Latinos’ Awful Writing Skills

Posted on 14. Aug, 2009 by in colombia, peru

Disclaimer: Not all Latinos’ writing sucks. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Spanish-language journalists have proven they can spell and use punctuation. And if you’re a Latino reading this, you probably write well.

However, rank-and-file Latinos’ writing skills, including the college-educated, are comparable to mine when I was seven years old.

Typical Facebook comment from a Latina:

Colin, I miss youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Besitosssssssssssssssssssss ;p

21 extra u’s don’t add anything to the meaning, you chimps.

q t pasa, komo va tu vida todo trankilo masomenos?  Ojala jajaja

Some Americans intentionally misspell words. They’re gangsta rap idiots and a tiny minority. You’re a college graduate. Stop it.

Or ThEy’Ll WrItE lIkE tHiS

I can’t even read that shit. Here’s a sample MySpace username:

<-:.B377A M3X1CANA.:->

One Latin use for punctuation: web design. Pullman Bus is one of the biggest bus companies in Chile. Unfortunately their website is an atrociously Flash-tastic piece of shit completely normal in Latin America. Here’s their chump-change web developer’s idea of a page titles that pops!

PULLMAN BUS :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

All caps and 51 colons. Not just 50.  51 (fifty-ONE), bitches!

These examples show more style than substance. Want substance? Here’s an email I got from my last girlfriend in Peru:

parece que ya no existo para ti bueno besitos cuidate

Translation:

i guess i don’t exist to you anymore that’s fine kisses take care

God I miss her. Here’s one from a Colombian friend:

colin 600000 por nivel no por clace que es cop  me pongo ha hacer propaganta para lo de los  estudiantes hablamos el viernes en grupo de apoyo perdon la demora estaba muy ocupado

For this translation I’ve deliberately misspelled in English what Winston misspelled in Spanish, and put two spaces between words where he did.

colin 600000 per level not per klass what is cop  i’ll see aabout doing adverdising for students  we’ll talk friday in meeting sorry for the delay i’ve been busy

We’ve seen two emails without one single character of punctuation, not even for 600,000. But those two aren’t exactly elite professionals in Peru and Colombia. Here’s a typical piece from an educated Latino:

aprendeo de los colombainos , hace dos añso casi no tenain turismo , ahora son toda uan potencia del turismo no sabes y nuestro pais tienmuchas cosas por afrecer , peor al corrupcion la falat d eapoyo a la media empresa turistica no nos deja despegar, por que por elyes como la ese congresista , que solo benefia a la elite y no a also verdaderos empresario del turismo , que ahn hecho por demas ?? solo para su benefico , viaja a colombai y aprende!!!

This piece of shit isn’t worth translating. However, Spanish speakers can see there’s no arguing with me. Latin writing sucks. Here’s why in English:

so, you see, most latinos are horrible writers because they spelll thingz wrrong, but also they dont use punctuation properly, and its not just teenage females that write like that, let me tell you, its the educated professionals in the white collar world too, like most of the people i know in peru and colombia, some work at multinationals that everybody would recognize, everyone knows their products, those latinos write shitty emails just like this paragraph-long run-on sentence separated by commas.

As in reading English, I find subjects and predicates that form sentences. I look for ideas organized in sentence format. Reading Spanish emails I often realize out loud: “This is all one sentence.” One sentence, five lines long, separated by commas.

“You see” and “let me tell you” aren’t exaggerations either. They write exactly what they would say verbally in person. At every point where they’d pause, they add a comma. This is Latino Writing 101.

Root Cause: Latinos Don’t Read

Latinos don’t read. Being well-read is the most important criteria for writing well. Even short of being an interesting or professional writer, writing coherently requires reading regularly. See my friend Stu’s article, Peru’s Reading Culture.

I was once asked about bookstores in Bogota. I laughed out loud – bookstores. There are no Barnes & Nobles or Borders. Nor are there the small, hipster shops like Subterranean or Left Bank in my hometown. Panamericana has books in the display windows, but inside it’s a department store. There are dusty and dirty used-book shops, and not much else. There’s a small book district in downtown Bogota, serving a city of 8 million.

The Latin newspaper industry is a throwback to early 20th century America – mostly tabloids. You may associate tabloids with the celebrity gossip mags at grocery stores. But tabloids got their start by covering violence. The first American tabloid was founded in the early 1900s by a Harvard MBA who got the idea after seeing a huge crowd around a stabbing victim. He realized there was a market for blood and guts. So tabloids in their early days covered violent news in gory detail. They were sold at newsstands surrounded by men in trenchcoats and fedoras. In the last few decades the industry morphed into catering to suburban housewives examining celebrities’ cellulite.

Newsstands in Peru are exactly how I imagine the early 1900s tabloids. Sensational headlines in huge type scream: ‘BURNED to DEATH!’ or ‘Mother of Two RAPED and MURDERED!’ Next to those headlines some publications put a picture of a girl in a bikini. That’s how you sell reading in Latin America.

The Spanish web is as developed as the English web was ten years ago. Especially for technology, there isn’t a Spanish option to stay up-to-date. Latin web professionals have to read English.

