While I did pretty well in most academic subjects at school, languages were not my strong suit. The comment on my report card for French 'Stephen gave up trying' pretty much summed it up and stings to this day. I'm not quite sure why I failed so badly, but I think that while some people have a dyslexia associated with vision, I seem to have a similar thing that confuses my ears brain and mouth! My voice just seemed incapable of making the sounds I command it to, and no amount of practice seemed to be able to remedy that.
A few years back, while failing dismally to learn Spanish, a big stumbling block was that I couldn't roll my 'Rs'. A native speaker gave me a drill that Spanish children use when they have this problem. 'Tres tristres tigres, tragaban trigo en un trigal, en tres tristes trasto, tragaban trigo tres tristes tigres. Un tigre, dos tigres, tres tigres'. I recited it dozens of times a day for weeks but it didn't seem to help me one iota.
Similarly, I seem to have more problems than most in making out words, not just in a foreign language. Even in English, I often have trouble understanding what people are saying, especially in crowded situations, if they are talking quickly or they have an accent. I recall buying a Mars bar in the Shell garage in Kensington, and the Asian chap at the counter seemed to be calling me Pedro.
"Pedro?" I replied, "no I'm Steve".
No he replied "Petrol, petrol, gas?"
"Oh no, just the Mars bar" I said, pulling the hood of my anorak over my head in an attempt to hide in shame. This sort of thing has always happened to me. Back when I worked in the Department of Employment a chap in a turban was in the queue one day. I asked him his name and proceeded to look him up on the system.
"Sorry" I said, "I can't find a Mr Paddle here"
"Not Paddle" he said, "Patel, P-A-T-E-L".
"Oh, Pat-el, sorry", I said, unconciously and rudely re-pronouncing his name for him, having just made a complete arse of myself in front of a queue of a few dozen people who already hated me just for being a civil servant and therefore part of the enemy. I still have nightmares about that one.
Note: I'm not making fun of these people nor belittling their linguistic abilities. These errors are all my fault.
“Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
So despite much effort to learn the language, when I moved to Spain and started conversing with the natives I was probably at a bit of a handicap to start with, but nothing could have prepared me for the next big problem. People in the village I relocated to don't speak the sort of Spanish one learns on a Michel Thomas CD. I later learned their accent in Spain has a position similar to Geordie in the UK. It is regarded by the rest of the Spanish speaking world as pretty unintelligble!
My wife and I were very fortunate to purchase a house in a place with fantastic neighbours who quickly adopted us and included us in their social gatherings. We immediately felt at home and took advantage of the opportunity to chat and improve our Spanish. God it was hard.
To give you an idea, one morning there had been a frost which was unusual. My immediate neighbour, Manolo came up to the fence and held out something in his hand, repeating a word over and over again expressing his obvious distress.
"Sellow sellow" is what it sounded like to me. I called out to the wife, whose Spanish was already far superior to mine, and she was equally puzzled.
We quizzed him as best we could and started to put the pieces together. He was apparently showing us a young almond kernel. The kernel had been frozen by the frost. Working backwards from there we found that the word for frozen was helado. The 'h' is silent in Spanish and in Murcia they don't pronounce the 'd', collapsing it instead to an 'ow' sound. the final touch was this was a reflexive verb and he was saying it had frozen itself so there is the word 'se' on the front. So after a bit of a battle we figured he was saying 'se helado, se elao' - 'sellow sellow'! My wife was triumphant having figured this out but I knew in my heart I was losing the battle to learn Spanish. But worse was to come.
I befriended the local vet who took me out on his house-calls one day. The way it works is that farmers with herds of pigs or goats or whatever would take out insurance with him. In order to minimise his exposure to claims, he would visit the animals from time to time to carry out inoculations and inspections to look out for signs of infections and so forth. These actually took him quite far afield, which is why I was unusually eager to awaken at stupid-o'clock one cold winters morning, to jump into his 4x4 and bounce a long an ever deteriorating series of tracks that led to the mountains of Albacete. As the altitude increased so the temperature fell. I don't know how cold it got but I saw a frozen waterfall. This is a remote part of Spain, pockmarked by empty villages that had been abandoned as the children obviously made a choice between a propsperous life in the big city they saw on TV or a remote, freezing, impoverished life in the hills as a goat farmer and thought to themselves "blow this for a game of soldiers". We visited several farms on the trip and on the way back I confessed to my veterinarian friend that I hadn't understood much of what had been said. He grinned and said he didn't either! Apparently the towns up in the hills are so spread out and isolated that the accents have diverged to such an extent that they were half unintelligible to a native Spanish speaker.
