What does Spanish matter?

A cabinetmaker needs a professional router.
A programmer needs plenty of RAM.
A chef needs a serious mixer.
A missionary teacher needs a second language. For the missionary, language is the principal tool for doing ministry.

What are we trying to communicate when we use Spanish?

  • that we are here for the long term.
  • that we were serious about working in their culture.
  • that we want to speak about God in their “lengua del corazón” (language of the heart).

In Costa Rica, the central social event is to sit and enjoy a “cafecito” (a bit of coffee) with friends. When we take a break in the middle of class, it’s for coffee and maybe cake or cookies. If you are discipling or evangelizing someone, you’re likely to do it with a cup in hand (coffee for Gary, tea for Karen). With the exception of some Costa Ricans who can converse in English, all of this is done in Spanish.

It is a trend in American churches to give less support to long-term missionaries, and to invest more in short-termers, who will not learn the language or the culture but will go for a period of time to carry out a specific project. We have hosted short-term teams from the USA, and they were able to accomplish a great deal in a brief time. We also have guest speakers at ESEPA who teach in English with a Spanish translator. But for long-term impact, you simply have to communicate with people in their own tongue.

As we understand it, to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (Lev 19:18) means that we will communicate God’s truth in a way they can best understand.

Spanish is the world’s second most popular language after Mandarin Chinese. It’s spoken in Spain; it is also spoken by people throughout the Western hemisphere, from Canada all the way to the tip of South America. Many millions, especially Native Americans, speak Spanish as a second language.

Spanish is pronounced differently, depending on which country and sometimes which part of the country you’re from. Mexican, Argentinean and Cuban accents are very distinctive, as is the Spanish spoken in Spain. Costa Ricans claim to have no accent.

Spanish, unlike English, is pronounced phonetically. An “a” is always pronounced as “ah”, never “ay” or “uh”. You never need a dictionary to know how to pronounce a word. Spelling bees exist, but they are dull affairs.

The English language more or less evolves as it wishes. The Spanish language, by contrast, is overseen by a committee of scholars. The Spanish Royal Academy in Madrid, Spain decides how words are spelled and works out other issues of grammar. Just in the last few years they changed the name of the letter “v” and eliminated other letters!

The only letter that doesn’t appear in the English alphabet is “ñ”, the “ny” sound as in El Niño.

Cool things: In Spanish we don’t say something will happen “sooner or later” but “later or sooner”. There are no “black-and-white” issues, but we do have “white-and-black” ones. To say “speak up” or “keep it down”, we say “in high voice” or “in low voice”. When Christians pray, they “inclinan el rostro” (bow their faces).

Costa Rica has its own slang: A “mejenga” (may-HENG-ah) is a choose-up soccer game. “Pelo de gato” (literally “cat’s fur”) means a misty rain. “Chunche” (CHOON-chay) is an all-purpose word for when you can’t remember what a thing is called; it’s similar to “whatchamacallit”. When there is a mess or confusion you exclaim ¡Qué torta! (“what a cake!”). Spanish also has a huge treasury of “refranes” or “sayings” – for example, if you’re talking about someone and he or she walks in, instead of saying “Speak of the devil” you’d say “Hablando del rey de Roma, por la puerta asoma” = “Speaking of the king of Rome, through the door he comes.” If you’ve ever read Don Quixote – and you really should – Sancho Panza often annoys Don Quixote by quoting one refrán after another while making no particular point.

Other fun words: “para” can mean “to stop”. So a “parachoque” (literally a “collision stopper”) is a car bumper. Even more vivid, a parachute is called a “paracaidas” (literally a “fall stopper”). To crawl on your hands and knees is “gatear”, literally, to move like a cat – but in Mexico, “gatear” can also refer to when a man flirts with his housemaid. To say that someone is tight with his money, you don’t need words: just hold up your right arm and pat your elbow with your left hand. If you ladies are in the video store, maybe you will rent something from the rack “Películas Para Llorar” (literally, “Movies for Crying”).

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2 responses to “What does Spanish matter?

  1. Very interesting post Gary! We met years ago in Coopersburg. I am still trying to learn the Spanish language (my wife is fluent). I think I am doing well! It must help to live among native speakers! May God bless your labor.

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