Shakiria – when English isn’t quite right…

I live in several languages. I know, I’m strange…

But “Reality Just Is. -E.M.Smith” and so I just am.

My “native tongue” is English. But just barely. At about 4? Maybe 3… the next door neighbors ran the French Laundry. I spent time at their house (as there were no fences…) and they asked me things. I didn’t always understand, but I learned. Turns out they were from France and had little clue about English. So while I was figuring out “what language is” I had a good dose of French in the mix.

They were asking me things about English. I was their teacher, even though I had only a bit of a handle on it myself. I distinctly remember two episodes. On one occasion, my Dad had caught several large Carp. We didn’t eat carp, but they did. (A river had flooded the road. We stopped and caught a half dozen fish by hand in the 6 inch deep water over the road. We kept the bass… Likely some kind of crime today. There were a bunch of folks catching the fish in the minor flood of the road. We all understood…) So I learned how to bake carp. I watched the Mrs. nail it to a wood plank soaked in water and cook it for hours in a very slow oven… and learned that “poisson” (not to be confused with poison) was “fish”, and a few other words. Il est un gros poisson!, Merce! On another occasion they were learning the words for knife, fork, spoon, etc. To this day I can see them in front of me (very tall… in comparison…) as I said “You can call me Louis if you like, but my name is Michael”… an obvious mistake on my part… “lui dit ete une fourchette” ..

Later (but not by much) I met the neighbor Mexican Kid out in the alley playing with his toy truck. “Nice Toy Truck!” I said, he said “La trucke roja!”… A friendship started that lasted for about 15 years… until he entered the Navy and I went off to college… I ought to look him up some day…

But I grew up speaking Spanglish. That 1/2 English 1/2 Spanish stuff that is the common dialect of California, outside the cities (or in the ghettos of East L.A. and East San Jose…).

So I have many long ago memories in French and Spanish and Spanglish. Somethings are only really right in those languages. Baile. Cerveza. La noche. All speak more to me in Spanish. Poisson, la fille, je t’aime… French est la langue que je pense…

When it comes to music, some songs are only right in particular languages. Yes, you can translate, but “All Translation Transforms”… especially when it comes to meter and time and that essence… the feel of things. So often I’ll track back upstream from, an English version and find the original. Then find it “works” a lot more.

So, with that in mind, hers are some songs. Ones I like most in these languages. If you want the English versions, you can find them on your own.

Shakira, on those with intuition about who they love…

With shades of Zydeco in the music…

The Celts spanned from Ireland to Britain to Hispania to Gaul to Switzerland to North Italy and on to Galicia in Turkey. They were overrun by the Roman Empire. Yet they persist. It doesn’t matter much what language, what the nominal culture. They have a love of strong women(strong men are like that…), sensuality, and a certain stubbornness… Call it Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, Scottish, French, Italian, whatever… or even that particular Celtic Thread ™ that runs down the spine of the U.S.A., it is all the same.

We love life. We (men) love women, and they (women) love men. We laugh, sing, make music and try our best to ignore the Evil Bastard types who think they run things. As long as they stay our of our way enough, we let them live… from time to time we don’t. C’est la vie…

Even when Moors invaded Hispania, we just flowed around it and absorbed what was good… (and it became something that “modern” Islam would think ought to have your lose your head… in a different way…) Mira este

But whatever… or maybe “Whenever, Wherever”…

Such is the Celtic way… Mais les Français et Cajun:

Even in Nola the Celt culture persists… even in their newly adopted black skin…
Y’all come!

And closer to the origin:

Less soul… but you can see soul from here… (I like the “Old Black Guy” and the “Old White Guy” en passant on the dance floor…) Tall, small, fat, thin, black or white: You like the music? Y’all come…

So what’s it all about? Regarde ça

Cajun, Hill Billy, Celt, ‘Merican, you decide…
but do note the “women with guns” moment ;-) We like our women armed and dangerous!

No “under a tent and 10 steps behind” for us!