God rolled his dice and a few years later I started a new life, moving to a town in the inland of Andalusia, in Olvera, Cadiz province, the 'white village' I'm living in at the moment. Just as I'd been getting the hang of the accent in Murcia I found myself back in the deep-end trying to figure out what in God's name the Andalusians were talking about. Not only is the accent different again but the Andalusians speak Andaluz which is a combination of a heavy accent and a local lexicon of colloquialisms unique to the area. The bigger problem with Andaluz however is there seems to be a long standing campaign to kill off consonants altogether and reduce language to the lowest possible combination of vowel sounds.
The first word that foxed me when I moved here is a local term meaning mate or kid. I've never seen it written down but I'd have a stab at spelling it 'chaqillo'. When you hear this on the street however, typically one guy calling out of a car window, it is compressed into something resembling 'yo' where the 'je' of the 'y' is almost silent. Another phrase common in Spanish is when two people greet they might say "¿Que haces?", meaning what's happening/what's up. Well that's how they say it in Spanish text books. Here they say "eh ah ee" though not as three separate syllables as I've presented here (for intelligibility?) but more like 'eai'.
I asked a local friend of mine about this and he said yes, that's the way in Andalusia - we eat our consonants! He went on to ask,
"Do you know how we say yes in Andalusia?"
"Si?" I suggested, wincing at the prospect that the real answer would be far worse.
"No, we say eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee". He didn't even need to change his mouth shape to reward himself with a lingering grin!
Soon after, I visited one of the smaller town here south of Ronda. It only had about 200 inhabitants and I learned later that it only got its first fridge in 1983. There I was introduced to a jolly Spanish fellow whose name escapes me, but in entering is house I saw he had a fine collections of CD's.
"You like music", I said "what is your favourite kind?"
"aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa", he said.
I looked blankly at the person who had introduced us.
"Jazz" she translated, half smiling apologetically. At this point I felt so out of my depth I could see fish with lights on their heads!
I just pinched the 'lights on their heads' gag from my favourite comic author, Terry Pratchett and I think what the Andaluz accent most reminds me of is his story in 'Men at Arms" where Captain Vimes starts a conversation with a Gargoyle:
'What's your name, friend?'
Vimes' lips moved as he mentally inserted all those sounds unobtainable to a creature whose
mouth was stuck permanently open. Cornice-overlooking-Broad-way?
The best way then to try to understand the local accent in Andalusia is to imagine them as people who don't close their mouths very much, somewhat like Pratchett's gargoyle folk.
That would have been the end of this blog post but I had a more serious afterthought. While I'm on the subject of my trouble dealing with the language here (and at least, I try) another thing that I found to be a real challenge are automated telephone answering systems. If you try to ring many of the major utilities in Spain such as Telefonica or Vodafone you will be greeted by a mechanical voice asking questions about the nature of your enquiry. In an effort to steer you towards an answer with as little costly human intervention as possible, the questions may include speaking/spelling your name or contract number or even worse, repeating the answer of a multiple choice question.
Now the tricky thing here is that the phone software will be attuned to the accent of a natural Spanish speaker. When I try to respond to these questions in my best Spanish, the system must sniff out my South London accent and raise a red flag, as I can never, EVER, EVER manage to make the machine understand what I'm saying!! Often I'll run against a brick wall and a human operator will eventually come on to find out what is going on. Sometimes though - and this winds me up - the automated system will say it can't understand me and terminate the call. This has happened several times with Telefonica - and I've stood there for several seconds looking at the dead phone with complete incredulity. What else can you do other than get a Spanish friend to make the call for you?
IMHO there should be a law that stops them being able to do this. Non native speakers should have a right to access basic utilities through mutli-national phone answering systems using buttons only. My only consolation is a private chuckle when I think of the amount of business they must loose as a result of this sort of practice. Right now I need a second phone but I'll end up getting it from the highstreet shop of another company as my existing mobile operator can't be bothered to talk to me - stuff them!!