I’ve considered stealing content from the most popular English language blogs and publishing it in Spanish. Unfortunately, I have integrity. Plus nobody’d read it.

In the linked article above, Stu attributes the lack of reading to poverty. I whole-heartedly disagree that poverty plays any role. I’ve bought books that cost the same as an empanada. Most cost less than the average lunch. Books are cheap. Reading online is even cheaper.

Latin aversion to reading comes down to culture. Latin boys are more likely to pick up a guitar or go play soccer, and girls are more likely to watch telenovelas or chat the night away on Facebook.

I love Latin America because it’s a more social culture, a warmer culture. But the downside is that most won’t sit down alone and get lost in a book. And they write like morons.

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19 Responses to “Latinos’ Awful Writing Skills”

  1. mein kampf in mexico

    15. Aug, 2009

    Latinos don’t read. Sooooooooooo truuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! jajaja..

    Ever try to buy a book in mexico city? If you want a pirate translation of mein kampf in espanol, no problemo. Otherwise you’re out of luck.

    mein kampf in spanish i am not joking it’s everywhere in mexcity. other than that, there is basically NO mexican publishing industry.

  2. Dennis Demori

    16. Aug, 2009

    Hey man,

    Great post. I started reading your blog a few months ago and I’ve found it really helpful in understanding my own Latin culture. I’m actually 1/2 Colombian but I was born and raised in NY.

    Anyway, my question is this: What Spanish language sites, if any, do you recommend for learning about South American news/current events?

    I know “El Tiempo” is the main one in Bogota. I’m mainly trying to improve my knowledge of what’s going on in Colombia and improve my Spanish reading comprehension at the same time.

    P.S. You mentioned books and tabloids in your post. Do people even read the newspaper in S.A.?

    Thanks!

  3. Colin

    16. Aug, 2009

    @ “mein kampf in mexico” –
    Unfortunately I do believe you. There is a skinhead scene here in Bogota, and I’ve read that there is one throughout Brazil as well. When I first heard that, being a pasty-white American gringo, I thought it was ridiculous. Brazilians and Colombians aren’t white – they’re Latino. Now that I’ve lived in Latin America for a while, I can discern the white ones.

    @ Dennis –
    I hate to say it, but I think the best Spanish news is BBC Mundo. El Tiempo and El Comerico are the most respected in Colombia and Peru, respectively, but even those are shit unless you need hard local news. In my experience, Latino news is very sensational. News pubs on the serious end are like Fox News and the more provocative ones are tabloids that feature headlines like I described next to bikini models.

    I’m also trying to improve my Spanish reading, and my strategy is to use short novels. My next one is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Un relato de un naufrago – which I’ve heard is a book that many Colombians read in junior high or high school so the level should be manageable. And I tell myself that reading Latino authors in Spanish makes a difference. But maybe I’m just telling myself that.

    Another interesting indicator on Latino reading and writing. Compare the English entry to the Spanish entry of that book, which was written in Spanish by Colombia’s – and probably all of Latin America’s – most famous author.

    I was expecting a huge backlash on this post. To my surprise, Latinos have been my biggest supporters.

    I just met a Colombian novelist yesterday – the day after posting this piece – who was a friend of The Mick. The Mick mentioned this post, using rhetoric like ‘illiterate’ and worse to describe Colombians. I was trying to downplay the extremity as I was just meeting this NOVELIST for the first time. After playing it safe and being nice, I finally asked him whether he agrees or what is his experience. He said something like, “Oh no, you’re absolutely right,” like he didn’t realize I was playing it safe, and cited that the average Colombian reads less than one book per year. He seemed to feel stronger about it than I do, which makes sense given he’d make a much better living if they started to read.

  4. Dennis Demori

    16. Aug, 2009

    Colin,

    Thanks for the recommendations – I’ll check them out.

    My first (and last) trip to Colombia was when I was 5 years old and I visited some family in Bogota, so I’m WAY overdue for a return. I’m gonna try to come down at some point over the next 12 months. When I do, I’ll be sure to give you a head’s up.

    On a completely unrelated topic, I read your weightlifting post on Colin’s Blog a few weeks ago and it’s really similar to the strategy suggested on Stronglifts.com. You might wanna check it out.

    I’ve been doing the 5×5 workout for the past 3 months and the results have been really impressive. I’m not affiliated with the site in any way – I just noticed that your training philosophy is almost identical.

  5. ty hardaway

    16. Aug, 2009

    “21 extra u’s don’t add anything to the meaning, you chimps.”

    Made me laugh so long and hard…I’m not even finished with the post. But yeah, reading is to writing what clay is to pottery.

  6. Dave

    18. Aug, 2009

    Colin,

    This is a little off topic. My wife had grand idea of starting on her Masters. Recently she paid to have her transcript translated into English. She was at UCSM (Arequipa) five years, received a “Profesional Degree” in Early Childhood Education, completed her thesis and had it published. To make a long story short, she submitted the transcript and the local University accepted 14 credits.

