What’s in a word?

palabras
Image thanks to rqbg.wordpress.com.

What’s in a word? Well, everything. As anyone who has learned a new language will tell you, words have weight.  A perfectly placed word can make or break a joke. A thoughtful word can “hit the nail on the head” and express exactly what someone is feeling. There are the funny horror stories of confidently expressing a word or phrase that means quite the opposite of what one intended, causing all chatter to stop. Some words have double meanings. Still others are used in language textbooks yet practically never spoken in real life.

My work as a Spanish teacher and trip leader for students abroad has been full of  hilarious recountings: “And then I said I was embarazada and the conversation came to a halt!” I’ve laughed along with my students about conversations gone awry, and have sighed with relief when learning that one new word that you wish you’d known five years ago. We all want to express our true selves, no matter what language we are speaking.

Word choice is always present in language learning, and I re-discovered a book this week called Hablando bien se entiende la gente. Published by members of the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (English: North American Academy of the Spanish Language), it includes common errors made by Spanish speakers in the United States. A major goal of this work is to keep Spanglish at bay. Of course, the bien piece is key here. Obviously the authors want the Spanish language to remain true to its origins, and therefore think that speaking Spanish well means keeping anglicisms out. An example of this is warning readers of falsos amigos, (English: false friends) that do not exactly work as cognates and instead are often misused (e.g. salvar instead of guardar).

To be honest, I continue to be torn when it comes to this topic of “language purity.” Yes, I respect the value of correctly pronounced words and proper syntax. I’m a language teacher, after all. Yet language is fluid, language is rich, and language is a reflection of those who use it. There are certain words I love to use that obviously come from English: carro, surfear, oficina. Would I employ them in a job interview? Probably not, and perhaps that is the author’s point.

And so, Hablando bien se entiende la gente is interesting and funny to me. It does give us good reminders of the proper use of so many vocabulary words. Still, when on a day trip outside the city and passing all those ghastly trailers that Americans seem to love, I will not use the dull word remolque. – I think I’ll stick with trailito instead.

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