I thought I already knew Spanish
I grew up bilingual. My parents moved to Central America when I was four, and all my life we spoke English at home and with some friends, but Spanish was the language at school (until junior high) and on the block with my neighborhood friends. I have a reasonably native-sounding accent, and a wealth of vocabulary. I make practically no mistakes conjugating verbs (which in itself is a feat, even for native speakers). But I realized I did not really know Spanish, or at least the brand of Spanish spoken in Central America, until I got married.
Speaking with my wife, and her relatives, made me realize there was a whole other, deeper, richer Spanish that I just did not understand. They could carry on whole conversations where I felt lost. They rattled off jokes at me, one-liners one after the other, and I just put on my silliest smile and tried to chuckle, but felt “left out”.
Buen Provecho, not Que Le Aproveche
Then one Sunday we were doing our typical “have lunch with the mother-in-law” and I wanted to compliment her on the food, and I ended by saying a very typical expression, “buen provecho” which is similar to the French “bon appetit” and has no real equivalent in English, except maybe “enjoy your meal.” However, I got the expression mixed up with another I had only heard but not really understood. I said “Que le aproveche.” Which sounded like “buen provecho” to me. Now when I saw the looks on my wife’s and mother-in-law’s faces, I did not understand what could have gone wrong. The rest of the meal they spoke among each other, and I laid low. Later, when my wife asked me, “How could you say that to my mother?” I said I was innocent, but had a hard time convincing her that I really did not know what I had said that could have upset her so.
It turns out “Que le aproveche” is used when someone takes something from you, and you disdainfully acknowledge that you cannot get it back. It is kind of like “sour grapes”, something that my wife assumed I understood because of my competency in Spanish.
However, this humbling experience also showed me that I still had quite a lot to learn about Spanish. And what I had to learn were the expressions and sayings, those idiomatic bits of language, which are handed down from heart to heart, among family and friends, and are very hard to transmit otherwise.
Learning through the “back door”
The way we usually learn in school is through attention, analysis and memorization. This could be compared to getting into the house (or our brain in this case) through the front door. However, most of our lives are spent learning in a very different way. We generally “pick up” language on the fly, particularly in conversation or watching a movie, the TV, or listening to a new song. This is more like entering the house through the “back door,” or a side-door (maybe even a window). Most of the time we are not watching these inlets and things just come in. We understand them through the context they were presented, and they just stick.
We can simulate this type of learning, by making a point to pick up and use idiomatic expressions in the language we are trying to learn. These not only contain a wealth of information regarding grammar, alternate vocabulary meanings, and pronunciation, but they also contain the deeply planted seeds of the civilization that engendered the language. They can help us understand not only the language but also the people who speak it.