    After shedding some tears she enrolled in the local Community College and will be taking English Compostion 101 and an Early American History courses. Now I am sure that her writing is fine by Peruvian standards and her spoken English is fine but I can see myself staying up late at night correcting or even writing alot of papers very soon. Share my pain.

  7. mein kampf mexcity

    18. Aug, 2009

    @ Dennis http://news.google.es/, http://news.google.com.ar/, search your topic and away you go. Eventually you’ll find the good sources for whatever your interest is.. soccer, coups, wars, influenza, Mex drug cartels, whatever. For me it’s goal.com in spanish, Reuters latin america, and Infobae for Argentina, but there’s infinite outlets.

    Expert move is to notice the RSS and advanced search functions, set them up in a feed reader, get it on your blackberry and before you know it you’re reading about Manchester City in the Argentine press while waiting for the subway in NYC.

  8. Luc

    19. Aug, 2009

    Colin:
    Agree with parts of your thesis, namely that South/Latin America has lower levels of recreational reading than the west. But I wouldn’t extrapolate as much as you do. For example, most Myspace profiles of young people in Asia, USA, Europe feature the horrid text generation writing you speak of. Do a search and you’ll see it’s true. The Filipinos especially stand out! It drives me crazy reading email messages my from little cousin in Asia (who’s supposed to be a teacher) that features internet shorthand and zero punctuation. It ain’t cool, it ain’t hip. It’s just f’n retarded.

    I would be interested in knowing how more highly placed professionals write in Peru/Colombia.

  9. Colin

    20. Aug, 2009

    @ Luc –

    Maybe a fourth disclaimer is needed – there are certainly other parts of the world where they read even less. I don’t disagree.

    All those examples were copied and pasted from real emails. The third email is an extreme example, but most emails from educated, white-collar Latinos are similar in form with less spelling mistakes. The only punctuation seems to be commas, and they write as they’d speak in casual conversation.

    Latinos have overwhelmingly agreed with me on this, and I just got another one today on this point – from a white-collar Colombian woman who lived in Germany for ten years.

  10. Stuart

    21. Aug, 2009

    Sorry Colin, I didn’t make it to the end of your post. I got distracted and wandered off to watch a man in a chicken suit get beaten with rubber stage props. I’m sure it was a great post though.

    I’ve recently been driven crazy by idiots who think “haber” and “a ver” is the same thing.

    I don’t know about Arequipa or Bogotá, but my other pet hate in Lima is “o sea”. IF YOU EXPLAIN IDEAS CORRECTLY THE FIRST TIME IN A SENSIBLE AND ORGANISED MANNER, YOU NEED NOT EXPLAIN IT 12 DIFFERENT WAYS BACK-TO-BACK INTER-SPACED WITH “O SEA”!

    It’s like, you know, like SOOO annoying. You know?

  11. Pamir

    08. Sep, 2009

    Unfortunately you are right. Majority of latins use to write terrible!!. Sometimes I’m scared of my friends’ mistakes, and my owns. I think I need to read again about tildes. I have forgotten some rules and I have been without write in formal Spanish for long time. Congrats… Interesting post!!!

  12. mkf

    01. Oct, 2009

    thank you for clearing up the mystery of why every email and text message i’ve ever received from a native spanish-speaker came out as gibberish when i put it through babelfish.

  13. Christopher K

    14. Mar, 2010

    100% Correct. It’s not debatable – they suck. And yup, “nobody’d read it” is also correct.

  14. b.ortiz

    13. Dec, 2010

    Colin – truer words have not been spoken. Here’s an example of a comment on a paisa friend’s page:

    “primaaaa muak muak muak un abrazoteee tqm”

    borderline unintelligible. extra letters, abbreviations, misspellings, zero punctuation. it’s hard to believe that 7 words can be so horribly wrong. took me forever to get used to that slop.

    my grammar in spanish is way better than most native speakers because that’s probably the one benefit of learning a language stateside…they drill grammar into you. people make fun of me because i speak properly but I’d rather speak correctly than sound like a moron.

    anyshit, well done with this post.

  15. cm

    01. Nov, 2011

    I disagree with your assessment, I am a latin american and I don’t party

  16. lorencín

    08. Nov, 2011

    Tienes razón. Pero me parece que el problema de la calidad de la escritura en Latinoamérica no recae solamente en que la gente lea o no, sino en la calidad de la educación impartida en las escuelas. Verás que en España muchos jóvenes redactan más o menos bien, eso se debe a que lo aprenden en las escuelas. En buena parte de Latinoamérica en cambio, tus profesores no te enseñan a redactar…

    (Escribo en español porque no sé inglés)

  17. Colin

    09. Nov, 2011

    Thank Lorencín, and excellent writing!

  18. Dan

    24. Nov, 2011

    Basically agree, but there is an exception for Argentina. I suppose many don’t consider it latin america, but it is unique in that there are plenty of bookstores and the population tends to price itself on being well educated. They just don’t like to work. 🙂

  19. Patrick Coffey

    07. Dec, 2017

    I’ve spent several years in Panama and I’ve gotten to know a lot of people here. I know exactly three Panamanians who, to my knowledge, read books and periodicals. Everybody else relies on television, social media and street-corner chisme.

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