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Thursday September 8, 2011

Mayor Bloomberg should be applauded for his Spanglish bloomers

Some people are natural linguists. Others, sadly, are not. When Mike Bloomberg, mayor of New York, addressed his citizens via a television broadcast on the eve of hurricane Irene, he also attempted to reassure the city’s large Hispanic community with some choice Spanish phrases.

With an endearingly deadpan delivery worthy of Mr Bean, the mayor unleashed what can only be described as some of the worst pronounced Spanish, New York or the Hispanic world has probably ever witnessed. His tortuous though well meaning announcement in the city’s second language prompted one New Yorker, Rachel Figueroa-Levin, to create @ElBloombito, a spoof character on Twitter who offers comical tweets in “Spanglish”. One such comment issued during the hurricane began “Los trainos y el bussos son muy operationo. Go to worko, No excuso!”

Not surprisingly @ElBloombito has accumulated thousands of avid followers in just a few days, an irony not lost on the mayor himself who has proven a good sport, even lampooning himself and his gruesome Spanish grammar when interviewed on the matter.

But I have only admiration for Mr Bloomberg. He may have an atrocious accent, appalling grammar and lack of fluency in the Spanish language, but at least he tries. Having lived in Majorca for ten years, it still puzzles me when I meet a Briton or German who cannot utter more than a gracias or an hola in the native tongue-and I’m not even speaking about the more tricky Mallorquin dialect. Learning Castilian Spanish is not particularly easy and it is usually those know-it-all, non-linguists who will tell you that it is.

Ordering a beer or buying a newspaper might not pose much of a challenge but probe a little deeper into the linguistics, the colloquialisms, the finer points of grammar and usage, and it’s time to don the miner’s lamp for the language minefield is real and daunting. Of course this is still no excuse for giving up altogether. A basic level of Spanish can be achieved by anyone with patience, diligence, and regular communication with locals. For some a foreign language seems to be assimilated almost by osmosis, for others, books, lessons and hard work is required. Whoever said life was fair?

In my local town, the challenge for long term residents is to be able to speak and understand Mallorqui dialect as well as Castilian Spanish, which complicates things further. I do my best to utter some basic Mallorqui expressions but sympathise with Mr Bloomberg. Reading and writing the language is one thing; managing to open the boca, blurting out a stream of words while managing to get the grammar and pronunciation right is far more taxing. Still, as far as the Majorcans are concerned, being a have-a-go hero is all that matters. How they smile when you order in Spanish or Mallorqui, and how kind and encouraging they are when you actually engage in conversation without making an almighty gaffe.

So for linguistically challenged souls like the valiant Mr Bloomberg, it is crucial to blunder on, perfecting the art slowly, ignoring those who snigger or roll their eyes in patronising ennui because one day, with perseverance, it will come right. And if all else fails, offering an apologetic smile and sharing a joke at one’s own expense, is the greatest ice breaker in the integration game. It shows that we’re all at least trying to speak the same language.

First appeared in Telegraph Expat

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