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Speaking the Language in Spain

Traveling and living in Spain for a couple of years, I experienced many things new and different to me. Some were funny and some weren't.

Me at a zoo in Spain petting a tiger cub.

Me at a zoo in Spain petting a tiger cub.

My Experience in Spain

Language is an interesting barrier. You can see people, hear people, touch people, and be in their presence but if you cannot understand them or they you, it is as if there is an invisible wall between you.

As a young US Air Force military wife stationed in Spain, I was a fish out of water. Everything was strange and unusual from the food to the language. Sure I knew a little Spanish from high school. However, the high school Spanish I was taught was a Mexican form of Spanish and I didn’t realize there was a difference until my first outing. Sure, as a US Air Force dependent, I could shop at he BX on the base but I wanted to get some fresh vegetables and fruits from time to time so I gave it a try. Armed with my bag and a few words I remembered for banana, potato, and lettuce, I left my little apartment for the farmer’s market one block away.

There was no language barrier when it came to kids, and when it came to play.

— Connie Sellecca

speaking-the-language-in-spain

Farmer’s Market

There were so many stalls and farmers to choose from that it was overwhelming. It looked like most of the prices were the same so I chose a nice looking farmer and stopped to by my produce. He understood what I wanted easily enough and if I mispronounced the word I just pointed at the produce I wanted. This was a sure giveaway that I wasn’t local. What tripped me up was when the man quoted the price. I was sure I remembered all my numbers from my high school Spanish and the number he quoted was not among them. I frowned and went through the numbers in my head: uno, dos, tres, quarto, … no “onthay” among them. Finally a line forming behind me and the farmer looking impatient at me, I handed him all my pesetas. This is the sure fire desperation of a stupid American but what could I do? From them he picked out 11 pesetas and said bueno.

Markets in Spain

Markets in Spain

Castilian Spanish

I know I was blushing in my humiliation. As I left that stall and started the slow walk home I thought to myself, wait a minute. He took 11 pesetas. In Spanish 11 is pronounced “onsay” not “onthay”. What’s going on? Did that guy have a lisp? I had more encounters with the locals at the market and found everyone had the same lisp. That’s when one of my American friends told me that they spoke Castilian Spanish (I didn’t know there was a difference). The locals spoke as though their tongue was stuck between their front teeth. This meant that my high school Spanish was virtually useless to me in Spain. I ended up buying a Spanish dictionary and practicing the lisp.

Balcony in Spain

Balcony in Spain

The Prince

I was told a story about a young Spanish prince who had a terrible lisp and since none of the people wanted to appear rude to the young prince by correcting his speech, they all adopted the lisp as well. I have no idea if this story is true or not but it was a nice story.

My Stature

In 1976, I was 5 feet 6 inches tall. That is pretty average for the US. Nothing to write home about. I’m a little taller than my two sisters but not much. However, in Spain, I felt like an Amazon. I could walk down the streets in Madrid and stick out head and shoulders above almost everyone there.

One of our favorite pastimes in Spain as we drove around seeing the sights, was to stop and see castles. There were castles on every hill almost. I remember one little town in particular where we stopped and asked around until we found a little toothless man who was the caretaker of the castle. He came out with a brass key almost as long as his arm. He couldn’t stop grinning at us as he unlocked the huge wooden door for us to enter. This poor old structure had been through a lot and was practically knocked down and roofless. Still, the tower was intact and we climbed the narrow stairs to the top to see the whole countryside. The old man smiled up at me with only about two teeth left in his mouth. He stood very close to me and said if he had known how beautiful American women were he would have gone to the US before this. His gaze made me very uncomfortable as I blushed several different shades. My husband laughed. Yes, it was time to go. I had seen enough.

Pastry Shop window

Pastry Shop window

There are no language barriers when you are smiling.

