Monday, December 01, 2008

el malentendido mi español

Yesterday Theresa posted a very interesting piece about growing up bilingual. Even though she grew up speaking Spanish, she still encounters communication problems in Mexico.

I have been practicing my Spanish lessons on my Mexican friends at church. The usual look is one of bewilderment. (I am merely happy to be past the look of horror stage.) Last week, Juan and Irma went off on a tangent about some word I had used. They disagreed about what the correct word should be. As far as I know, they never came to an agreement.

Anyone who has acted as an editor can appreciate that problem. Spanish, just like English, is a very complex language. Vocabulary, accent, caste, and dialect can vary greatly.

That was brought home to me a couple of years ago. I was on a cruise to what the Ministry of Tourism calls the Mexican Riviera. Two entertainers, who I have known since 1999, were the house act on the ship. Juan is from Argentina. His wife, Eileen, is from Brooklyn.

We decided to have dinner at a sidewalk restaurant in Ensenada. The Mexican waiter approached our table and started talking with Juan, who ordered in Spanish. The waiter almost immediately looked distressed -- the type of distress that comes from adding just one too many peppers to a dish. Juan and the waiter exchanged a few words -- apparently explaining something. Now Juan looked distressed.

They both looked at Eileen. Juan spoke. Then the Mexican waiter. It turned out that the waiter could not understand Juan's Argentine Spanish. Eileen ended up ordering.

The number of taxi drivers and street vendors who have been distressed by my Spanish could easily form a line from here to the horizon. But, whenever I see that quizzical response, I remember that even native Spanish speakers can elicit the look, and I press on through.

I know that I will never know Spanish the way I know English, but I am going to continue to mind the gap.


Bob Mrotek said...

Argentine Spanish is very unique. Argentina is heavily populated by European immigrants, especially Italians. There are about 800 common words in Argentine Spanish that are used mostly in Argentina and nowhere else. Don't worry. Keep studying Mexican Spanish(hard)and you will be fine :)

Islagringo said...

Have you ever had a conversation with somebody from England or Australia? Same thing happens there. You know they are speaking English but certain things they say don't make sense. Trust me. I live with a person from England and it can be confusing sometimes!

Add in that most language dictionarys and Babelfish use Spanish Spanish instead of Mexican Spanish and it really gets confusing. I doubt that you will learn Mexican Spanish until you get here and then you will only learn the dialect from where you live. Example: in the Yucatan an N at the end of the word is pronounced as an M and words are pushed together. i.e. esta bien becomes tabiem. Confused yet??

1st Mate said...

Steve - At least in Mexico most people have some compassion for gringos trying to speak Spanish. In the States Mexicans struggling with their English are regarded with contempt and ridicule. There are Norteamericanos who actually think foreigners shouldn't be allowed into the country until they speak fluent English!

American Mommy in Mexico said...

The more I get exposed to all your blogs and comments the happier I am we brought the kids to MX. BUT, now I am wondering what the heck we will do when we get back to USA to help them keep their Spanish skills ... I am hoping this early exposure produces an appitude that carries them through life whatever path they choose.

glorv1 said...

My step-mom Celia raised me. She was from Guadalajara, Mexico and so I learned to speak good Spanish. Unfortunately, when I left home I didn't speak the language as much. Oh I still speak it, read it and can carry a conversation, is broken, if you know what I mean. Have a great month Steve.

Calypso said...

Amigo - While I have most certainly confused a number of natives here in Veracruz, most seem to appreciate with a willingness to help any attempt at speaking their language.

I have not encountered anyone that has been distressed by my torturing their language. Stay with it; a total lack of speaking the language will disenfranchise you with the people.

Steve Cotton said...

Bob -- Like most things in life, studying languages requires a lot of delayed gratification. Somewhere between being married and raising children.

Wayne -- I have no trouble with most English dialects, no matter the country of origin. I have a friend from Ohio, though, who is literally mystified by English, Irish, and Scottish accents. The only problem I have had in English was understanding folks from the North Carolina tidelands.

Bliss -- My experience in Mexico is the same as yours. With the exception of one bus driver, everyone in Mexico has taken pity on my stumbling Spanish. On the other hand, I have not seen anyone in Oregon treat a Spanish-speaking Mexican rudely for not speaking English properly. My neighbors appear to be as patient as Mexicans are with my Spanish.

AMM -- The sad truth is that when the boys are not exposed to Spanish back in the States, their skills will fade. You may want to get them involved in some form of bilingual program when you return home. Many social organizations have immigrant services that may give the boys a double dose of service and bilingualism. It would be a shame to lose this special experience.

Gloria -- At least, you have the foundation to build on.

John -- In Melaque, I will either learn the language or I will do without. English is not generally spoken -- even in the shops.

ken kushnir said...

Gee, I an thought I was the only one with this issue.
I use to get concerned before, but then my wife who speaks fluent Spanish, (she is Honduran) gets almost the same treatment. Quiet a few puzzled looks now and then.

When quizzed of where she is from she always responds with "Vera Cruz". Seems the people from Vera Cruz have the same accent like she has......

Steve Cotton said...

Ken -- It may be the Professor Higgins in me, but I love accents and trying to figure out where people are from. Now I will have a whole new language to dissect.

Glenn said...

Keep practicing.... Mexicans will learn to appreciate your efforts.

I found that Nicaraguans speak a unique Spanish--they could understand me, but it was sometimes difficult to understand them.

Steve Cotton said...

Glenn -- Strange. That is what some of my friends say about my English.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how many Americans would readily understand someone from Scotland. In my view, they have some of the most unfathomable English accents.

That particular example aside, we Americans have an advantage when it comes to understanding different accents in English. As a country of immigrants, how many different accents do we have to learn to deal with? In most major cities, the answer is, "a lot." So we get used to variations in pronunciation.

And I think that's a big difference with Mexico. It's just not as cosmopolitan as the U.S. Even in Mexico City (perhaps especially) there aren't many foreigners around, especially non-gringo foreigners. Try to find a Cambodian restaurant in Mexico some day. It just isn't there.

So the idea that a Mexican may not understand an Argentine accent isn't that weird.

But with all the exposure Mexicans have to Americans through TV, etc, they should understand yours.

Buena suerte y sigue practicando

Kim G
Boston, MA

Steve Cotton said...

Kim -- With the exception of some Glaswegians, I have an ear for Scots. Perhaps, it is genetic. I would agree with you, though, that people who are exposed to various accents have a tendency to better understand all accents. I have a friend who could not get past pronouncing Spanish vowels. Needless to say, he quickly abandoned trying to learn the language. After reading the book you recommended, I find myself listening for subtle dipthongs. Of course, I should be trying to expand my vocabulary beyond references to my old dog.