Learning the Spice of Life

Yvonne Goodson

Being a foreigner, trying to adjust to a new country: different people, rhythm, food... good food. Then, on the street, you start to hear new words: “casera” [the female vendor you regularly buy from], “yapa” [a freebie, or additional, free portion often added to food and drink purchases in Bolivia], “yaaaaa” [a humorous tag included after a sarcastic comment, used to indicate that the speaker was joking]; at the market, on the minibus, at the post office: rebajáme [Give me a discount.]… choco [a blond light-skinned person], highlón [a member of the upper-class or high society]; as you begin making friends: cachas? [Do you understand?] Nega [no; I don’t want that.], Posi [yes; i want to do that.], chaqui [hung-over]... or maybe even as you start working or volunteering. And it’s all part of the spice or the spark of living and interacting in a new city.

Consequently, you investigate and maybe your friends, or those you ask, give you different definitions, like for curse words, for a little laugh; or maybe there are just multiple definitions, depending on the context. And sometimes people get a kick out of you using these idioms in your foreign accent. But as you begin to understand them, you form part of this new place and you start belonging and integrating yourself, through language. Davis (1995) comments on this in the context of learning English, but it is true for any language: “The more language activities students are engaged in beyond the classroom, the more confident they will become in communicating in English. (...) In reality, teaching is all about empowering students with the ability to take more control of their own learning, and giving students a list of language-building tasks will make the whole process a day-to-day experience”.

Getting back to idioms, let’s take the case of: “¿Camote?”… “What’s “camote”?… So it’s not only the oranegeish, super healthy tuber, served alongside the famous Paceño [things or people from La Paz, Bolivia] pork roast, Lechón. It’s to have a crush, to fancy someone. How sweet (pun not intended), and fun. There is also a joy and enthusiasm in learning these new expressions: like hearing “seño” for the first time and then having your coworker explain that a lot of kids she has worked with use that shortened form and even sometimes call close adults “tía” or “tío”, and then you start to hear that in your daily wanderings. And, finally, at a friendly gathering, someone from a different department explains how Paceños like to use diminutives: ahisitos (right their), ahorita (right now), aquisitos [right over there]… and so on.

So, like the dancing, the city center and local culinary delicacies, language is all part of getting to know your way around a new city.



Davis, Randall 1995, “Using a Foreign Language Beyond the Classroom” in The Language Teacher, vol. 19, no. 5, pp. 52 -55, Japan Association for Language Teaching (Similar version found at [http://www.esl-lab.com/research/ways.htm], consulted February 10, 2017).


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Being a foreigner / trying to adjust to a new country / language activities / classroom / students / Paceños / language