— Allen Klein

Local Pastry Shop

We came to love the local shops. In the US, there are supermarkets where you can get almost everything you ever need in one place. But the charm of Spain was the different specially shops. A shop for bread and pastry (Panaderia), a shop for meat, (Carnicería), a shop for hardware (Ferretería), a mail/post office (Correos), and much more. We fell in love with the special pastries at the Panaderia. But the lady who waited on me had a permanent frown on her face. She was a middle-aged woman with tiny streaks of grey showing in her severe bun at the nape of her neck. Every week I would come in smiling at her and point at our favorite pastries saying in Spanish, “I want this one, and this one, and this one.” She scowled as she packaged them up for me and took my money but said very little. I thought it was so sad that I couldn’t get her to smile no matter how polite or how sweetly I smiled. Then after a few months it hit me that I’m just pointing like all the other Americans how have no interest in learning the language. I really need to make a better effort. So the next time I came in I smiled sweetly and said, “What do you call this one?” It’s like a light came on over her and her face lit up a smile transformed her stern face and little crinkles formed at the corner of her eyes. Immediately she began informing of the names of every pastry in the shop. There were dozens of them. It was information overload. I couldn’t possible remember all that. I ended up having to ask her several times before I could remember the ones that were our favorites. One was Esaïmada, one was a Xuxo (so rich you were on sugar overload for hours), and one was a bizcocho. There were so many that were our favorites but I can only remember the names for a few. Sweeter than the pastries was the transformation on the face of the lady who warmed up to me as soon as I made an effort to speak the language and learn the words.

Castle in Spain

Castle in Spain

Final Thoughts

Do you think American military families living overseas should make the effort to learn the language of the locals? I got the feeling that most felt they were privaliged and didn’t need to learn the language since they were only staying 3 years. To me that was long enough. Do you expect immigrants to learn our language once they have come to our shores to live? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Comments

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 04, 2020:

Dora Weithers,

You are so welcome. I'm happy that anyone would find it interesting. As I think about it more, many things happened during that 2 years that were different and interesting. I may write more about it. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 04, 2020:

Marie Flint,

Me too! I did the same thing. I filled out an application and couldn't bring myself to admit bi-lingual when I know I just didn't speak fluently enough to get away with that. Thanks for commenting and sharing your experiences.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 03, 2020:

Peggy Woods,

How fun. It's like being lost in the woods. Trying to find your way back is part of the adventure. I remember one day my husband and I were looking for the train station in Madrid. Finally, we stopped for directions. I could see gestures but I didn't hear what was said so when my husband got back to the car I asked if he knew where to go. He said, "I told ya." I thought about it and I was sure he didn't so I asked again. He answered the same thing so I said, "No, you didn't tell me." He looked at me and said, "We are going to Atocha train station." Atocha sounds just like I told ya. I had to laugh. Even in English I couldn't understand. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 03, 2020:

DreamerMeg,

Yes, it is nice to be able to make yourself understood, especially without having to resort to sign language. It sounds like you had quite the adventure in Greece. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 03, 2020:

Demas W Jasper,

Very good point. They used to call it "broadening." Every young person should experience some broadening. You are never the same afterward. You also come home with a true appreciation of our democracy. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 03, 2020:

Abby Slutsky,

It's true you have to be emersed and use it everyday or lose it. I never got "conversational" but I could make myself understood most of the time. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 02, 2020:

Linda Lum,

I'm glad your high school Spanish was more helpful for you than it was for me. I'll never forget how the shopkeeper's smile took 20 years off of her face and attitude. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 02, 2020:

Bill Holland,

Latin would certainly help, for sure. Not that you could be conversational with that but you could figure out what they were saying to you. You would be better off with Latin than I was with my high school Spanish, I bet. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 02, 2020:

Ann Carr,

I'm so happy for you. Tears come to my eyes. What a relief. Praises to God!

Blessings,

Denise

Ann Carr from SW England on October 02, 2020:

Finally her results from the first tests came back this morning - negative, thank goodness! Thank you for your prayers, Denise, and for your kindness.

Ann

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 01, 2020:

Ann Carr,

I feel the same. You are a friend too even though we have never "met". My sister had her son (22 years old) come home and announce he had been exposed to someone who tested positive. It was a nail-biting two weeks waiting for the tests to be sure he wasn't going to test positive too. It turned out to be nothing, thank God. I'll be praying for your daughter. I expect good news!

Blessings,

Denise

Ann Carr from SW England on October 01, 2020:

Thank you for your concern, Denise. I really appreciate it.

She hasn't had the results back yet! In fact, they've led her a merry dance. However, they've had a fresh test today at the local airport. She should get the results tomorrow. In the meantime they are both feeling a lot better, thank goodness, despite my daughter and husband having had to miss 4 days' work and the pay that goes with it, as well as the girls not being able to go to school!

Sorry to hear about your aunt. It's sad when the family diminishes, isn't it? We feel that the ties with the past die with them, or at least I do. I just have my (half)sister left though there are still a couple of sort-of cousins who knew my parents; we can still talk about them which is great.

Thanks for being a friend.

