Taco Bell for six months whilst a teenager <shudder>. Learning Spanish seemed easy enough – easier than German anyway. But for a gazillion stupid reasons that ranged from laziness to arrogance, I never learned Spanish. Moving to LA helped. In LA, seemingly every other restaurant is a Mexican restaurant, with surprisingly few of them being Taco Bells. Traveling to Mexico helped. Sitting between two bilingual, Mexican-American co-workers for eight years helped. Moving to Mexico City helped. Pamela helped. Helps. Every day.

Spanish is surprisingly easy, but like every other language, it has its exceptions and mysteries. To wit….

The grammar rules regarding masculine/feminine nouns are always consistent – except when they’re not.

Like German and most other Latin-based languages, all nouns have a gender. Mercifully, there are no eunuchs this time, just masculine nouns (those ending in “o”) and feminine (those ending in “a”). If it ends in “i,” “e,” or any other letter, assume it’s masculine and your assumption will usually be the right one. But as a former director of research in my past life, I tend to over-analyze things, and immediately something seemed afoot. Why is “foto” (photo) la foto, and not el foto? Turns out “foto” is derived from “fotografíA,” (photography, as if you didn’t know), and as goes the root word (feminine), so go it many derivations as well. What about “agua” (water)? Why is it el agua, and not la agua? Let me know if you have an answer for that one, because I sure don’t.

It gets worse. I wrote earlier about my difficulties learning German. Nevertheless, my unstructured path to learning Spanish often includes comparing a Spanish word to its German translation and then back again as a sort of confirmation that I was on the right track. Please don’t ask me why; it’s just part of my process. Along the way I learn that in Spanish, “stone” is feminine – la piedra. Call me confused, because in German, isn’t “stone” masculine – der Stein? If I were to guess on my own, I might have been inclined to say “stone” in Spanish was el piedro, because for one thing, it’s masculine in German, and I just assumed that all Latin-based languages are at least consistent regarding which objects are masculine and which are feminine. And shouldn’t it be masculine anyway? By my reckoning, a stone is a hard object that can only be smashed by a rock hammer or by a larger stone. Nope, nothing feminine about a stone that I can think of, except that in some parts of the world women are still killed by having stones thrown at them. Does that count? </sarcasm>

To sidebar for a minute, why is the German word for “woman” the feminine die Frau while the German word for “girl” is the neuter das Mädchen? I won’t lie, I have wondered about that for 21 years. A quick web search only made me more confused, and listed at least two other examples of this eunuch syndrome again: das Auto as opposed to der Wagen, das Meer as opposed to der Ozean (or die See!). Check out the link below if you really want to bang your head against a wall:

Sometimes it’s not “o” or “a,” but the lack thereof. 

Pamela is one of the smartest people I know with regards to language questions. She has been my patient tutor and she excels at translating Spanish into English, English into Spanish, Spanish into German, German into Spanish, and Spanglish into Spanish. Nevertheless, when I approached her with the Spanish-language doozy I’ll describe in the next few paragraphs, she was well and truly stumped.

There is a church in Mexico City for every saint in Catholicism. The most revered saints – the Virgin Mary comes immediately to mind – have several named in their honor. Basilica de Santa María de Guadalupe. Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Parroquia San Jacinto. So what’s wrong here?  Santa María – Saint Mary – is a proper feminine name, “a” at the end of “San” and everything. But why the inconsistency regarding the male saints and their business cards? Santo Domingo – Saint Dominic of Spain – seems okay at first, until you realize that San Jacinto – Saint Hyacinth of Poland – is seemingly abandoned in Germany’s Eunuch Land again. Surely there can’t be so many male saints in Catholicism that they used up all the “San-TO” names and had to lop off of the last two letters for a simple “San,” right? Why the variation? Forgive the crude thought, but was poor San Jacinto simply not sporting a full sac?

I thought about this for awhile and consulted the interwebs. Turns out Santo is the correct form for all male saints, but the custom for centuries has been to abbreviate it to San. Naturally, there are two exceptions in which the full Santo is to be used: saints whose names start in “Do” (Domingo) or “To” (Tomás). This is an alliteration courtesy; it’s clear what you’re saying when you call the Spanish saint “Santo Tomás” but not necessarily so when you simply call him “San Tomás,” which could easily be interpreted as “Santo Más” (which doesn’t really mean anything as “Saint More” does not yet exist). Incidentally, it is still grammatically acceptable to call San Jacinto “San-TO Jacinto” if you were so inclined, but it’s extremely uncommon, and doing so might get you summoned into the priest’s office, which creeps me out just thinking about it. 🙂

Gotta love Google Search. The full explanation can be found here:

Mexico City has a slang all its own.

