This morning I was sitting in the back of the car of our future Rondeño car mechanic, who was bringing us to a guy who sells cars. He spoke Spanish with Jaime, I knew that much. Just that it wasn’t the Spanish I know, nor a Spanish I can fathom how I ever will learn to understand…
Fluency in a foreign language is a rather ambiguous term. Years ago, when I came to Montreal to study, I considered myself fluent in English. I had taken the language in school since grade 4, gone to summer school in the UK and had passed the university entrance exams with flying colours. Yet, singing “Polly, put the kettle on” and “Oh, dear, what can the matter be” did not help me in the least when it came to real life immersion in Canada. Of the five courses I had signed up for in my first semester, my Criminology professor was a Detroit ex-cop with a broad American drawl, my International Relations professor was from India via South Africa, and my Shakespearian drama teacher was a most Quebecois French Canadian. Only two of my professors were ‘plain’ Canadian, not that that helped much. When my sociology professor spoke of ‘Carl Marcs’, weeks later it dawned on me that he had been speaking about Karl Marx (with rolling r’s), the founder of communism!
The depth of my linguistic depression came one night when I was persuaded to go to a comedy club. Bring me tragedy any day in any language and I can catch most of it. But humour is a whole other matter. Comedy is the last bastion of a foreign language. It is spoken faster than any other form of speech, mixes folklore and popular culture and intertwines current affairs, often in a microcosmic sense, referring to what happened in this very pub last night. Comedians also use local slang, invent new words and create new genres of speaking, abuse accents and play multiple characters in the same skit. No strange us poor foreigners get lost. And of course, the more the audience laughs, the more frustrated we get.
Being in a small Andalucian town is a bit like being in a permanent comedy club – the more gesticulating, the faster the lips move and the louder the laughs, the less I understand. Latin people speak fast at any rate and Spaniards are no exception. There are of course numerous dialects and accents, depending on which the pueblo they come from. In addition, Andalucians tend to skip the end of every odd word and the beginning of every even one. Most lisp at leisure (though not as bad as the Madrileñas) and many rural townsfolk mumble as though they have no use of their teeth.
I had the foolish idea that Spanish TV would be a valuable teaching tool for me. Then when we got here, I realized that their TV features almost exclusively American series and cowboy movies, all dubbed with what sounds like one female and one male voice. So John Wayne, Martin Sheen and the head of CSI all have the same token Spanish ‘leading man’ baritone, regardless of age, location or movie genre. Spanish programs are even worse teaching tools for my Spanish. Other than the news, we have sadly only found tacky copies of North American game shows and reality shows with the must slutty of sluts, all talking completely incomprehensible Spanish – to me that is…
Time for desperate measures. I signed up for a beginner Spanish course for gringos at a local Instituto for adult education. I joined a dozen or so other females: five cheery Brits, one somewhat over-her-head American, one very studious Thai and five chatty Moroccans in the back that seem to have their own Arab conversation club going on simultaneously as the rest of us do our class. And did I mention, one male chaperone who never utters a word.
Never mind the PhD I have been planning to take for years now, I am back to school learning the parts of ‘el cuerpo humano’.