Bill Anderson – Mind your Spanglish

Something a bit lighter this week, but nevertheless important. I have worked with thousands of International residents over the years, and speaking Spanish is a topic that comes up time and again.

I have had some humorous moments in my learning Spanish journey. In my early days here, a Spanish teacher arrived at the house to do a class for my now late wife, and after courteous greeting she announced that she was a bit ‘constipada’. I wondered why she was telling me about her toilet habits, not something one expects when asking ‘¿Como estas?’ I reverted to my analogue dictionary and discovered that it meant ‘congested’ i.e. with a head cold. I was relieved.

Sitting one day at a friend’s restaurant I was amused when a group of young Norwegian tourists began to wish a friend a Happy Birthday, in Spanish. But they hadn’t grasped the effect of the little eyebrow over the ‘ñ’ and were wishing their friend a happy anus. There was raucous laughter when we filled them in.

A recurring theme from many of my British acquaintances is how difficult it is to learn a language when you are getting on in years. I get it. And let’s be honest, when you live in many coastal areas, people can get by day to day without a decent level of Spanish. When my now wife immigrated with her family to Australia in the 1970’s, it was a different story. Immigrants were scolded for speaking their native tongue in public places. I am not saying I would like to see that happening in Spain in 2024, but I do get frustrated when I hear people complaining that they have gone to the Guardia Civil  ‘and they didn’t speak English’, or to the hospital and an appointment was all but wasted because they couldn’t communicate. If no translator is available, why on earth don’t they take someone with them to help?

In many ways, Spain has done its best to accommodate foreign immigrants, but it’s not Spain’s responsibility to make sure we are understood. In fairness, I know a lot of older people who faithfully attend their Spanish classes and still say they struggle to have a conversation with a Spaniard. Learning Spanish doesn’t happen by attending a class once a week. It happens by immersing yourself in the Spanish life and culture, by using every opportunity you have to use Spanish, by getting into situations where you either have to remain silent or use the language to be part of the conversation. Of course, this is not as comfortable as being surrounded by our fellow native English speakers, but if we don’t escape our comfort zone, it will never happen.

Spaniards don’t care if we get it wrong, but they do get annoyed when we don’t try. I have had many conversations with Spaniards who confirm this. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, or too shy to show what you have learned. Get out there and just do it.

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Written by

Bill Anderson

Originally from Scotland, Bill has been a permanent resident in Spain for over 20 years many of which were spent in teaching. He has published 5 novels. He lives in Mijas Costa, and is editor of EWN.