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7 Common Mistakes Gringos Make When Speaking Spanish
Today I will talk about 7 mistakes that Gringos or native English speakers make when speaking Spanish. This article will help you avoid these mistakes when speaking Spanish. I have a friend from Nueva York (New York) who is staying with me here in Medellín while he is looking for a place to live. He came here to Medellín to study Spanish. He is going to take classes at a local university. He arrived about a week ago and he made a lot of mistakes while speaking Spanish. Most of them are common gringo mistakes. So let me tell you about his mistakes so that you avoid them.
Tom (not his real name) and I went to an Italian restaurant to eat on Saturday night. And it just so happens that the owner is a guy from the Bronx from what used to be an Italian neighborhood, not too far from where I used to live in the Bronx.
When the “mesero” or waiter took our orders, I requested my favorite “entrada” or appetizer:
Berenjena parmesana (eggplant parmesan)
That’s when Tom made his first mistake. Tom asked for “un vaso de vino.” You do NOT call a wine glass a “vaso”. “Vaso” does mean drinking glass, but you should use the word “copa” when referring to a wine glass. For example:
My regala una copa de vino.
May I have a glass of wine.
And the second mistake Tom made also involved the wine. It is a common mistake for English speakers to literally translate English words and phrases when speaking Spanish. So it didn’t surprise me when Tom asked for “vino rojo”. But that’s not how to say “red wine” in Spanish. The phrase is “vino tinto” (red wine).
Tom then made a third mistake. Well, it wasn’t actually a mistake. Tom is also from the Bronx. And New York-born Puerto Ricans and Dominicans speak Spanish that is much more informal than the Spanish of Colombia. So this is the type of Spanish Tom is used to hearing.
And when Tom dropped his knife and fork wrapped in a “servilleta” (napkin) to get the waiter’s attention, Tom shouted “¡Mira!” “¡Mira!”
When it didn’t get the attention of the “mesero” or waiter, Tom shouted “¡Oye!” “Ouch!”
In the Bronx or some Spanish-speaking parts of Nueva York, you might get someone’s attention by saying “¡Mira!” or “¡Oye!” but not in Colombia. In Colombia, shouting “¡Mira!” or “¡Oye!” “Ouch!” to get the attention of the “mesero” is considered “maleducado”. By the way “maleducado” does NOT mean what you think it means. “Maleducado” is an “amigo falso” (false friend). “False friends” or “amigos falsos” are Spanish words that are pronounced and spelled much like English words, but have very different meanings.
“Maleducado” does not mean poorly educated or that one has a poor education. “Maleducado” means rude. So what’s the right way to get someone’s attention in Latin America?
In Latin America, to get someone’s attention, you have to say “Perdón” or “Disculpe”. But most Colombians will simply say “señor” or “señora” to get someone’s attention. And in Tom’s case if the waiter (or waitress) happened to be younger than him, words like “muchacho” or “chico” or “niña” are all acceptable in Colombia.
Finally, Tom did get the waiter’s attention by saying “¡Oye!” And when the waiter approached our table Tom said to him:
See my cayeron las cubiertas.
Tom actually surprised me with that phrase. His grammar was perfect. But his choice of vocabulary had another common gringo error, making 4 mistakes for Tom now.
“Los cubiertos” are cutlery. But “las cubiertas” means “the tops” or “the covers.” So Tom should have said:
See my cayeron los cubiertos.
My cutlery fell.
Since Tom used the wrong vocabulary words, the waiter did not understand him and asked Tom “Cómo?”
And Tom responded and made a FIFTH mistake:
See my cayó la cuchilla.
“Cuchillo” means knife in Spanish. But “cuchilla” means razor blade. But the waiter seemed to understand Tom, because he returned with a “servilleta” (napkin), “tenedor” (fork), “cuchara” (spoon) and “cuchillo” (knife) — instead of a ” cuchilla” or razor for Tom to shave.
After we finished eating, Tom made mistake number 6. He said to me in Spanish:
Déjame pagar el cuento.
Tom gave me a very surprised look when I responded by saying “Why? Is the waiter going to tell us a fairy tale?”
“Cuenta” means bill or account or restaurant check. But “cuento” means story or fairy tale. So Tom should have said:
Déjame pagar la cuenta.
Let me pay the bill.
As we left, Tom committed a seventh and final Gringo mistake. There was a couple waiting for a taxi and blocking the restaurant’s entrance, and this time he said “Perdón”
The couple didn’t move, but looked at Tom as if he was trying to get their attention. That’s when I said “permiso”, which is the proper way to say excuse me if you’re trying to pass and someone blocks your way. You can either say “permiso” or “con permiso.”
So I hope that learning about Tom’s 7 mistakes will help you avoid the same Gringo mistakes when speaking Spanish.
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