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Monday February 11, 2013

British expats aren’t alone in suffering from language fatigue

A Majorcan friend with a very good grasp of English popped by the other day hoping for a little language practice. She’s recently been offered a job in the tourism sector which takes effect this summer so has been diligently polishing up on her verbs and grammar.

Our conversation was romping along until she mentioned that she’d soon be replacing her spectacles with lentils. It conjured up a rather messy image until I realised that she had got her lentils (lentejas) confused with her contact lenses (lentillas). And then we got on to the thorny issue of ganar, a verb which means both to win and to gain which is why my chum like so many of her countrymen talk about ‘winning’ rather than earning money although they could of course be holding out for the lottery.

We got into hot water with personal subject pronouns –particularly it, he and she- because they’re rarely used in Spanish sentences and mostly just there for emphasis, allowing the verb to do most of the work. Therefore es fácil, meaning it’s easy, is broken down simply as ‘is easy’. When I gently corrected one of her misplaced pronouns for the umpteenth time ‘My sister will go to London because he likes to travel’ she lost patience telling me that English was impossibly difficult.

Her biggest grievance was with the verb ‘to get’ because as far as she was concerned it was used all the time and wasn’t directly translatable in Spanish. And she still found our truncated we’d/she’d/they’d/would’ve/hadn’t impossible to grasp along with pronunciation. The words could, would, plough, cough, rough and laugh seemed the most devilishly complicated to her and she couldn’t understand why hotel wasn’t pronounced like bottle-an endearing mistake made by many in the Spanish hotel industry. Fighting my corner, I reminded her of how tricky Spanish can be for us Brits.

For example why on earth are there two verbs for ‘to be’-ser and estar? And knowing when to use the blighters in complex sentences can swiftly lead to a profoundly philosophical and at times, heated discussion. I told her that when Britons learnt Spanish they had to avoid dangerous elephant traps such as confusing ano (anus) with año (year), pollo (chicken) with polla (cock-in the vulgar sense) pajaro (bird) with pajara (bitch) and thinking embarazada (pregnant) meant embarrassed.

And then there are those confoundedly similar sounding words-queso (cheese) hueso (bone/olive stone) and yeso (plaster), and manchego (the sheep cheese) and manguera (hose), and what about those mischievous false friends such as exitó, which means success while exit converts to salida.

Perhaps my friend’s most enchanting utterance came when she waxed lyrical about the baby lambs gambling in the orchards. I explained that although Majorcan lambs might have cheekily and somewhat unusually taken to the vice I felt that perhaps she’d meant to say ‘gamboling’. It was at that point that we succumbed to a traditional and soothing cup of English afternoon tea.

I admitted that learning a foreign language could be tough. Yes, she said ‘I am agree.’ No, no, I corrected, it’s ‘I agree’. She blew on her hot tea and said, ‘Eres exigente’ meaning ‘you are demanding’. Worryingly she’d used ser, ‘to be’ in the more permanent sense. But shouldn’t she have used estar, the more transient form of ‘to be’? After all, I wasn’t always exigente. Oh yes you are, she said with a wink.

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  1. When very new to Mallorca (we ended up staying 18 years) my wife told a Spanish aquaintance one hot summers day “Soy muy caliente”. He was, as all Spaniards are, pleased that, as a newcomer, she would initiate a conversation and allowed her faux-pas to pass with just a slight smile.

    * by Richard | May 12, 06:09 pm