In my thirties, I moved to Gibraltar. It was my first time living and working abroad. I immediately fell in love with the place and even today one glimpse of the rock and my heart flutters like a preteen girl at a Hanson concert. I stayed for 6 years, had a child and met many weird and wonderful people. I visit often and have plans to move back in the near future. At the end of the 6 years I understood some Llanito and could speak Spanish reasonably well (better than now) thanks in part to my ‘in-laws’ who spoke to me in Spanish, at first to exclude and finally to include.
However, my first ever Spanish sentence fell out of my mouth one drunken night in what was once Rodolfo’s bar on Watergardens. My ‘friend’ (the quotation marks will become evident) had patiently and kindly (as I thought) taught me how to ask for a particular meal in Spanish. My pronunciation was perfect, I was confident as I approached Joe, the bar’s owner and proudly asked for chicken and chips… Laughter… unfettered… raucous laughter from Joe and from every customer in the bar. My so-called friend had sent me like a Wildebeest into the Lion’s den to ask not for chicken but for something utterly NOT chicken (no need to explain to those of you fully aware of the importance of the end letter of a daunting plethora of words).
I never again trusted anyone to tell me the correct saying, expression or word in another language. Give me a dictionary or Google Translate any day rather than become the hostage of a friend’s dodgy sense of humour. Even armed with my phrasebook and dictionary I stumbled over those false friends… those words that sound like English but are not: Embarazado, constipado etc. I’m ashamed to say I giggle childishly when a student informs me he is ‘constipated’ as he sniffles into a tissue. These are known as ‘false friends’ and are to be avoided like the plague for they will trip you up, humiliate you, upset you and cause misunderstanding and conflict.
“Mind your speech a little lest you should mar your fortunes.” quoth the mighty bard and this is no less true of learning to converse in another language. My friend’s betrayal of my trust was quickly forgotten but it has lead me to wonder at the language of betrayal the words we use to betray or to hurt a friend; double-cross, stab in the back, to be two-faced, to mislead to deceive… all quite violent and unpleasant words and phrases relying mostly on subterfuge and the unwitting trust of the friend about to be betrayed. A study at Cornell University aims to isolate the vocabulary used prior to betrayal as apparently like our’false friends’ we trip ourselves up with the words we choose. So beware the friend who utters the phrase “honest, that is how you ask for chicken.” as he backs away stifling giggles.