The type of Spanish you study generally depends on where you live. Americans and Canadians will likely study Latin American Spanish, as spoken in Mexico, Central America, and most of South America.  Europeans will likely study Spanish Spanish, which is to say the Spanish language as spoken in most parts of Spain. There are notable differences within these two general groups, of course – Catalán from Barcelona comes to mind as it is so different from traditional Spanish as to almost be a new language altogether – but most differences you’ll see are in the form of slang – localized words substituted for the class-taught vocabulary. (Of course, the same idea applies to other languages in other parts of the world – Munich has different greetings and formal words than Berlin, for example.)

I could spend a lot of time on this but the truth is, I have only just begun to discover some of the slang. Problem is, none of it is in the dictionary or in Google Translate. Here are a couple of examples, in bullet form this time:

  • “Nachos” in Mexico City generally refers to movie theater nachos with their vaguely-Cheddar cheese sauce. If you want nachos as you might expect them as an appetizer at any Mexican restaurant in Europe or the States, order “totopos.” Expect guacamole. (I could – and probably will, at some point – do a whole blog about food.)
  • Wanna take the bus? Better learn what kind first. Mexico City’s terrific bus network is confusing not just for its where do you hail/board/pay/exit rules, but also for its myriad names. Usually just called a “bús” in most smaller Latin American cities, here it can be a “bús” (full-size bus, sometimes resembling a Greyhound bus), “microbús” (smaller bus, can be as big as a yellow school bus in the states but not always), “pesero” (about the size of an airport rental car shuttle van), “trolebús” (electricity-powered microbús with its own dedicated lane), “Metrobús” (double-length bus with its own lane and card-only payment system), or “combi” (a minivan basically). Were you to ask a local where the “bús” stops for a certain route when they only know that route as being serviced by a combi, you might get pointed in the wrong direction.

As you can see, I have my work cut out for me. Still, I’ve come a long way. I continue to have trouble understanding other people when they speak Spanish to me, but I can annunciate clearly myself, and can read and write Spanish at a semi-fluent level. My goal is to learn at least one new word a day; currently I’m averaging two or three new words a day. I want to teach English, not just because it’s a fairly easy job to get here in Mexico City provided one has a teaching certificate and a good command of Spanish, but also because I know what it’s like to struggle with languages. As I mentioned before, whatever excuses I made for not learning Spanish really boiled down to simple laziness and arrogance. I smile inside whenever I remember a word or phrase of German I’d thought was long forgotten, and wish I paid more attention to Frau Francik’s lectures. That said, German is a lot harder than Spanish, and having been exposed to the fundamentals of Latin-based languages through German, starting at age 14, made it possible for me to learn Spanish at my own pace, without formal instruction. The more I understand how to speak Spanish and speak it correctly, the more likely I’ll be to help others do the same with English.

Having already deciphered some of the slang and having figured out just a few of the weird grammar inconsistencies suggests that I’m well on my way towards becoming fluent in Spanish. I have already been down here a month.  The time has come to stock mucking about. No more excuses. So let’s do this. ¡Vamos!

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

5 thoughts on “Stinking Badges”

  1. Your post made me laugh. I took a Spanish class in college, assuming it would be fairly simple considering that I speak French. Yeah, no. Didn’t quite work out that way. While the grammar and a lot of the word roots are similar to French, trying to pick up the vocabulary was a real uphill battle. Today, I can pretty much decipher headlines or signage, and can suss out the gist of what longer text may be about without picking up the details, but that’s about it. Speaking or understanding spoken Spanish is a lost cause for me.

    (Oh, and the rules around masculin vs. feminin nouns in French aren’t any more logical than the ones in Spanish. You pretty much just have to memorize them.)

  2. I just discovered your blog, and I know that it has been years since you wrote this post. However, you asked why “agua”, which ends in an “a”, is masculine. Perhaps by this time you know the answer, but, as a retired Spanish teacher, I felt compelled to respond. The fact is that “agua” is indeed feminine. For example, you would say “las aguas cristalinas” (the crystal clear waters). However, when a feminine word begins with a stressed “a” (or “ha”), the masculine article “el” is used with the singular form of the noun simply because saying “la agua” sounds awkward.
    You might enjoy taking a look at my blog. I am a frequent traveler to Mexico City, and have written many posts about “D.F.”

    1. Hola William,

      Thanks for commenting. That grammar rule – which I never learned – makes perfect sense. “La agua” sounds awkward indeed.

      I’ll be sure to check out your blog. Thanks again!


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