Forked Tongues

October 08, 2010 By: erik Category: Spanish 126 views

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Recently, I had the following exchange with my daughter. It seems, sometimes, like most of our conversations can be boiled down to “Nora, what you’re doing may kill you.”

Me: “Nora, don’t run with a fork in your hand!”

Nora: [picks up a second fork and continues running]

Me: “No, the problem wasn’t a lack of forks!” 1

This got me thinking overthinking…

One of the hardest parts about becoming truly fluent in a foreign language is comprehending the subtle differences between two (or more) words in the foreign language that translate back to the same word in your own.


Just the other day, I was referring to someone having lived in a city for a few years, and I said they had lived there un rato (a while). In my head, whenever I need to say “while”, I say rato. But my father-in-law corrected me; he’d understood what I had meant, but he told me I should have used the word temporada, which also means “while” (as well as “season”, in the sense of a sport’s season or a season of a television show, but not like autumn or winter). Reflecting upon this, I think it’s safe to assume that if your “while” is measured in minutes or hours (e.g. how long you’ve been waiting for the bus), you should go with rato, but if it’s days, months, or years, it should be temporada.

Indefinite, yet quantitatively specific

One of the only mistakes my wife still makes sometimes when speaking English is of this same nature; she often will use the word “one” when she means “a”. e.g. “On the way home, I stopped at one gas station.” No native English speaker would say that unless they were specifically stressing the quantity of gas stations, but it’s an easy mistake for a native Spanish speaker to make, since the indefinite article “a” translates to un or una, which also means “one”. While the quantity of gas stations referred to by “a gas station” is unmistakably specific, we anglophones also have the ability to subtly emphasize it if we want to…which we almost never would.

Little quirks like these are one of the most fascinating things I’ve found about learning a foreign language.

Back to the forks…

If we were to anthropomorphize my 18-month-old daughter into a high-reasoning hispanophone adult, we could see how the command “don’t run with a fork” might be misunderstood as “don’t run with one fork”. Therefore, one way of complying with the order would be by taking on another utensil.

1 “The problem wasn’t a lack of forks” sounds like audience input into a comedy improv sketch.

  • One I notice from friends from the far north or east of Europe is a reluctance to use the definite article. Or, if they are aware of the problem they add extra ones where they’re not necessary. For example a Finnish friend of mine would say things like “I went to cinema to see the Star Wars”.

  • David M.

    Hello, I happened to be looking for a Spanish/USA flags and I came up with the merged flag that you have in your blog. I kind of liked it, although I do not know what an American or a Spaniard would think about it.
    I was born in Palencia, Spain, and have been to Cantabria many times in my childhood it was like my Summer home. Now I live in Los Angeles, CA with my wife and daughter. So, what caught my attention was the similarities between a Spaniard living in USA and an American living in Spain. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in a Blog like this.

    • Thanks, David. Glad you enjoyed my image and blog.

      • David M.

        Sure, we will actually be in Palencia next December

  • I am also guilty of overusing “un rato” for just about everything… I recently discovered that “un par” is also more specific than in english… i was happily using it in the english sense of “about/roughly” two… “un par de años” for me translated as “a couple of years”… but i’ve run into trouble with that as people take me literally and believe i am talking about exactly two!!