But yes, we also speak English…

It’s all the same culture under the language layer…

And the “All American” interpretation:

What’s changed since 1935 (about 80 years…), well maybe it runs a little faster…

Can you say “stunned and confused”? I knew you could…

Then there is the Brazilian Portuguese flavor of the culture, seasoned with some African Spice

All she needs is a gun, or a bow…

So on my “bucket list” is to someday visit Brazil…

But despite the current “Life in America” seeming more like “Brazil The Movie” than reality:

I’m still hopeful that The Culture will persist. Whatever the government. Whatever the Language. Whatever…

Such is the Celtic way, a life of crazy…

And yeah, I know he said he is a Gay Guy.. the Celts were known for screwing anything that moved, and most things that didn’t.. In English:

But everything is better with Ketchup…

En Español, one “nibble” at a time…

And life goes on… with a Celtic bent… In many lands, under many lords, speaking many languages, we persist and thrive… Éirinn go Brách / Alba gu bràth regardless of origin, color, language, or government…

So what is my preferred language? I am best in English, but I like French more despite being less skilled in it, and Spanglish is, in many ways, my native tongue. Choose between them? Sorry, I can’t. C’est la vie. Yo estoy feliz. Y tu? Such is life…

(Someone once asked about my “internal language” and I declined to respond. This is part of why. It’s multilingual and symbolic. So hard to explain. But mostly English, French, Spanish and math/logic symbols, with other odd bits glued on… Whatever works best for a given thought. Then I translate to English for outside… I think this posting makes it clearer why it isn’t an easy world to explain. Many language and symbol systems all en un mélange..)

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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14 Responses to Shakiria – when English isn’t quite right…

  1. Larry Ledwick says:

    But I grew up speaking Spanglish. That 1/2 English 1/2 Spanish stuff that is the common dialect of California, outside the cities (or in the ghettos of East L.A. and East San Jose…).

    I wish someone had a book or course teaching this core dialect. Here in Colorado when I was in school they taught us Spanish. Turns out what they were teaching us isn’t even spoken in Mexico, it was explained to me by a co-worker the Spanish equivalent to kings English.

    When I was in emergency management I went to a training course on radiologial emergency response and one of the test exercises they had for us involved native speakers who only spoke Spanish as the victims.

    It was an eye opener for me as I found I had almost no ability to communicate even basic concepts
    aside from using pidgen Spanish commands like below and some hand motions. My mind went totally blanks and I lost even the minimal spanish I knew but never used :

    venga aca

    The closest I have found to locating a reference for southwestern US spanish is a book published by the Federal government titled “practical Spanish for boarder officers”

    With its help I put together a cheat sheet of a handful of phrases that might be useful but have long since forgotten almost all of it.

    I also don’t have a particularly good ear for language sounds, even in english I have difficulty spelling a word from its sound, as I can’t hear the difference in many vowel sounds. I have the same problem with morse code, never got past 5 words per minute because I can’t hear the difference between a dot and a dash unless the code is machine perfect code.

    I happened to run across an interesting article just a couple days ago where a business executive explained how he learned conversational french in just 17 days. One of the tricks he used was to read childrens books in french since they by their very nature use very simple construction and wording. He also had some native speaker friends who allowed him to move in with them in France and they put him in a totally immersive environment he either figured it out or he couldn’t communicate, and they did not pander to him by talking slower than normal.

  2. Verity Jones says:

    As a student I always loved subtitled films.The joy of hearing the language spoken while having the comfort of understanding via subtitles. I used to enjoy losing myself in the language without looking at the subtitles – usually after the first time of watching. And of course the subtitles are often a only a summary. “Un nuage de lait” is so much more descriptive than “a drop of milk” (in tea).

  3. Larry Ledwick says:

    I was thinking about that today that especially as a beginner or someone with less than perfect hearing you depend on a lot of visual clues to understand what is being said.

    It might be a good language teaching medium to have a video with the option of either or both the spoken language subtitles and the students language subtitles. As a visual learner being able to see the written word as it is spoken would be helpful to capture it in memory and avoid unfortunate mispronunciations as you tried to use the language.