Ann

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 01, 2020:

Ann Carr,

Oh dear Ann, I do pray it was only a cold. How horribly unsettling. I can't imagine the anguish you are going through just waiting to hear. My aunt just passed of the COVID 19 virus last week. Okay, she was 90 and we weren't close (she lives 3000 miles away) but I have fond memories of our visits and I'm sad that that only leaves one of my dad's siblings left living. It's like the end of a generation right before your eyes. I'm glad I was able to give you some warmth on a cold day. Stay safe and thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 01, 2020:

Lorna Lamon,

Ah, yes, the Gulliver's Travels reference was perfect. I wish I had taken a photo of the heads I was towering over in Spain. It was such a remarkable point of view and one I had never experienced in the US. Thanks for commenting and sharing your experience in Italy. (There's another place I'd love to visit someday.)

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 01, 2020:

Devika Primic,

Absolutely! I know from your story that you have struggled the same way I did to get to know people and learn the language and the culture. It is so worth it if you put in the effort. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 01, 2020:

Diana Carol Abrahamson,

Yes, I find smiling is often the universal language and will get you a smile in return. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on October 01, 2020:

When asked if I speak Spanish, I say, "un pequito," as even after 4 series of classes, my Spanish is pretty basic. I lived in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, along the Mexican border, for 10 years. It would have been limiting to stay monolingual.

When we lived in Australia, there was a language barrier at first. Their accent takes some getting used to and they use a lot of slang so it was English but still incomprehensible until I adjusted.

Good article!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 01, 2020:

I think that learning the language is an opportunity; you were wise to make the effort, and immigrants should do likewise. Thanks for sharing from your military-wife experience. Good read!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 30, 2020:

Linda Crampton,

My husband and I only stayed for 2 years but the effort was well worth it. I feel I made friends and learned so much there. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 30, 2020:

Rosina S Khan,

That's exactly what I say. It is only common courtesy since we expect it here, I should be willing to learn their language there. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on September 29, 2020:

I remember a joke in the Reader's Digest years ago about a lady who was trying to speak Spanish from a Spanish-English dictionary. She was trying to buy an umbrella from a store. When she asked how much the umbrella cost, the store clerk looked at her in a confused manner and went to get the manager.

The manager asked the lady customer in English, "I'm sorry, ma'am, but why do you want to whip your horse?"

When I dated a Persian grad student at college, I stopped trying to learn the language when he laughed and told me I had just said, "How do you sh*t?" Totally embarrassing.

I believe you have to be totally immersed in a language to really learn it. That's hard. I know a song in Spanish and a few general phrases, but I hardly feel confident to carry on a conversation. When asked on a job application whether I speak it, I shamefully have to answer "no."

I did know the "th" rule about European Spanish but had forgotten about it. Thank you for sharing this experience. Languages can be fun but tricky!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 29, 2020:

Like DreamerMeg, my elementary use of Spanish was put to use to find a specific hotel in Barcelona. We were roaming around Las Ramblas and had gotten lost. Between a kind lady's gestures and Spanish, we found our way back.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on September 29, 2020:

I have always loved to learn a bit of a language even if I am going there only on holiday for a week or two. It saved me a couple of times in Greece. We were taken to the hotel to drop our luggage, then back to the centre of Athens to see some sights, where we were left. I had to ask the way to be able to get back to our hotel but no one spoke English and I was so pleased that I was able to make myself understood and to find the correct bus stop and our hotel! In another town, the shop keeper didn't speak English and I could not see what I wanted but I was able to ask in simple Greek. It's very pleasing to make oneself understood and to understand others.

Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on September 29, 2020:

Somehow I feel that Americans who have spent time abroad return with a deeper knowledge of the world we live in. I see it in my church's young missionaries who learn their assigned country's language and spend 18-24 months sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others. They return with a deep love for those people, increased self-esteem, and confidence, as well as better Christians. Their families and local churches made that possible, and they too grew stronger from their sacrifices.

