On his résumé, John claims he speaks Swedish, Korean, Indonesian, French and Spanish. But in my book, the only language he speaks with any fluency is English.
I made this discovery by trial and error (more error than trial) on our voyages to Latin America.
I was a Spanish major. I went to school in Spain and lived in South America for two years. I spent years memorizing the gender of nouns and conjugating verbs in past, present and future tenses.
My husband had only one year of Spanish in college, but he has the fearlessness of a matador who never backs down. He blithely plows through conversations, knowing he is mangling the language.
He'll say "zapata," the last name of the 20th century Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, instead of "zapato," which means "shoe."
I discovered his malapropian tendencies on our first trip to Guatemala in 1995. We were strolling through the village of Flores, watching locals chatting on the sidewalks while their children played nearby. There was a laid-back air prompted by the end of the workweek.
As children flitted through the streets, my husband spied a 6-year-old boy tossing a red ball up and down on his front porch. When my husband saw him, he urged the youngster to throw the ball to him.
Before I could stop him, he yelled, "Mátame. Mátame," instead of "Mándamela. Mándamela."
Little did he know that instead of saying, "Send it to me. Send it to me," he had said, "Kill me. Kill me."
The boy was stunned. He stopped, crinkled up his nose and stared at my husband in disbelief before asking in an incredulous tone, "¿Qué?" (What?)
I was incredulous too. What was John thinking?
"Are you nuts?" I yelled at him. "Let's get out of here before they kill you." Soon, we were zipping down the street, avoiding people's curious gazes.
Over the years, my husband's Spanish has been like a roller-coaster ride: It improves with a few weeks of intense study and then steeply plummets to a semi-coherent mishmash of wrong words sprinkled in with correct ones.
I was reminded of this recently when we stopped overnight in the bustling Mexican port city of Ensenada on our way to go whale watching in Baja California.
We stayed on the edge of town at a white stucco motel where the rooms had a distinct Motel 6 flavor. But the place had a quaint coffee shop overlooking the interior patio.
The next morning, we slipped in there for breakfast, and my husband mustered his best Spanish to order an omelet "de campeones."
Before my husband could finish ordering, the waiter was dancing around, jabbing the air with punches as he imitated a prizefighter.
My husband didn't get the connection, so I explained: He had ordered an omelet of champions. In Spanish, mushrooms are "champiñones" not "campeones."