SpainExpatBlog: Learning Castellano

SpainExpatBlog: Learning Castellano

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Britt Bohannan on learning Spanish as an adult and what it means to be fluent.

Something happened in Spanish class the other day that got me thinking about languages.

Whenever you mention to Americans that you speak another language, the first question usually asked is "are you fluent?" But really, how do you answer that question? Do they mean: Can you order stuff in a restaurant? Have a conversation in the supermarket? How about on the phone? Argue about politics? Each of those things take a different level of language understanding to which you could truthfully answer Yes to the question of fluency. When I learned German, I got to a point where I was dreaming in the language and forgetting words in English. I was fully immersed in the language, and also a lot younger, which makes a difference. Of course, I immediately forgot all of the language I spent over a year learning upon leaving the country.

When I moved to Spain at the end of 2008, I fully expected to be dreaming in Spanish in six months. Two and a half years later, I am finally reaching a level of proficiency where I no longer avoid certain social situations because I know there would only be Spanish spoken and I will not be able to hold up a conversation. Try that for three or four hours and you'll understand that more than once a week is too mentally exhausting not to mention humiliating.

So I've been diligently attending four hour, five day a week Spanish classes since November (though I cannot make it every week, for example I took a six week break in December/January because I was in the US). I've been to three different schools of varying excellence or lack thereof. I also study every day for another hour. This is how much work it takes to learn a new language as an adult. There is no learning by osmosis just because you are surrounded by another language. You will invariably seek out your native language speakers at some point just to feel a connection with people.

But classes are great, I love going to school. I feel totally at home with the wake up, go to class, study at home, go practice with someone in person over a coffee routine. (Maybe that's why I spent 5 years in University and another 2 in graduate school. Or maybe that was just to avoid getting a real job, I don't know.)

I love the international microcosm that the classes hold. And I especially love when Japanese students are in the class. Not only because their cultural references are so different from the rest of the Western world (we picked a team name of "The Sharks", another team chose "Lightening Bolts", and a third team, who happened to all be Japanese students, chose the very sporting title of "Mountain"), but their fashion sense is awesome. Last year, I had a girl in class who one day wore giant clip on earrings, tube socks with shorts, and big Roy Orbison style black framed glasses with no lenses - just the frames. And that was just one day of many such delightfully fashionable outfits.

So anyway, my story about the other day: We had an exercise to do in class involving creating a name, slogan and advertising points for a fictional business to open in town. My partner (another American) and I chose "Internacional Casa de Pancakes", our direct ripoff of IHOP, which would probably not be well received in any way by the Spanish since

  1. they do not eat pancakes
  2. they think our coffee is shit (which is true)
  3.  their idea of syrup, indeed of anything sweet when it comes to breakfast,is either chocolate or caramel, and only chocolate or caramel
  4.  they don't really eat butter either.

So blueberry syrup on a stack of pan fried doughy disks with butter would be triply repulsive. But we persevered nonetheless, and we put blueberry syrup in our list of features to lure in the clientele. Except no one understood the word I was absolutely, positively sure was the word for blueberry.

I said to the teacher over and over: Mirtillo. Mirtillo! I spelled it out. No one recognized the word or what I was trying to describe. Finally the doubt crept in. Maybe those are the red berries, not the blue ones?  The teacher told me arándano. I looked it up: arándano. Where had mirtillo come from?

As you know, there are two official languages in this region, and occasionally, especially with food because I learn the names in the markets but sometimes words to do with household related things, I learn and use the Catalan word for something. Finca instead of edificio for building, pruna instead of ciruela for plum, and I don't even know I'm using a Catalan word. Here, if you are speaking Spanish and throw in a few Catalan words, it goes unnoticed as everyone does that anyway. So I figured, ah ha, I used the Catalan word and my teacher is from Peru, so she didn't recognize the word.

But I just looked up the word in Catalan for blueberry. It's nabiu (nah- BEEu). Mirtillo is Italian. I'm mixing three languages. I sound like my boyfriend when he tries to speak Spanish - it starts out OK then degenerates into a big mess of Italian/Spanish/Catalan. Everyone understands him, so it's fine, and he doesn't care in the slightest. But I want fluidity. I want no one to be able to detect where I am from and I want smooth, unhalted conversations on complex topics.

So I may be studying for the rest of my life. If nothing else just to keep what I have already learned in my head. But I like school, so I'm OK with that.


Reprinted with permission of SpainExpatBlog.com.

Photo credit: Shane Global Language Centres

Britt Bohannan is an American currently living in Spain, the fifth foreign country she has called home. She has spent the last four years in Barcelona working as a freelance editorial and technical writer and for local magazines and businesses and runs SpainExpatBlog.com.

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