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Culture —– How young is young?

by Brandi

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October 8th, 2010

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In English, when we say “She is young” or “She is a youth”, it means that “she” is most likely a teenager or younger. (Those in England and Australia, please let me know if it is different there.) In Spanish, when you say “She is a youth”, it means that “she” can be anywhere from age 1 to age 29.

To demonstrate this point, when I was living in Latin America at age 19, I was talking to some people and began to tell them a story. I started off the story by saying, “When I was young.” Much to my surprise, they all started laughing and said, “You are still young!” I said “What do you mean, I am still young.” This made them laugh even more and said “You’re young.”

Because it was a cultural difference, at first I did not understand what they meant — in my opinion, I wasn’t young anymore. During the next couple of months of observation, I realized that when a native Spanish speaker talked about a “young person”, or “being young”, or “a youth”, they were referring to someone who was either a child, a teenager, or even into their late twenties.

Another example of this is from when I was in my late twenties; I went to a company called Autoliv to give some ESL (English as a Second Language) placement tests to native Spanish speakers. I was about to test a Spanish speaking lady who was perhaps in her 50’s. She was smiling and seemed to be a very happy and sociable person. When she came to sit down at the testing table, she said “Hola joven” [oh-law ho-ben] – or in English “Hi youth.” I said “Hola” to her and we began the session. As we continued, she continued to call me “joven” (young person or youth) about 6 or 7 times. She would say things like “OK joven”, or “muy bien joven”, or “está bien joven” and so forth. It is quite common for Latin people in their fifties or older to call people in their twenties or younger “joven”.

The moral to this story is this: In Latin America, until you hit age 30, you are younger than you think. This is a fun little tidbit of culture that I wanted to share with you this week.

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