    One of my biggest hurdles with Spanish is most native Spanish speakers speak much faster than I am used to hearing English. Might not be as much of a problem if I grew up in Boston or some other area where speed of speech is naturally high.

    I have a coworker who grew up in the Boston area and he speaks so fast I hardly recognize he is talking before he is finished with his statement. I have to consciously “listen fast”

  4. Verity Jones says:

    We discovered accidentally that you could set the language and subtitles of some dvds on different settings. One day we found our 5 year old watching Toy Story or somesuch in Norwegian with Spanish subtitles. Unfortunately not all discs seem to offer this educational possibility.

  5. E.M.Smith says:


    Yes! Miguel, my buddy, spoke Spanish at home. Pappa spoke nearly no English, and certainly not in HIS home. Mama spoke fairly good English, when needed. Miguel was a typical California kid. Easily swapping between them.

    Then we went to Spanish Class together…

    Just about every lesson, up went Miguel’s hand: Mr. Henry, isn’t it FOO instead of BAR?…

    No, Miguel, that’s Mexican and we are learning the language of Spain… (Minus the lisp…)

    Just about drove him nuts. Like learning to say Thy and Hath Not in English… For me it wasn’t as bad, since I was only half immersed anyway. I rapidly picked up the Formal Spanish. Then I went to college and found out that I had to take a Foreign Language since I’d only had 2 years of Spanish in high school… that my school district was way ahead of the rest and I’d started my first Spanish class in 5 th grade, so had a total of 7 years of it didn’t matter. I’d have to “test in” to placement and THEN take language at that level… Well, not wanting to take Spanish Lit with Native Spanish Speakers, I chose to take a different language…

    French was soft of like Spanish, I thought… Turns out that was the problem… After my first 3 weeks of opening my mouth and having Spanish try to jump out, I did a bit of hypnotic suggestion to ban Spanish… Then the French worked. Unfortunately, it was a good 20 years later before I tried taking the block of Spanish and by then French would try to pop out… I’m still working on keeping them sorted in my head. Reading is fine, speaking so-so… and listening is now hampered by a general hearing loss. I “error correct” missing sounds a lot, but that depends on knowing what’s missing. Very hard with a seldom used language… So my Spanish is getting slowly worse. Oh Well.


    I often use the captions on DVDs and the occasional satellite TV show. We also have a fair number of “other language” stations kicking around. From British English (that really does have it’s own way of things…) to Spanish in several forms, to the odd bits of Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and even occasional French… (TCM just ran a wonderful dance movie all in French. The subtitles helped some times as picking out French through music can challenge a damaged ear… turns out Gene Kelly had a love of France, lived there a lot, and ended up speaking very good French. Note quite accent free, but close. Others in the movie have perfect accent, even a couple that I think were American dancers… It was a big hit in France, natch. The French continued to love the dance musical after it had faded from Glory in the USA / MGM and so Gene just went there and carried on…)

    I’ve had the spouse come in “my room” sometimes to see just what the heck I’m watching in some weird language…

    Oh, one of my favorite movies is “Before The Fall” or “Tres Dias” in Spanish.

    It, too, drove me a bit nuts. I tried to find out where it was filmed and in what dialect. I think perhaps Catalan… but whatever it is, I can not quite track it. Pick out the odd words, sure. Sentences? Nope. Then in the background of some scenes, the TV announcer starts talking about the coming comet strike and news of events… in The Same Spanish I Learned In School! That I can track…

    If you look into a language map of Spain, they have a half dozen different languages, most of them still called Spanish, that are NOT the Kings Spanish used on national TV… It’s an interesting thing to wander down…

    Some of the regional varieties of the Spanish language are quite divergent from one another, especially in pronunciation and vocabulary, and less so in grammar.
    While all Spanish dialects use the same written standard, all spoken varieties differ from the written variety, in different degrees. There are differences between European Spanish (also called Peninsular Spanish) and the Spanish of the Americas, as well as many different dialect areas both within Spain and within Hispanic America.

