Language Barriers

If you plan on traveling outside of your country, at some point, you will run into the dreaded language barrier. When  you hit that barrier, you sweat, you stutter, and wish you had taken something other than Latin in high school.

Johanna is fluent in English and Spanish, for her, travel in most Spanish speaking countries poses few problems. She does run into dialect issues in other countries. For instance, Johanna asked her bartender in Mexico for a pitillo, a straw, in Colombia. In Mexico, the word for straw is pajilla. If you ask your bartender in Colombia for a pajilla, they might take you down to the local sperm bank, and offer a hand. Pizar in Colombia means to step on someone but in Central America it means to sleep with someone. Things could get confusing quickly, maybe not bad, but confusing.

No Your Crazy
…and I said, honey, I only asked her for a straw!

I was happy using Johanna as my built in translator in the past, but now that we are here for an extended period, I want to speak for myself. Plus, who trusts the quiet, bearded guy, who has been staring blankly the entire conversation?

To sharpen my skills, each day, I have been shopping for something different, all without Johanna. It’s uncomfortable, and it takes much longer than usual, but I am learning. I have mistakenly told many people that I am pregnant, “embarazado”, instead of embarrassed, “avergonzado”. There are probably a few people walking around Colombia, talking about the guy with the “Junior” situation.

Ahhh I’m pregnant with embarrassment!

Remember, most people are willing to help, and love that you’re trying. No one is going to make fun of you, and if they do, you don’t know what they’re saying anyways. If both sides smile, even if neither side understands a thing, at the end of the interaction you both leave happy. Sonrisas son contagiosas!

Words to know:

Instead of saying adios, or ciao, say, tenga un buen dia (have a nice day).

If you miss what someone said, don’t respond with “que?” respond with “Senor” or “Senora” it shows more respect.

Yes, lo siento means sorry, but most people just say perdon, or que pena.

Words specific to Colombia:



Parce= Hey buddy!

Güevon, literally means big balls, but people use it to mean dumb.

Last, but not least, a few glasses of wine can be a good language lubricant. You stop caring how you sound and join the conversation!

If you have your own dialect antic-dotes, share them in the comments below.


13 thoughts on “Language Barriers

  1. Laura says:

    My science teacher in 8th grade was also mostly fluent in Spanish, but I remember one time she told me about a hilarious language mistake she made when she was younger. While at a discoteca somewhere in Mexico, she said she spotted a cute guy who had some sweet moves. In a classically hilarious example of language barrier, she tried to compliment his style with an enthusiastic, “Mucho cool-o!”. *facepalm* If Pitbull taught us anything, it’s that we all love big, round culos…so the guy looked at her like she was an alien because she pretty much told him that he had a big butt. I never get tired of that story…
    Keep up the good work, Zach! Next time you greet someone be sure to ask them, “Haces popó en tu mano?”


  2. Kelsey Ohleger says:

    Don’t “false friends” make language learning fun?? I made many of these same mistakes when I first moved to Ecuador. I repeatedly told people I was/wasn’t married instead of tired or not tired: casada/cansada. Ooops! Looking forward to reading more about your adventures over the next months!


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