Más o Menos: Les Chices (S1 EP5)

Mustafa Shaikh
4 min read

This week, we move south from Mexico to Colombia before heading northeast to Spain. It'll all make sense shortly.

Still testing to see if Saturday is the new Monday.

Without further ado ...

After a few weeks in Medellin, Colombia, I took a bus ride three hours out of the city. There are several small towns outside Medellin where you can explore the outdoors. San Rafael was the one I chose.

San Rafael was incredible.  As someone of a South Asian bloodline—and thus doesn't enjoy the outdoors that much—swimming in natural waterfall pools is the one thing that will get me to go on a hike.

On the second day at the eco-lodge I was staying at, two kindergarten teachers from Spain arrived. Every summer during their break they went backpacking in a different country, which I got to say, is a pretty epic way to take full advantage of the summer holiday from school.

I enjoyed my time hanging with the teachers, and in particular, the time I spent talking with them. I only wish I was traveling with these kindergarten teachers for the past few weeks—my Spanish would have progressed by leaps and bounds. They essentially talked to me in Spanish like I was a kindergartner, which is precisely the pace I learn best at.

(Unnecessary side story: A few years back I was in Cancun for my buddy Phil's bachelor party and Phil goes, "Oh, and Alex you should come with me to Costco cause you know Spanish." I laughed at that thought, "You're kidding. You think Alex's Spanish is going to make any difference in Costco?" [It didn't. It's a Costco at the end of the day.]

Alex took offense and insisted that my Spanish was at a four-year-old's level while his Spanish was equivalent to that of a kindergartener. Let me tell you, Alex, you wouldn't pass the pre-k with where you're at.)

I'd argue that Spanish is much harder to learn than English. Every verb has to be conjugated depending on who you're talking to (singular, third person, plural first person, etc.). Then you also have to change nouns and adjectives for gender depending on who you're talking about. It ain't easy flipping from English to Spanish.

One morning we're talking about the horse that is on the eco-lodge property. I had called the horse a "caballo." One of the teachers corrected me and noted that this is a female horse, to which I corrected myself and said "caballa," which turns out to also be wrong.

In a language that usually changes the vowel at the end of the noun to indicate gender, horse was an irregular noun. The female version was "yegua." She noted that it's very common for young kids to make that mistake.

This led to me inquiring about how Spanish has approached the concept of gender-neutral terms. Personally, I'm not a fan of using "they" as a gender-neutral term. Just creates confusion on the plurality side of things. I'm much more onboard with the adoption of a new term that's singular and gender neutral.

While "ze" is an option, it hasn't caught on at all. I imagine this is the first time many of you are even discovering that ze can be used instead of they for a singular use case.

But what is Spanish to do, I asked the teachers. You drop an o or an a at the end of most of your nouns and adjectives. Everything has gender built-in.

At first, they were confused about what I was talking about. Once they did understand, they explained that the solution is rather simple. They now drop an e in to signify gender neutrality.

So instead of "él" (he) or "ella" (she), we now have "elle." Instead of "los chicos" (the boys) or las chicas (the girls) we have les chices (the gender-neutral group of young children).

I told the teachers how I was a fan of the way Spanish is treating gender neutrality. I can't tell you the number of times during my travels someone has corrected my incorrect matching of say a male noun with a female adjective. I'm just throwing words together to keep myself from drowning and now I have to worry about matching genders? C'mon now.

One of the teachers disagreed with me. She didn't enjoy teaching the gender-neutral version of words. "Why do we need to add another version of all these words? It's more work for the kids. It just makes things more confusing."

To which I responded, "Well why'd you need to add two versions of every noun in the first place? That's confusing in the first place."

As someone that is a fan of efficient language (and inefficient side stories), I can see a not too distant future where kindergartener teachers in Spanish are swapping the e for the o and a, for all words. It'll make the lives of six-year-olds and Alex's of the world much easier when they're learning Spanish.

We don't need a caballo or a yegua (or a caballa, for that matter). A caballe will do just fine.

(Unnecessary side story 2: I joined the teachers on a hike to a waterfall on their second day in San Rafael. Once we arrived at the swimming portion of the waterfall, they started to change. I thought that was rather inefficient as I just wore my swim trunks, but OK then. I walked away from where we were set up and turned around to give them some privacy.

After a minute or so, I flipped back around and was like, "Oh, you're just going to go topless. I'm American. Y'all need to give me a crash course here. Am I supposed to pretend it's just a normal day here? Only make eye contact? Acknowledge that they're there? I know we need to normalize breasts in society, but yo, I need more guidance on this than on my Spanish.")

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Next week on Mas o Menos ... Colombia's new president says the war on drugs has failed. So let's talk about it.

This essay was edited by Mustafa Shaikh. Blame all grammatical errors on him.

You can catch up on past writings here.