When I decided to move to live in Catalonia in 1999, I knew I was going to have to learn not one but two new languages. For reasons I mentioned in my previous blog post in this series, I decided to start learning Catalan first, the reverse of the way most people approach the double task. This had its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, as everyone in Catalonia speaks Spanish, had I started with that, like many foreigners, I might have reached the point of saying to myself “I can communicate perfectly well with these people so why should I bother to learn Catalan”. But the negative effect of having only worked through a teach-yourself Spanish book and tape before my arrival was that it became obvious within a few days that my Spanish wasn’t good enough. Rudimentary Catalan certainly wasn’t enough for survival, so I signed up for a month-long intensive course at the official language school in Barcelona.
The course was excellent and I learned a great deal. I was in a multinational class that included French people, Italians, Germans and even a South African, all for their various reasons wanting to improve their Spanish. The only difficulty with learning a language this way as an adult is the amount you have to talk about yourself when you’re practising. I’m not the kind of person who volunteers my likes and dislikes, my opinions and my hopes for the future very easily to people I don’t know, and I found having to talk about them, as you do when you’re practising another language, rather exhausting. But I emerged much more able to cope with everyday situations in Spanish and that was what I had so desperately needed.
So, for those who don’t know it, what’s Spanish like to learn? Well, like all languages, some things are easy and others much more difficult. The easy bits are the spelling and the punctuation. This is because, once you learn the very simple pronunciation rules, whenever you see a Spanish word you know exactly how to pronounce it. And when you hear a word spoken you are almost certain how to spell it (I say almost because there still might be a silent h lurking somewhere and the pronunciation of “b” and “v” is identical, so you can’t be absolutely sure which one to use). The hard part is provided by the verbs, with all kinds of fearsome past tense and subjunctive forms to be learned and used.
Gradually, dealing with people, reading books and newspapers, and particularly watching films and television, my Spanish began to improve and it wasn’t long before I’d reached a reasonable level. Spanish language films in particular were a real discovery for me. I can’t imagine now that I could possibly have missed out on great Spanish films such as Los Lunes al Sol or Vivir es Fácil con los Ojos Cerrados or Argentinian ones like Luna de Avellaneda and the work of film actors as good any in the world today, such as Javier Bardem (before he went to Hollywood), Javier Cámara and Ricardo Darín. It’s an example of how language expands a person’s cultural horizons.
In the case of Spanish, as I’ve already hinted, this is doubly so, because Spanish is spoken in so many countries of the world. I have had the good fortune to be able to travel to places like Cuba and Argentina to see how Spanish changes once you leave the Iberian peninsula. To find out that the Cubans speak Spanish, for example, with exactly the same laid back rhythm as Jamaicans speak English. Not so surprising, perhaps, if you think of where the islands are, and their similar histories, but still quite startling when you hear it for the first time. And to find the heavy Italian influence on Argentinian Spanish, which even gets into the rhythm of speech. Not only that, the Argentinians have their own words for things I thought I knew in Spanish. On my first night in Buenos Aires, I remember being offered “frutilla” flavoured ice-cream (pronounced in the typical Argentinian way with the double l sounding more like a French j than the “ly” or “y” sound I was familiar with). It completely threw me, but I ordered it anyway and was rather relieved to find that “frutilla” was nothing more exotic than a strawberry (better known to me in Spanish as a “fresa”).
Any language lover would find these little details fascinating and Spanish gives you scope for more than most. You don’t even have to leave Spain to find linguistic conundrums. What, for example, are Andalusians on about? They speak a very special kind of Spanish in which the aim appears to be to drop as many consonants as possible, at the ends and even in the middle of words. On my first visit to Seville, I remember sitting outside a restaurant listening to a waiter chatting to us and appearing to tell an absolutely unintelligible joke, while I smiled and nodded politely, thinking to myself “In a minute I’ll ask my wife what on earth he’s been saying”. When he went to take our order to the kitchen I did just that, only to find that she, a person who’d lived with Spanish all her life, had no more idea than I did.
Spanish, of course, has brought me plenty of work as well as pleasure. I’ve probably done more translations from it than I have from any other working languages. Despite this, over the years I became increasingly conscious that I had no formal qualification in the Spanish, not even from school, and, last year, I decided to put things right. I studied for the Chartered Institute of Linguists’ Diploma in Translation and in January this year I passed the examination with results that delighted me – two merits and a distinction in the three papers – proof at last of how far I’ve come since the teach-yourself course fifteen years ago.
If you’d like to visit the Spanish version of my website, click here.