In my early years at Mendocino College the Dean of Instruction, Susan Bell, and her husband Neill were enthusiastic students in my beginning Spanish classes. The Bells threw great parties up on Black Bart ridge. Susan was a fabulous cook, the guest list was eclectic—even for Mendocino County—and the conversation always lively. Susan and I had become fast friends and having her in my classes was an honor and a delight. She took on Spanish with the same joyful inhibition that seemed to motivate her approach to life overall. Never the wallflower, she sought to practice Spanish with Neill and other students, with bilingual college employees, and out in the community every chance she got.
One day before class she recounted what had happened when she engaged the owner of a local Mexican restaurant in conversation after finishing her lunch. First she introduced herself and warned that she knew “poquito español.” Fair enough. Then she began to tell him how much she was enjoying her [begin ital]clase de español[end ital]. So far so good, and he complimented her pronunciation and her dedication. Susan loved conversation and she was just warming up into this one--[begin ital]in a foreign language[end ital] at that!
The pesky trouble with all lexicons is that a single word will often have multiple meanings. As Susan was going on about how much she loved the language, and [begin ital]el señor[end ital] heard her say for about the third time, “Me gusta mucho la lengua”, he responded with “Un momento”, disappeared into the kitchen, and came out two minutes later with [begin ital]un taco muy especial para la señora[end ital], and placed before her with a flourish a very special tongue taco made especially for the lady. As she chewed through this new culinary adventure, Susan pondered what had just taken place: Language? Tongue? Ah-ha! [begin ital]Lengua[end ital] means both. There are two main words for language, and Mexican Spanish-speakers almost always opt for [begin ital]idioma[end ital] over [begin ital]lengua[end ital]. Chalking up his bafflement to her “poquito español”, señor interpreted that she was professing her enchantment with beef tongue and wanted her to sample his.
I had to take some responsibility for this communication snafu because I had given my students both [begin ital]idioma[end ital] and [begina ital]lengua[end ital] for language, and you can see which one stuck. Susan laughed heartily over this misunderstanding (that resulted in a free taco) and waded right back into deep and unpredictable linguistic waters, always convinced that everything would turn out just the way it should and maybe provide entertaining moments en route.
Excerpt from the chapter "Speaking of Tongues" in Wordstruck! The Fun and Fascination of Language.