    And the Spanish of the Californios is it’s own type…

    I learned (taught in school!) that to say “but not like a natural speaker” in idiom to say “pero yo no hablo como un lorro” (but I don’t speak like a parrot) … yet lately I’ve been told that one is supposed to (now?) say “like a native” “como un nativo”.. which also works… but is less idiomatic. Then again, it was Mr. Henry who taught me that first one, that was about 45? years ago, and he was a native speaker of Portugues who had a degree in Spanish and taught use American kids… so maybe it’s a Portuguese-Spanish idiom… So it goes. But the Californios I used it with seemed to understand it pretty well…

    Back at the wiki:

    Sets of variants

    In a broad sense, Hispanic American Spanish can be grouped into:

    Mexico and the United States (New Mexico, Caló)
    Central American
    Caribbean (Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Caribbean Colombia and Caribbean Mexico).
    Andean-Pacific (Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, western Bolivia, and Andean Venezuela).
    Rioplatense (Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay)
    Chilean (Chiloé, Cuyo)

    Old World varieties are:

    Northern Peninsular (Asturias, Castilla y León, Cantabria, Basque country, Navarre, Aragón, Rioja, Provinces of Guadalajara and Cuenca)
    Central-Southern Peninsular (Madrid, Toledo, La Mancha)
    Southern Peninsular (Andalusia, Extremadura, and Murcia)
    Canarian (Canary Islands)

    FWIW, I once was at a friends house when a guy they knew got on the phone and started rattling off Spanish quickly and cleanly… “Hey, he’s pretty good! BUT, his accent sounds a bit unauthentic and more like a European non-Native who needs a bit more immersion.”

    After a while, I asked “Hey, where’s you learn Spanish?”… Turns out he was a native speaker from Argentina… where they don’t do the full on Castillian thing having separated prior to the King With The Lisp, but have a very ‘clean’ IMHO dialect, and minus some of the Indian words in Mexican…. Rather like what I learned in school. Not at all the sort of more gutteral, heavily pronounced accent of Mexican Spanish. Where “No” can sound much more nazal and sometimes almost gutteral…

    I suppose that Argentina, being populated by a LOT of English, German, and Italian immigrants would also naturally sound more like a European mix anyway…

    So good luck getting a “common phrase book” unless kept fairly simple.

    Oh, at the store today, two women chattering on in Spanish…. Glance at the Gringo, no worries, they carry on… ;-) Then, at the end, they said “Bye!”… Typical Californians…

    Oh, one other thing, there are sometimes local “alternative” movie theatres that play subtitled foreign films. Worth seeking out.

    @Larry, again:

    Oh, and my French 2 Teacher didn’t like the way the class was not nazalizing properly. So told us to get some wine and drink until it made our nasal passages swell a bit. It would also drop our inhibitions about trying funny sounds and our accent would improve. He was right. Very right. In no time at all I was nasalizing just right… Later I found out the French averaged about a bottle of wine a day per person and it all made much more sense ;-)

    I had French 2 as a “summer session”. French 1, 2, & 3 constituted ALL of the language. After that it was French Lit… So about 1000 words of required vocabulary, about another 1000 of given and hoped to stick, and about 3 or 4 verb tenses (and their conjugations) per level. Well… normally on the quarter system we had 10 weeks, one of which was the final exam. A one hour class per day and 2 hours of lab, plus about 3 hours of homework. Call it 6 hours all up, for a 6 unit class. BUT, summer sessions ran faster. 6 Weeks, one of them finals… SO now it was 5 weeks to learn about 2000 words, a tense a week (we got past tenses and they have a lot of them…) and around 12 hours a day of class, lab, homework, etc. etc. Talk about brutal… 2 hours class, 4 of lab (though often didn’t do the whole 4) and then homework…

    About the week before finals, I was busy working at my evening job (yes, I was working then too…) that was mostly non-people-contact filing and such. During the day, it was all class, so not much people contact there, either… Someone came to the “billing jacket window” to ask for a billing folder to process… I thought “Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit?”… and then realized I was not tracking English any more… Yeah, that much immersion… so after a THUNK, got English back on line for the first time in a week or two and asked for a repeat…