Abby Slutsky from America on September 29, 2020:

I have always been sorry that I never learned Spnish. I coud hve used it in almost every job I have ever had, I took it for seven years, and my vocbulary is pretty good. I do Duolingo about 20 minutes a day, but if you do not use it regularly, you cannot master it. I can make myself understood on all the basics, but understanding someone else when they talk at a normal pace is tough. Your descriptions were terrific.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 29, 2020:

Eric Dierker,

I never even attempted French so now I'm glad. I'm not sure how I would have taken it if I had been told not to even try. Here in California, when I was teaching watercolor to the senior citizens, many of the Mexican ladies spoke little English so I would talk to them in Spanish. I often got it slightly wrong and they would laugh but they knew what I meant. I'm glad I amused them really. At least I tried. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 29, 2020:

Peggy Woods,

And that is all it takes to make people feel you care; if you just make the effort. I was amazed by some of the GI dependants who refused to try. They claimed they couldn't but I suspect prejudice. And so many would make their children talk for them when someone came to the door because the kids are smart enough to pick up a language just like that! Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on September 29, 2020:

Denise, thank you for sharing your experience. Yes, I believe that one should make an attempt to learn some of the language. Three years is actually a long time. One of my sisters lived in Italy for 17 years and, other than the fact that she had red hair and green eyes, she fit right in. She picked up the language and comfortably conversed with the locals.

When I visited her, I found that my high school Spanish was helpful--as Ann Carr noted, the Latin-based languages have enough similarities that you can almost fake it. (I learned Spanish from a Boliviano and a Filipina.)

Your story of the cranky shopkeeper is so important; when you made the effort to connect with her, you were showing that you cared. Isn't that what all of us need?

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2020:

Oh my, I would be a fish out of water. I would certainly try to learn some basics, but I know it would not come easily for me. I would go as far as my four years of Latin would take me. lol

Blessings always

bill

Ann Carr from SW England on September 29, 2020:

I certainly believe that anyone making an effort to learn the language of a place he or she is visiting, will instantly ensure a good reception.

I speak fluent French but my partner doesn't. However, he makes a valiant effort and I don't speak for him - they appreciate the effort, have a laugh at his expense, and we're all instant friends!

Whenever I go elsewhere in Europe I make an effort to learn at least the basics and it never fails. I know a little German and a little Italian, Spanish is not much different to French or Italian of course - if you know one Latin language then you can at least understand the basics of another.

Well done to you - the reward's worth it, isn't it? To see someone warm to you like that is the best feeling. Good for you that you recognised the problem.

I enjoyed reading about your experiences in Spain. European markets are wonderful, the produce, the colours and the vitality!

Thanks for sharing this. It's cheered me up no end, as I'm waiting for the results of a Covid test on one of my daughters and her 9-year old daughter - think it's a cold but still a worry! The stupid thing is that they had to go on a 4 hour round trip to be tested! The world is upside down!

Keep safe and well and thanks for lightening my mood today, Denise.

Ann

Lorna Lamon on September 29, 2020:

I have family in Italy and decided to take a course in Italian before spending time with them. However, Tuscany being in the depths of the countryside practically has its own lingo, which took me a while to understand. Nevertheless, I feel it is worthwhile learning the basics of the language in any country you are going to live in. It not only creates a bridge, it also shows respect and draws people to you.

I understand the feeling of being an Amazon Denise. I am 5ft 10 inches and I felt like something straight out of Gulliver's Travels in Italy. I enjoyed reading about your experiences in Spain and in particular how you make the lady in the pastry shop smile.

Devika Primic on September 29, 2020:

I do think that anyone who wants to visit a foreign country should at least learn the basic words of that foreign language. Your experience is interesting and lets us know to be who we are and learn the language too. I had no idea of the Croatian language and had no idea of the place I came to until I arrived here. Depending on the circumstances, one should be familiar with the foreign language.

Diana Carol Abrahamson from Somerset West on September 28, 2020:

Lovely post about your years living in Spain. Language barriers can be frustrating, but you overcame it by smiling at unfriendly shopkeepers.Thanks for sharing your experiences, good and bad.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 28, 2020:

I enjoy reading about your experiences in Spain. In answer to the question in your last paragraph, yes, I do think that people who are going to live in a country for three years should try to learn at least some of the local language. I think the effort should be made even if the visit is for a shorter time.

Rosina S Khan on September 28, 2020:

If you go and stay in a foreign country, it always helps to learn their language so that life can be better enjoyed through better communication with people and making friendships. Certainly America would expect immigrants to know some basic English I guess. Thank you, Denise, for a good article.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 28, 2020:

I just loved this. I learned Castillian in class but all my buddies spoke Spanglish, I was actually relieved in my time in Spain :-)

Vietnam and they were just constantly correcting you even though they knew what you were saying. Endearing actually. France was strange. They would say that "you cannot speak French so just say it in English". I hear that has changed.

Thanks you brought back good memories.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 28, 2020:

When my husband and I visited Spain, I did try and use a few words of Spanish that I had learned. Everyone seemed to appreciate it. At least it shows that I was making an effort.

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