May 16

Drowning in Mexicanismos: Bicycle Spanish Part 2

Bicycle Spanish is a continuing series charting Zack’s adventures with Spanish in Latin America.  One of Zack’s goals for his adventures in Latin America is to become fluent in the spanish language.  Fluency is defined here as being able to do the following: Reading non-intellectual books and the news in spanish, Watching movies in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, Conversing freely with spanish speakers (with reasonable accents) without butchering the language, and being able to write spanish at the level of a 12 year old.  It is a goal that has eluded Zack for years, and Zack has been waiting patiently for the right opportunity to pursue it.  That opportunity is now.

In Part Two of Bicycle Spanish, Zack looks at his command of the language after 4 months in Latin America… more specifically, after 4 months in Mexico.  If you would like to read Part One… Click Here


Uh… what did I just say?!

There is no avoiding the process;  Learning a language you are going to have peaks, plateaus, and the occasional valleys.  And, yes, you will make a lot of mistakes.


The boys in Guadalajara had a laugh when Marcos told the waitress “Esta muy rica”.  He meant “La comida esta muy rica”  The food is very tasty but what the boys heard was “Esta muy rica ud.” You are very tasty ma’am .  



Sssssuuuuerga”   Polo enunciated the word for “mother in law” for me for the third time.  “Make sure you pronounce the ‘s’ strongly at the beginning!”.  Why? I wanted to know.  “Because otherwise it sounds like berga!”.  

Oh.  Good point.  Berga is crude spanish slang for penis.

Torta.  In Spain, torta means cake, but it can also mean a slap.  In Mexico, Torta means sandwich, but here too it can also mean slap.  When I asked Raquel about this while standing on the bus she laughed and confirmed that ¨torta¨ does indeed have the two meanings, but then she made a rude swinging motion with her arm toward a female passenger standing near us and facing away.

Ahhh… the second meaning is more accurately translated to arse slap.

Mexicanismos: Slang is important

(disclaimer:  this may or may not be an accurate representation of Mexican slang… I’m still working on it!)

Everyone knows that different accents pose a significant challenge to the language learner.  For this reason it’s not recommended that you go to Glasgow to learn English.  But what people tend to understate is the importance of learning local slang and sentence “fillers”.  It’s only when you are really paying attention to it, that you realise how much certain people use it!

My education into mexican slang, or mexicanismos, started in Guadalajara listening to Jorge and Izahk argue with each other daily (like an old married couple).  Every other word that came out of their mouths was “wey” – sort of like saying “man” or “mate” but with the added connotation that it is short for “guevon”, which in Mexico means a lazy guy.

Then came the education into the most useful verb in mexico: CHINGAR!  It means “to fuck” and the most traditional form of usage is the rather vulgar phrase “va a chingar su madre”  Go fuck your mother.  However, like in english slang it can be used prolifically in pretty much any context.  And in Mexico: it is used prolifically in pretty much every context.  For example: “Sepa la chingada” I haven’t a fucking clue, “Chingon a vato” Fucking great dude,  “Ese moto es una chingoneria”  That motorcycle is the fucking business.  “Tengo un chingo de chistes, pero mi amigo tiene un chingomadral mas.” I have a lot of stories, but my friend has a shit load more.  Finally, the most common usage that I hear on a daily basis is probably “Esta una poca chingada”  It’s a bit fucked up, usually referring to an object not in the best condition like a rusty bicycle or an old computer.

“Mamar” is another word you need to get used to in Mexico.  It means to suck.  “No mames wey!” is a very common phrase you will hear daily.  It literally means don’t suck me off dude! but is used to say Don’t pull my leg or Don’t lie to me or even What the hell are you saying?!  “Una Mamada” is another form of mamar that was favored by my friend Polo in Mexico which literally means blowjob, but can be used to describe a fucked up situation.

So if Guadalajara was my soft introduction to mexican slang, Mexico City was an initiation by fire.  In the Big Taco, my slang had to be taken to the next level because Polo -who is a wonderfully energetic and excitable gay friend of mine – talks unbelievably fast and uses a ton of slang.  It took me a full week before I could understand anything that he was saying.  In the end the key to understanding Polo was quite simple: you just had to filter out the slang and you were left a small number of words spaced out at a reasonable pace.

Think I am over stating all of this?  Here is an example:

Mexican:  No mames wey!  La neta wey es que… Lo que pasa es que la torta que yo comí estuvo padrisimo!  Chingon la Torta!

Translation to English: Don’t mess with me dude! If you want to know the real truth man… what happened is that the sandwich I ate was the Mac Daddy! Fucking great sandwich.

Now, lets filter out the fillers, the extraneous words, and the swearing…

Translation of both statements:  I ate a very tasty sandwich

See?  It’s not that hard!

Zack’s Path to Fluency

So where am I at now?  Have I achieved “the next step” I described in Part 1 of Bicycle Spanish?  Have I reached a level of Spanish such that even English-speaking latinos prefer to speak with me in Spanish?

Well… I am on the cusp of achieving this goal.  If the person I am talking to is confident with their English, then they are still tending to prefer to use English for the more complicated conversations.  If the person is not so confident in their english though, then they are happy to let me trip over my own words trying to explain myself as Spanish is the language of the day.

I have reached a huge benchmark though in non 1-on-1 conversations.  In the last few months my ability to understand Spanish has sky rocketed, leaving my speaking abilities far behind.  Socially this has been incredible as it means that I can now hang out with a group of spanish speakers and follow the conversations, without being left out and without people feeling like they are leaving me out.  Occasionally, I can speak up and put in my two cents.  So Spanish-speaking Zack is now like a more quiet version of English-speaking Zack.

I’m worried though that I’ve peaked and am now looking at a long plateau of little to no improvement.  My speaking needs to improve, and the only way to do this is to talk a lot.  But, now I am needing conversations more complicated than your daily roadside gab and because I am traveling on a bicycle these conversations are going to be fewer and farther between than they ought to be.

The other issue is that I will be leaving Mexico in about 6 weeks so I will have to be adjusting on-the-fly to different versions of Spanish, different accents, and yes, different slang.

On the bike my studies continue.  I finished the podcast I was listening to (I can highly recommend Coffee Break Spanish) and have now moved on to one that is of a higher level.  Also I am now about halfway through Aprendiz de Asesino or The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, a book originally written in English but translated into Spanish.  I bought the book partly because it’s the first of a trilogy, so I figure by the time I finish all three my reading level will be pretty far on.

As for the big fat yellow massive book of Spanish Grammar I have been dragging around for the past 6 months…  Uh… Yeah, still haven’t opened it.

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