How to Start a Conversation with a Mexican as an Expat
Updated July, 2107
In my on-going quest of learning Spanish, I had been ruminating over the word "chida," a word I'd discovered in an on-line review of a song.
The word was obviously a compliment, given the context, but I still had my doubts. I had tried using the new word once in a restaurant and received a bemused but not negative response, appreciative yet not entirely endorsing either.
Now as I strode toward the beach to meet my expat friends waiting under the palapas, I was mentally searching for something fresh to replace the word “guapa” (pretty girl) in my greeting.
A stocky lifeguard sat astride his motorcycle on the gravel parking lot facing the beach, his mirrored sunglasses scanning the day's silvery aquatic horizon, I shouted out to him, "Oye!" (the word made famous in America by Santana's song "Oye, Como Va,"). “Tell me something…..can I describe a girlfriend as “chida?”
Thus began a ten-minute conversation. Mexicans, regardless of class or profession, whether lawyer, cab driver, or day laborer, love their language.
As a Romance language as rooted in Latin as my mother tongue, Spanish is delightfully accessible. Spanish and English share 15,000 cognates (words that sound the same in both languages).
When you're first learning the language, you get by largely by moving from cognate to cognate, seeking them out like gold doubloons in a sea of words.
The lifeguard smiled and warmed to the subject, explaining that my friend’s new sun hat, my gift for her birthday, could be ‘chida," but that the word was urban slang, and I'd probably want something else (more age-appropriate I gathered). His explanation made sense, since I'd seen the word on a music review on YouTube.
I talk to people from all walks of life here, the very educated and the not so much. Mexican Spanish is renowned among Spanish-speaking countries for its heavy use of slang.
I have Spanish friends who have admitted they can barely understand a Mexican movie between the accent and the slang. I once talked to a Mexican from Mexico City who said even he couldn't understand the Spanish in Mazatlán for a his first few months, so I definitely have my work cut out for me.
My fear is of incorporating a "bad" word by mistake. Words are highly regional too as illustrated in the amusing YouTube video, "Oh, How Hard it is to speak Spanish!"
The word "coger," for example in Spain is a common word for "to take. In Mexico it means to fornicate which made telling someone I needed to take a taxi awkward for a while, I was so hard-wired to use "coger" from my Spain days.
The flip side of the periodic discomfort is discovering a Spanish word that can’t be exactly translated into English. Once you have assimilated the word, it’s a little like knowing a secret handshake, a tiny little aperture into someone else’s culture. I lord over these words like each one was a piece of Halloween candy.
As Charlemagne is widely quoted, "to speak two languages is to possess two souls." It's not easy becoming Charlemagne, even a little, but when you learn a phrase that you can't quite translate to your mother-tongue, you have taken one more step toward that second soul.
"13 Phrases Only Mexicans Understand" - Matador Network
"The Mexican Email; Expect to be Seduced" - Ventanas Mexico
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Hi, I am a partner with Ventanas Mexico which helps people explore the full or part-time expat life in Mexico.
I also wrote "The Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online." A guide to the best free language tools on the web and "If Only I Had a Place," on renting in Mexico luxuriously for less.