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Bilingual Encounter Is a Tongue Twister

September 06, 2000|Steve Chawkins

I was striding through downtown Ventura like a racehorse one hot morning, my body lathered and my mind empty.

"Hola, amigo!"

The man bearing down on me had a craggy Lee Marvin look about him. He wore running shorts and a black baseball cap that said NYPD. A tape player was strapped to his waist.

"Hola!" I said, glad to respond in the stranger's native tongue.

I know very little Spanish--in fact, shamefully little--so I always achieve a small thrill when I manage to communicate even the most basic items in my pidgin Espanol.

I keep vowing to take a Spanish class, but it's a vow I've broken many times. I don't have six extra hours a week to learn a language. It would cut my TV time significantly. And my volunteer work--hummingbird census, usually from a hammock--would plummet.

Even so, I should know Spanish. In Europe, it's not uncommon to run across uneducated street kids who can fluently rob you blind in three or four languages. With minorities becoming the majority in California, it would seem a good idea to swap tongues with everyone around, from Aleuts to Uzbeks. So a little "Como esta usted?" (How are we, Ted?) doesn't seem too much to expect our non-Spanish-speakers to learn.

Having established "Hola!" as our touchstone, my new friend and I grinned at each other, nodding like those ducks you used to see perched on the rims of cocktail glasses.

Making the next conversational move, he asked me something that sounded like:

"Donde esta el mercado del puerco piccolo y el radio Laser y Ronzoni sono buoni?"

I had no idea what he wanted.

The awful truth is that my Spanish doesn't extend too much past "buenos dias" and "yo quiero Taco Bell." On a trip to Guadalajara, it was so useless that a waitress had to act out various farm animals to let me know the meaning of menu items. At one of my requests, she turned scarlet and a laughing fat man across the aisle took over, pantomiming horns on his head and pointing down below his waist with a swift chopping motion.

Thankfully, they were tolerant of my ignorance. At the finer restaurants in France, I understand, they would have torn out my liver for a nice pate de fool.

But none of that helped my inquisitor on the street in downtown Ventura. When it was clear he just couldn't make himself understood to this dullard he'd run across, I grasped at straws, hoping he might know a little English: "Ingles?"

Exasperated, he whipped his tape player out, cracked it open, and pointed at the batteries.

"Where . . . can . . . I . . . buy . . . bat-ter-ies?" he asked.

"Oh, so you need batteries! There's a convenience store just two blocks down and one block over!"

He did a double-take: "Oh! You speak English!"

"Si," I said. "Yes."

"You're very good," he said.

"Thank you," I said.

"Muchas gracias, amigo!" he replied as he drifted away, cocking his finger into a gun the way Lee Marvin might have.

This is the kind of linguistic confusion that will take place more and more as we grow more diverse. If we all know English and we all know Spanish, that will help. But please, God, grant us the wisdom to know the difference.


Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at

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