    French 3 was taught by a lady from Germany. Native German speaker, but who had a degree in French, and was not allowed to teach German… After that, my French ended up with a slight German accent… so on a stop at a border gas station between France and Switzerland, I went in to pay… Said something like “Pump number FOO” in French… the guy looked at Dark Ash Blond Blue Eyed me with slight German accent and answered in very good German… I struggled with all of one quarter of bad German to say “OK, here’s the money” or some such… He realizes his mistake but picks up the American accent in my German and finishes with French accented English “Thanks for coming, here’s your change”… One conversation, three languages, no two sentences in the same one…

    My whirlwind tour of Europe was much of that. A smattering of Italian to get from airport to hotel, and order dinner. German with the hotel clerk in Karlsrure, the German gas station attendant who answered my German “have you a map of Germany” in perfect American accented English with “In the rack, there…” That border crossing story above, then dinner in a Spanish restaurant in Switzerland ( I wanted to see the banks and the lake ;-)… I’d just had a drink in a bar across the street where working men types were speaking something I think was Romansh… I could pick up bits of it, but not much. Then the dinner with the Spanish waters, customers around me in a melange of French, German, other stuff… (Love Spanish food, BTW, not at all like Mexican, more continental European). Then the water came with the check. I’d gone out of my way to converse in Spanish when ordering… He said something to me and my mind went completely blank of language.

    Deep down inside, something just gave up. I had a vague feeling of ‘dead tired’ in part of the brain and after dealing with at least 4 or was it 5 languages in the course of one day, often in rapid rotation, it just quit. I wanted to say “Thanks, here” but nothing would come out. Not even English. I just looked and nodded and then looked down at my plate… he left the check for later… and I piled money on it. I then drove back to Germany and the hotel… Not a word spoken until the next day and checkout… “donkey field mouse”…

    I’ve never tried that much language rotation again… German at breakfast, French in Alsace on the way, French, German, English at the gas station, Italian, French, German, Spanish, whatever and SPLAT…

    I came home VASTLY appreciating that most of the time you could communicate with just about everyone, and not even think about it…

  6. Larry Ledwick says:

    That native speaker I mentioned above was Catalonian and would make it very clear he was not Spanish or Mexican if asked. He if given half a chance would cover some of the dialect difference you mentioned above. As I recall (30 years ago or so) Catalonia had a relatively pure formal Spanish, close to the formal kings Spanish of prior centurys. Spain by and large had a slightly less formal Spanish similar to what was taught in school here as “Spanish”.

    One of the key things in language is a few foundation phrases that allow you to get started. I would try to say to people that I had a very thin background in Spanish by saying:

    “yo habla poquito espanol” how would you say that in SoCal dialect on the street?
    Google translate gives : ” habla más lento, por favor” as meaning “speak slower please”

    Is that the colloquial way of saying slow down in SoCal dialect, so I can understand what they are saying or is there a more common street version?

    It is key simple phrases like that which would be worth their weight in gold. The English / Spanish dictionaries and phrase books focus on assumed transactional phrases like “Where is the bathroom?” ( ¿dónde está el baño? ) “How much does this cost” ( ¿Cuánto cuesta este? )but never mention common colloquial phrases rather than baby talk simple sentences.

    As you mentioned above there are the pidgen spanish anglizations also.
    Google translate gives “truck” = camión where as your friend used the words “La trucke roja!” for to mean a red truck. When I was working in the green house most of the labor was Mexican and I heard a lot of words that did not show up in dictionaries (no not just swear words) They used Carro or something very similar for car. If you use google translate from english (car) you get “coche” but if you translate from spanish (carro) you get “car”. Too bad they don’t give you a “select dialect” option ;)

    It would be nice to get a reference that says, this is the formal way to say it but on the street they are more likely to say x or y.

