Bilingualism, The Border, Dora and Kids

I always crack up when my kids bust out with some Spanish phrase that I didn’t teach them.  They didn’t learn it from me.   They pick it up from living on the US/Mexico border and also from a couple of bilingual kid shows.

When they mix their oatmeal, they sing the rhyming song they learned from Dora, “Pate! Pate!  Chocolate!’  When my son needs help getting down from somewhere, he screams “Ayudenme!!!”   And the best is when my daughter tells people that she speaks Spanish, she gets really breathy and pronounces it “Shpah-neesh”.

They didn’t learn any of these things at home, and I’m a huge fan of bilingualism.  I’m going to continue allowing them to watch more Dora and Diego and to interact with folks around here to build their vocabulary.  But, to give some background on why I haven’t incorporated Spanish hour at home yet, here’s a little story.

I do speak some Spanish, having spent some years in Austin, Texas in my youth where Spanish started in 7th grade.   I progressed through college with it.  The Army even paid me for a short time for being “fluent” because I scored so high on the proficiency test.  The Army stopped paying people like me when it realized that most of the force also spoke Spanish, and much better than I did.  They were gonna go broke.

During the test, I remember reasoning on the written part, correlating latin roots and English-sounding cognates and then doing some guessing.  I then took notes during the oral listening part so that I could piece the language together on paper visually and then do a lot of guessing.  I scored very well on the test, but could barely talk my way out of a paper bag.

We first moved to the US/ Mexico border nearly seven years ago.  Before moving to Laredo, our first station was El Paso, Texas just across from Juarez, Mexico.

I knew my language skills weren’t excellent, but I figured I’d practice anyway.  So I tortured people when I had to buy gum or ask for directions, most of whom would say sans accent, “I speak English, you know.”  This is all background for my story so bear with me.

My husband and I spent a lot of time outside of El Paso for Army work, and we returned from a set of temporary duties elsewhere to find that we had waist-high tumbleweeds in our backyard.  We also had genuine weeds that had grown so high that we couldn’t push the fence gate open to get back there.  We’re lucky we didn’t get fined by the city or reported.  It was atrocious.

So, I asked my neighbors on one of our trips back home between duty assignments, if he could hook me up with someone who could help clear the yard.  It needed a good razing.   A gentleman and his son showed up at my door to do the work.  The older man was clearly more comfortable dealing in Spanish.  I was able to convey to him that I wanted them to take all the weeds out of the yard.  I was able to understand it was going to cost a hundred dollars.  Confident in my ability to communicate, I decided it was time to try some small talk.

I told him that when my husband and I returned, we’d like to plant grass in the whole yard.  This is not a challenging sentence to construct in a foreign language.

So, I said, “Quiero hierba en todo de la yarda.”

And his eyes got big and he said with a really surprised look , “Que????”  His voice got high and squeaked at the end when he said it, “Que???!”

I repeated, “Cuando mi esposo regresa, yo quiero hierba en todo de la yarda.”   (When my husband returns, I want to plant grass in the whole yard.)

And he did it again, this time looking at his son, who looked back at him out of the corner of his eye.  His son looked at me, turned his head to the side, and squinted.

I knew I had said the words correctly.  So, I said, “Esperate, por favor.”   (Wait)

And, I went upstairs and grabbed my Spanish-English dictionary and found the word for “grass”.  It confirmed ten years of Spanish and a minor in it had put the right word in my head.  “Hierba” means “Grass”.

So, I took the dictionary to these two, standing in the middle of my barren backyard in the sun, and I pointed to the word.  “Yo Quiero HIERBA en todo de la yarda!”

“Aqui, en el diccionario!  HIERBA!   HIERBA!!!  Yo quiero HIERBA!!!”

The two looked afraid.  Neither spoke.  They kept looking at each other. Then, at me. Then, at each other. Then, me.

I got frustrated that my small talk was such a failure.  My language skills sucked.  I closed the dictionary and smiled and said, “Gracias!” and led them to the front door.  They walked to the truck, looking at me the whole time, squinting like I’d asked them to do something illegal.  They drove away with a truckful of weeds still staring at me, speechless.

The next day, I went to work and  I learned my first lesson in Mexican colloquial terms.

Turns out the word for grass along the southwest border is “Sacate”, a word I’ve never seen in any of my formal training.

It also turns out that the word for “Marijuana” is “Hierba”.  I remembered their confused looks.

I had, in fact, conveyed to these two strangers that I wanted to plant marijuana in my entire yard.  Aggressively.

Those two guys probably thought it was a test.

Anyway, I don’t teach my kids Spanish.  Dora and the border are doing a pretty good job for me. I’d like to keep them out of juvey.


14 Responses to Bilingualism, The Border, Dora and Kids

  1. I’m glad you found it funny- I’ve told this story a thousand times since it happened years ago and finally wrote it down. I was reading my kids the bilingual “Tea With Ruby Book” today- and they were cracking up at the Spanish parts which got me thinking about the whole translation mess. Thanks for commenting! :)

    • dandelions wouldn’t have made my story funny. hahaha! But, really- when I went to work, all my co-workers laughed and told me that’s what I’d said. Either way, it’s incompetent Spanish. But, if anyone buys a Spanish-English dictionary, the word “hierba” is listed under “grass” Technically, I was correct. Everyone here is wrong. :)

  2. I think there is a strong line drawn on what Spanish speakers will accept from a Spanish learner based on their ethnicity. I can converse in Spanish fine- but I know that I use improper conjugations and often the wrong sex (as in el dia vs. la dia stuff like that). Most people I have spoken to encourage my bad Spanish and give slight corrections in order to help me improve. BUT, when my husband (a sexy white man) says something incorrect in Spanish – generally they laugh or give some condescending look. That being said – I give him a hard time too.
    My kids are even funnier. Ben-oni really wants to learn Spanish. Zoe is kinda caught and prefers English so shows little interest. Now, Mirella, she is different altogether. My Spanish only speaking friend and I were conversing in Spanish; Mirella asked why I was speaking in Spanish. I replied that my friend only spoke Spanish. My friend then turned to Mirella and kindly asked, “Porque no ablas espanol?” Mirella, knowing she was being directly addressed, turned to me for a translation. “Why don’t you speak Spanish?” I informed her. Mirella, with the sassiest of looks turned to her and said, “Um.. YOU don’t speak CHINA!!” and then turned and walked away! I laughed translated to my friend and apologized for her sass- but man- what a comeback from a 4 year old!

  3. OMG!! YOU HAVE ME CRACKING UP OVER HERE…MYEYES NEARLY POPPED OUT OF MY HEAD WHEN I READ YOU WANTED “HIERBA, HIERBA!!!” ROTFL!! to funny!! But honestly, hierba also means spices…like chamomile tea stuff.

  4. This is hilarious! I love it!! Don’t be afraid or get discouraged to speak Spanish. This is the best way to learn.

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  7. I know this is an old post, but I clicked on a few things and it sent me to this post lol. It had me laughing so hard I’ve got tears! Hilarious!!

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