On Learning Castellano

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 two 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 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 Sharks, another team chose Bolts, and a third team who happen to all be Japanese students chose 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- BEE). 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.


5 thoughts on “On Learning Castellano

  1. Hey Britt…

    Long time reader, first time commenter and all that…

    I’ve been a language teacher for 22 years and I can confirm what you say. Sadly the increased difficulty in learning a new language is indeed connected with age… but not (necessarily) because you get more stupid as you get older. I think one of the biggest challenges is learning not to care about looking (sounding) like a fool. As adults we become less and less used to making mistakes… and yet learning is all about getting it wrong. And above all about communicating. In the end if you order a Prosecco and they bring you a Prosecco, that’s ok. If they bring you a cappuccino and a brioche, you might have a problem.

    …and I never know what berry is what in English, let alone Italian!


    • Oh I agree. I hate butchering languages. My biggest pet peeves (outside of poorly behaved children and coffee served at less than boiling temperature) are grammatical mistakes and misused words in English – though only by native English speakers, ESL speakers are pardoned. I cower when I think I’ll be making similar mistakes in another language, though I’m sure the listener will pardon me as well.

      I’m also sure learning is so difficult because of how much/little time you can dedicate to learning. As a kid, it’s your sole purpose – to learn, and that includes the languages in your life. As an adult you have shit to do and things to stress over. You can’t dedicate your LIFE to learning a language. But if you make learning and using a new language fun, and consider it a hobby, well, that changes everything.

  2. Indeed.

    Another thing about learning languages is the difference between a good language learner and someone who’s genuinely bilingual. I’ve lived in Italy for more that 20 years and for about the first 10 my Italian was improving constantly. Now I find myself making all kinds of awful mistakes and my accent is atrocious. It’s something I saw in a friend of mine who had been here for 10 or so years when I arrived and my theory is that for me, at this point, there is no difference between Italian and English (I have conversations with people and can’t remember what language we were speaking). The result is that I no longer think about my accent or what I’m saying in Italian and, because I’m not bilingual, wind up talking all kinds of nonsense. Basically I do still need to think before I open my mouth. But I don’t.

    It’s also interesting to note that elderly immigrants who moved to their new country as adults, learned the new language well and existed perfectly happily in their new societies, often regress in old age to the point that they can only speak their original language.

    (BTW… Just to be clear… I’m Katia’s (Alpinestars) friend James… we did only meet twice I think!)

  3. yeah. um. you know I love me some good Spanglish. I was just thinking of you the other day, as I often do when horribly butchering the Spanish language in conversation with people in my neighborhood. They just enjoy the novelty of a Guera speaking Spanish, so it’s all bueno.

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