  7. Larry Ledwick says:

    For a while I would tune into the local Spanish language TV broadcasts to try to “tune up my ear” to Spanish. It seemed to help a little bit. The news and weather shows I could get the general drift of the programing but the soap operas would leave me in a daze (a because I hate soap operas, and b because they tend to talk much faster and use more natural every day sentence structure). Maybe should try for Spanish language Seseme street shows aimed at children?

    I don’t have a real “need” for Spanish language fluency as most of the places I go it is not commonly spoken in public but it would be nice to have enough fluency to be able to find the nearest gas station and get a tire repaired and that sort of thing if need be.

    One of my current coworkers grew up in Guatemala and he is good enough to put comments on his face book page in both Spanish and English because he has friends who function in both languages. Sometimes I ask him questions and he will say “Oh that is how they say it in Mexico in Guatemala and central American much more likely to say it this way.

  8. Verity Jones says:

    @EM I found S. American (Chile) Spanish much easier to understand than Old World Spanish. I find the Castillion plush very hard to understand.

    Wonderful old cinema in Birmingham (UK) back in the 90s, had been the sort that showed films for men in dirty macs ;-) but was revamped as an arthouse cinema. Lovely old place. Had a ‘requests book’ and – the best bit – they served real coffee and home-made cakes instead of popcorn and sodas. Haven’t been in the city for years, wondering if it is still there.

  9. E.M.Smith says:


    if you are ever in Palo Alto (Stanford U) go to the theatre on the main street downtown. Old movies and a full pipe organ between evening shows… lots of great restaurants all around. I think it is named Varsity… We go about every other week, usually on weekends, when in California… In San Jose there are the Camera theaters (Camera One, 2, 3…) with all sorts of alternative movies… near the brew pub too :-)

  10. Wayne Job says:

    EM I envy your living and being brought up in such a diversity of thought and language. Tho’ I was brung up eating and liking chicken innards. My language skills are limited to good and bad English as a result of being Australian, but I did learn a bit of Latin so if I run in to an old roman soldier somewhere I would be OK. Cheers.

  11. cdquarles says:

    My grandfather served in the Great War. He learned soldier French. If you think that my grandmother did not understand French … well, let me say that she’d get her Irish up :). Granddad would speak French to us (dad died young, mom never really recovered .. she died last month :(, er stop digressing). I love languages and have a bit of JRR Tolkien’s philology bug. I eventually learned formal Parisian French, from a Basque in high school and I’m not kidding. I also was exposed to a more formal Spanish in a mini-course and also have one year of formal Russian. Also in high school we were exposed to Latin. My mom and dad both had formal German language exposure. Me, I just speak Southern right now, but if I had to immerse myself in another language, French would likely come back the quickest.

  12. Larry Ledwick says:

    I have been doing a “Spanish refresh – upgrade” the last few weeks. Trying to recover the extremely limited Spanish I learned in school (only 7th grade). I am actually farther on in a few days they I was when I was in school. Some of it is just more life experience, the “Yo quiero Taco Bell” commercial made it easy to re-learn Yo quiero and what it means and serves as a memory anchor. Same goes for several decades of accidental exposure to Spanish in TV and movies.

    The other is remember in the movie “The Matrix” where they said, “I need to learn how to fly a helicopter” and they just down loaded the info? Well with youtube videos we are not that far away from that, there is a huge pool of free language videos which are far superior to the absolutely horrible Spanish teacher I had in 7th grade. Also much better then the mind bending dull language labs we used back 50+ years ago.

  13. Larry Geiger says:

    Ok, now that was a bit eclectic.

  14. E.M.Smith says:

    @Larry the Geiger:

    Eclectic is good. ;-)

    @Larry the Ledwick:

    I do sort of a Matix Upload when going to a new country. I’ll buy the language book for that place and study it intensively, tape running in ears (or now, MP3…) for the day or two before going, then on the plane. By the time I’m at the cab / hotel I can generally ask to get taken places, check in, and order dinner…

    Probably due to that summer school experience. It primed me for this kind of thing…

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