So you think you speak Spanish?

Sep 11, 2011 by

Since the whole point of me moving out to Barcelona was to, quote, “get fluent in Spanish”, I thought it was about time I penned an update on how that’s all going. Funnily enough, there isn’t a direct way of translating ‘to be fluent’ in Spanish – they express the idea instead with phrases like ‘to dominate’ a language. And if you’re just middling in it, you’re said to be able only to ‘defend yourself’ in the language. So after four months here, which is it – am I a dominatrix or gimping in defence?

Well, my answer depends on what day of the week it is, whether a full moon is due, how many hours I’ve slept the previous night and how much Cava has been flowing immediately beforehand. There are also occasions when I wonder if it’s possible to actually get worse at speaking a language while living in the bloody country.

Take this week, for example. There I am, engaged enthusiastically in the act of buying a hamster, when the pet shop assistant must have misinterpreted my excitement for utter idiocy. She retreats to the back of the staff room, trilling “Just wait till you see what I’ve got for you!” and emerges carrying the most woebegone-looking specimen of a Russian dwarf hamster you have ever seen. In my attempt to politely decline the wretched creature, what I mean to say is “Look, I know about hamsters – when I was a teenager I used to breed Russian dwarves”  – but judging by the alarmed look on her face I’m guessing that didn’t quite come out right in Spanish. Not one of my linguistic successes, that day.

hamster on couch

El hamster - a common source of confusion.

The answer also, I’ve noticed, depends on who I’m talking to. I can bump my gums with the best of them when chatting to shop keepers, taxi drivers, language swap partners, their dogs, but ask me to answer a ringing phone at work and I turn into a stammering imbecile. In any situation where I’m even slightly nervous, my spoken language skills are off to hell in a hand basket.

But I wanted to talk about that other aspect of learning the lingo in a foreign country – the bit they don’t teach you at school or uni. Enter the enigmatic world of Spanish body language.

The part you can’t conjugate

Picture the scene. There you are, all eager-eyed and bushy tailed, heading due south to Spain. You’ve learned (perhaps to your cost) that ‘embarazada’ means pregnant as opposed to embarrassed, the crucial distinction between ‘pollo’ and ‘polla’ and you reckon you’ve finally subjugated the subjunctive.  All is boding well. Until you set foot on Spanish soil and you find yourself in a silent film, with the natives all slapping their cheeks, shaking their hands vigorously into the air as if taking part in a rain dance and shrugging maniacally at unexpected junctures of the conversation.

Now, failing to innately understand these non-verbal signals may not sound like a deictic disaster. But the problem is that Spaniards tend to use such corporal methods of communication as an active way of conveying the real meaning of what they’re trying to express. Much more than we do in Britain, I would say. Facial expressions, gestures and touches are used as a bridge over the interstice between what’s coming out of your mouth and the final semantic destination.

And if you’re not clued up on what the hell they mean, it’s very easy to get lost amid all the wild and apparently nonsensical gesticulating. (“Is there rain coming?”)

Of course, it works the other way round, as well. As a non-fluent foreigner, you tend to find yourself relying on your own exaggerated gestures to try and make yourself understood. Mime ‘can I get the bill?’, for example. Chances are you did all but shout “Garçon!” at the same time.

Up close and personally slightly intrusive, sometimes

If you’re not from a particularly demonstrative/touchy-feely family, living in Spain is a whole new education. There are days here I think I must have been raised by wolves. Who didn’t like each other very much.

human pyramid

Redefining personal space.

Various Spanish and South American friends have used words like “cold, reserved, distant, aloof, formal” to describe to me how they see the Brits. This used to hurt a bit, and I would reply indignantly with “but you just don’t know us!” I can see why they think it, of course. If you look at it purely from the point of view of physical closeness, we’d be happier sitting under several bear skins supping with the Eskimos than bikini-clad in Brazil and doing the lambada with our neighbours.

This readiness towards physical intimacy is reflected, it seems, at all levels of Spanish society. Watch footage of the king and queen here – you’ll be struck by how completely differently they behave towards ordinary citizens compared with their UK counterparts. I mean, there they are, intermingling like normal humans, without all the bowing and toadying (at least physically) that goes on towards the British monarchy.

I still get slightly freaked out by the length of time Spaniards are prepared to hold my gaze (apparently they have the most sustained eye contact in Europe bar the Greeks…) and the constant double-barrelled kissing can get a bit much (especially when you’re being introduced round the office on your first day and are expected to greet 40 strangers like this). Overall, though, there’s a lot to be said for blurring the boundaries of learned social etiquette. When friends reach across the table and affectionately touch my arm six or seven times throughout the course of a meal, or colleagues about to skip off on holiday lean down and kiss the top of my head on their way out the office, there’s a huge and genuine warmth about it. Even a lone wolf would be moved.

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