I took my first trip out of the country the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.
My three best friends and I went to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with our youth group from Hillsboro Church of Christ.
At this point, I had two years of Latin under my belt and spoke not a lick of Spanish. We visited a cathedral on a hill overlooking the city, and my classical training enabled me to translate a passage of scripture on one of the stained-glass windows: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:52)
Pretty impressive, right? I could conjugate the crap out of the Latin verb meaning “to kill”—neco—but I couldn’t communicate with other human beings. Try this on for size: “Ego amo magnam tuum praedam.” “I love your big booty.” I put together that sentence for the construction paper cards we made on Valentine’s Day.
Yet, if I’d drifted away from the group, I wouldn’t even have been able to stop someone and ask, “Have you seen a big group of loud gringos carrying bags full of tourist crap?”
As much as I loved my Latin teacher Miss Tracey and appreciated her willigness to treat me as a unique person and not just another drone passing through her class, Señora Lindsey, David Lipscomb High School’s Spanish-speaking titan, might have saved me from my most embarrassing moment in Honduras.
Our group was staying at Baxter Institute, a bible school that trained preachers to minister in Honduras and other countries in Central and South America. We ate our meals with the faculty and students in an expansive dining hall in the campus’s main building. Scott, my youth minister, encouraged us to spread out and try to get to know some of the students while we were eating. Some of them spoke a little English, but most smiled and said, “Buenos,” the same as us.
One morning at breakfast, my gregariousness got the best of me. As I put my tray down and settled into my seat, I turned to the young Honduran man next to me and said, “Me llamo Austin.
He told me his name.
“¿Cuantos anos tienes tu?” I asked. I thought I was saying, “¿Cuantos años tienes tu?”
What’s the difference? you might be wondering. Well, the difference is you either ask a guy how old he is or you make a complete fool of yourself. The accent mark above the “n” in “años” is called a “tilde” and happens to be crucial.
I found this out the hard way. Tildes signifies that you’re supposed to add a “y” to the pronunciation of años, as in “AHN-yose,” not “AHN-os.” Latin has no tildes.
I asked, “¿Cuantos anos tienes tu?” and thought I was saying, “How old are you?” or literally, “How many years do you have?”
Why is that little tilde crucial?
Because I’d just asked a stranger, “How many anuses do you have?”
I’m just glad his answer was one.
If anybody has Rosetta Stone software for Spanish, please let me know.