Well I didn’t really learn many groserías (bad words) in Guatemala. No, it was the mother of my host family in Guanajuato, Mexico, Mari Elena, who really taught me some fun curse words to get me started! And she taught me at the family dinner table no less! But I should back up for a second.
I learned a lot in Guatemala. My sister and friends had real jobs and things to do, so they all had to go back after 2 weeks, but I stayed on for another 3 weeks.
During my time there, I had breakfast each morning with my host grandmother (who spoke no English), took a few hours of 1-on-1 instruction each morning completely in Spanish, had lunch with my host grandmother, volunteered for a couple of hours running after-school activities with disadvantaged children, tried to stay awake enough to do a little bit of homework, had dinner with my host grandmother, and at least a few nights a week went out on the town with my classmates.
As you can imagine, I was forced to speak a lot of Spanish, and although I was slowly starting to believe that it might be possible to actually learn to speak another language, the beginning was really slow and tough. However, Antigua is a really nice city to begin learning because there are so many tourists that you can ease yourself into it if you’re afraid of diving completely in headfirst. In fact you could get by with English in most circumstances there, but that would defeat the purpose of immersion learning. I’ll put some tips on a successful immersion trip in another post, but for now on to the cursing!
¡Que pedo, güey! (Literally “What the fart, dude!” but is basically a vulgar way of saying “What’s up, dude” or “What the hell, man”). You could also throw in a nice “chinga a tu madre” (“fuck your mother!”) or “no mames cabrón” (“get the fuck outta here man” as in stop playin around). I can’t tell you how many friends I made with those sayings and other completely rude, offensive, and just downright funny words.
Of course if you look angry when you curse at people, they might punch you in the face. I think I only got punched once when traveling, or maybe it was more of an attempted stranglehold, but it wasn’t because I cursed at the guy, and actually I didn’t even talk to him. In fact if I had talked to him, he might not have tried to end me. Hah! There’s a benefit you don’t hear everyday for learning another language!
Annnyways, in addition to drinking, I will now teach you another secret to effective language learning–learn the bad words first. But here is the important part: don’t just learn any curse words, learn the local ones, and make sure you say them with an innocent smile. In fact, you should try to learn the local sayings in general (for example in Mexico you could replace “no mames” [vulgar] with “¡no manches, guey!” which is still informal and totally Mexican but is not so vulgar).
Not only does knowing the local words help you order the right food and avoid some funny situations, when you whip out a totally local dicho (saying) in your completely foreign accent, you will have the locals on the floor laughing their asses off. Once you’ve got a few good curse words that are specific to the country you’re in or to the people you are around, here is a nice little guide of how to put them in practice.
You: Yeah, I know some Spanish.
Native Spanish Speaker: You do? Wow that’s so great! What do you know?
You: ¡Hi’jue puta! (Son of a bitch, South American style)
Native Spanish Speaker: “¿Queeeeé? ¡Díos mío! ¿Y de dónde sacaste eso? (Whaaat? My God! Where did you pick that one up?)
If you have established a friendly setting and deliver your line with a smile on your face, the response is usually a mixture of laughter and utter surprise. The shock factor is even better if the listener is of the opposite sex, because Latina ladies will playfully scold you, and if you are a lady the guys would probably crack up laughing. After they pick their jaws off the floor, they call their friends over and start teaching you new bad words, and there you go, you have some new friends.
I’m not saying you should go offending people, and you have to be nice. Actually, contrary to what you’re probably already thinking of me, I’m actually a very nice guy, which I think is a big reason why I can get away with this tactic. So if you don’t really have a good way with earning people’s trust quickly, maybe this method isn’t for you. But if you are sociable and friendly, I totally recommend it.
I had so many people in Mexico cracking up because I barely spoke any Spanish, but the little bit I did know was so Mexican it was just funny to hear it come out of someone’s mouth with such an obvious beginner’s accent! I made some good friends in Guanajuato, which you should definitely visit during the Cervantino festival, and a few amigas where I was staying in Guadalajara (I haven’t forgotten you Chavas del 8!).
The girls especially were quite motherly with me, telling me I should not speak so badly, but then quickly teaching me some new fun words and hanging out with me in the lounge. The assistant at the reception desk had almost become a nun, so she got a real kick out of my little sayings too. But anyway cursing was just a conversation starter, and from there it was the new acquaintances and friends who continued to teach me.
And again, this all goes back to my earlier post: you absolutely have to put your reservations aside and just start speaking. If you can’t travel abroad yet, that’s fine, but you’ve got to find ways to speak the language. Even if you are listening to audio materials and speaking to thin air or the mirror, that is still better than repeating answers in your head. Often times things will sound perfect in your mind but they just don’t come out the way you think if you actually try.
Making mistakes is a completely normal and necessary part of thee language learning process. They are necessary, they are frustrating, they are fun. Speak, speak speak and you shall learn. There are so many immigrants in the United States now that very few places are devoid of opportunities to learn languages.
And if Spanish is your target, you are fortunate that Latinos are the fastest growing immigrant population and are present in most places. Go to their stores and farmers’ markets, attend their cultural events, tutor them in English and let them tutor you in Spanish, make friends, go to their bars and clubs, volunteer at organizations that provide them with services, meet them and have fun!
And if cursing isn’t your thing, find some other culture-specific word that you can use as a funny conversation starter. There are words that I have only heard in specific places, sometimes even particular regions within a country. In El Salvador the guys always said cabal, which is like exactly or right. You will find that most Latinos will be so happy that you are making an effort and excited that you are taking an interest in their culture (or really any language, just like many United Statesians are friendly and helpful with immigrants).
Indeed, most people will be super patient with you and teach you little bits and pieces even if you don’t ask. So what are you waiting for? Did you buy your plane ticket yet? If not that’s okay, because in one of my next posts I’ll give you some tips for realistically planning your first immersion language learning trip!