I’m proud of my Spanish. I’ve spoken this beautiful language for decades, taught it for more than fifteen years, and have even written two books about it. Nevertheless, from time to time I am forcibly reminded that I am not a native Spanish speaker and will never attain total proficiency.
Today was one of those days. I emailed a Spanish friend to ask how he and his family were doing in Madrid’s unexpected snowy weather. He answered, in part,
Todos bien aquí. Mucho frío y mucha familia en la chimenea!!!
The en la chimenea bit threw me for a total loop. His family was “in the chimney?” Surely this was an idiom. Pursuing this hypothesis, I read on WordReference’s Collins Dictionary tab that chimenea can be informal slang for ‘head’ (like noggin in English), and that the expression estar mal de la chimenea means ‘to be wrong in the head.’ So I concluded that mucha familia en la chimenea probably meant that many members of my friend’s family were going nuts. In English we’d call this cabin fever.
Thanks to WordReference’s Spanish-English vocabulary forum, where I posted to confirm my hypothesis, I soon found out that I was dead wrong. My friend wasn’t speaking metaphorically, but rather simply stating that many family members were gathered around the fireplace! My botched interpretation was the result of two differences in word usage between English and Spanish within that short sentence:
- Chimenea translates not just as ‘chimney,’ but also as ‘fireplace’ or ‘hearth.’
- En can be translated as either ‘in,’ ‘on,’ or ‘at,’ according to context. I knew this! In fact, this broad range of meanings is an unusual feature of Spanish, and so a major theme of Question 43 in my first book (“Why are Spanish prepositions unpredictable?”) as well as a prime example in the first chapter of my second book (“How is Spanish different from other languages?”). But my misinterpretation of chimenea as ‘chimney’ made it impossible for me to see en as meaning ‘at’ (‘at the chimney???’) even though this was, in fact, the correct interpretation of the preposition in the present case. (Around the fireplace is a more idiomatic translation.)
I stand corrected…and humbled.
Stepping back a bit, episodes like this serve an important purpose: they help to keep me a more empathetic teacher. My mistakes may be less frequent than my students’, and may involve more subtle aspects of vocabulary and grammar, but essentially we are all in the same boat, trying to navigate the tricky waters of a second language. There are always unexpected rocks both behind and ahead.