I remember when the time came to choose which language to study at secondary school. I wanted to work as a groom in Germany, so German was the obvious choice for a teenage girl with a passion for horses. My mum, on the other hand, was keen for me to choose Spanish. “It’s a global language, Elin – you’ll find it extremely useful.” But the 13-year-old Elin wouldn’t listen. I chose German, because surely I would never have any use for Spanish.
Sadly, my German studies didn’t result in any real knowledge, other than the ability to count a little. My plans to move to Germany and work as a groom came to nothing. Eventually, I started salsa dancing lessons where I made several Spanish-speaking friends. Later on I met my husband, who – like many of my friends – has Spanish as his native language.
And so I decided to resume my language studies a few years ago. This time I was more motivated and more disciplined, and as a result – in combination with practising with my husband and friends – I now speak Spanish relatively fluently.
Thanks to my new-found language skills, I can now communicate with around 466 million more people in addition to the approximately 12 million Swedish speakers and 765 million English speakers in the world, taking both native languages and second languages into account.
It’s easy to make a few mistakes when learning a new language. I met one of my Spanish-speaking friends recently. The previous time we had seen each other was at a dinner together with other friends. I wanted to say “It was great that you came (to the dinner)!”, “¡Qué bien qué fuiste!”. But what I actually said was “¡Qué bien qué te fuiste!”, which roughly means “It’s great that you left!”.
Another amusing error was made by a friend of mine during an exchange visit to Chile with her choir. The choir was rehearsing together with a church choir from the host country. During the rehearsal, the director of the Chilean choir asked my friend to sing a solo. She wanted to answer “No, I can’t – I’m too embarrassed”. She didn’t know how to say it in Spanish, but she thought it must be similar to the English expression as there are quite a lot of similarities between the two languages: interested = interesado/a, conclusion = conclusión, competent = competente. She assumed that, logically, the word “embarrassed” would be similar in Spanish, so she said: “No, no puedo, estoy muy embarazada” = “No, I can’t – I’m heavily pregnant”.
Another (slightly older) example dates back to 1987, when Braniff Airlines decided to introduce their North American advertising campaign to a more international market. They translated “Fly in Leather” into Spanish: “Vuela en Cuero”. This works as a translation in some regions, but in countries such as Mexico it has completely different connotations, meaning “fly naked”.
How can you avoid making language mistakes?
Linguistic slip-ups among friends or in informal situations rarely do much harm, and can often lead to sharing a good laugh if the other person realises the error. If I hadn’t been speaking with a good friend when I said it was good that she had left the party, things might have turned out differently.
When translating websites or adverts, or when holding an important work meeting with someone who speaks a different language, it is of course highly desirable for the content to have the correct meaning and the right connotations in the target language.
Do you want to avoid insulting your foreign customers or business partners? Semantix can help with business and conference interpreting here. We also offer translations of texts, websites, etc. And if you want to improve your own language skills or your employees’ skills, our language training could be just what you need.