65 – Spanish in the Barrio

The way I hear it, there are three Spanish languages.  And no, I’m not talking about Castiliano, Catalan and Valenciana.  Anyway if I was, it’d be a longer list.  No, I’m talking about what they don’t tell you when you start learning a language.

66-michelthomasThree Spanish languages.  All different.

First – the Spanish on my CDs and all those helpful Learning Zone programmes on at 4am on BBC2.  Happy smiling people speaking slowly and clearly, choosing straightforward words, and avoiding “street” colloquialisms.  My intercambio (language exchange) partner also speaks this way, though of course only with me.  Most importantly, they separate each word from the next.  I understand, I participate, and I feel I am making progress.

52-Axalingua-extSecond – the Spanish spoken to me ONLY by Juan-Mi at the Axalingua language school in Colmenar.  He speaks as clearly as the first group, but at normal speed.  “Normal” in this context means at full, machine-gun, top speed, apparently making no allowances for my student status.  “Juan-Mi, por favor, un poco más despacio!” I plead in vain – a little more slowly please!  He refuses, every time, pointing out (with an annoying degree of truth) that there is no point him teaching me “slow” Spanish as that does not exist outside the school building.  I sigh, and struggle on.  Progress feels slower when the language goes faster.

Third – the Spanish ACTUALLY spoken in the streets of my village.  Rapid, a stream of consciousness, words merging and pouring forth in an incomprehensible torrent of sound.  My neighbours are kind, and slow down to speak to me.  But the pronunciation is specific to the locality, as of course is the case anywhere.

“Me voy pa peccao,” announced my neighbour’s mother.  Peccao, pronounced Pe’Cow.  “Uh-huh,” I reply, trying not to look blank.  “Te gusta peccao?” she asked.  How do I know if I like it?  I’ve never heard of it.  “Que es?” I ask her.  She looks appalled.  “No entiendes peccao?  No puede ser!”  You don’t understand peccao?  I don’t believe it!  We walk companionably along the street, divided by language.  We stop outside the shop that doesn’t look like a shop but sells fish in the mornings.  “PECCAO” she bellows.  Light dawns.  “Pescado?” I ask, tentatively?  “Si, si, peccao” she repeats.  Her face says it – this extranjera is not too bright.

The other night as the cool air percolated down our little street and the kitchen chairs came out to balance precariously on the slope, she repeated the story to the other women.  They laughed at me and added a string of abbreviated words to the list.  Andao?  Andado.  Pagao?  Pagado.  Comprao?  Comprado.  Someone asked where Candelaria was.  “Eta enca” came the reply.  “Está en casa”.

66-vecinasSo at night under the moon they teach me the language of the barrio, Spanish as she is really spoken.  Next day in front of mi profe Juan-Mi I try out my new words, but I use the accent of the language school, the accent of Madrid.  Progress, the coming together of all the strands of learning.

Another night Candelaria brings her chair to join us.  She has an accent “thick enough to spread on toast” as Zafón wrote.  She is kind to me, checks up on me, notices my brief visits back to England.  “Are you here?” she invariably asks on my return. My “yes” seems inadequate, stating the obvious.   Is the question somehow deeper than that?  It’s hard to ask what it is she really wants to know – my kindest neighbour, but kept distant by my lack of understanding.

Recently I met a friend inland a ways.  Fluent to the point of teaching Tai-Chi in Spanish to Spaniards, he is comfortably a part of his adopted country.  But just sometimes, he says, the one old chap in his street, the one that’s really quite hard to understand, can feel like an effort too great to make.  Guiltily, occasionally, he greets him with a quick “Buena!” and trots on by ensuring there is no opportunity for a slow and frustrating conversation.  Sometimes, even when neighbours are kind, the effort feels too great.  I share his guilt.  I know, I too, have occasionally moved on quickly to avoid a question or a chat.

So Juan-Mi can teach me to avoid slang, colloquialisms, the language of the street.  But the summer nights in the Rincón under the moonlight give me many things.  Language, neighbours, friends, a sense of inclusion.  And if Juan-Mi sighs when my accent slips towards Andaloo – well, so be it.  It’s our barrio and we’ll eat peccao if we want to.

© Tamara Essex 2013



Well, between a few of us we seem to have cracked the problem of “Se me da mal cocinar”.  I may not explain this very well, but it seems that we need the “Se” in this construction because the thing that goes badly is a verb.  To cook.  OR … a noun that is 13-VerbBookacting as a replacement for a verb eg “Se me da mal la cocina” does not mean the kitchen is bad for me, but cooking.  It’s when it is some sort of activity.  Similarly, “Se me dan mal las matematicas” is using the noun for maths, but as a replacement for the activity of DOING maths.

So as far as I can see, the “Se” is because it is sort of a reflexive verb ….. IT ( the cooking or the maths) is giving it bad to me.   “Se me da mal cocinar” or “Se me da mal la cocina”.

Not sure how clear that is as an explanation, but it had helped me get it clearer in my head.  And now I have a bit of a reason for why it is the way it is, I can set that aside and just try and remember to use it!

23 thoughts on “65 – Spanish in the Barrio

  1. Haha, another good ‘un Tamara. These 2 ‘localisms’ got us….. “Na pa mi” which is ‘Nada para mi’ & “Epaña” which is, of course ‘España’!

  2. The one we took ages to fathom was “waygo”. Finally, we realised it was Hasta Luego… they just don’t bother with the beginnings of words where we were.

  3. Excellent post Tamara! When we were last over in Spain I remember you sorting out the ‘ta leugo’ thing for us. We were utterly confused every time this strange combination of sounds were spoken to us. When you explained it seemed so simple! I want to learn the slang and colloquialisms, in the same way we did when we came to live in northern Scotland, where arguably, the English language of the street is equally as hard to understand by an incomer as any foreign language!

  4. Great post – I’m 100% with you on this one, Tamara! I speak Castúo (extremeño dialect)/pueblo now – after a long time spent hiding (have a look at the link in my details) – and while I can now hold a conversation in the village and within the region , I find that I am not understood when I travel to other parts of Spain – In Santander I sauntered into a cafe and bid the bar-keep ‘buenadia,docafconlechcuandopuedaporfa’ and was met with a confused expression! Very much like the UK, though, regional accents, dialects and colloquialisms are always a stumbling block when learning the language. The only accent I struggle with locally is that from Almendralejo – which is to Castillano what Geordie is to English! At least you have such wonderful neighbours to help you. 🙂

  5. Haha, this is great. I was just reading a book, Language: The Cultural Tool by Daniel Everett, and in it he talks about tihs very phenomenon (albeit in English). Like if you said, “Let’s go eat” fast enough, it would sound more like “Squeat” but native speakers would have no problem understanding you.

  6. I enjoyed this. I was in deepest, darkest Andalucia recently with some Spanish friends near the Córdoba, Granada, Málaga border. (Cuevas de San Marcos) The only bar open at 7am was seemingly the pensioners’ club as I swear nobody was under 70 and nobody had more than two teeth. It was clear from the twenty sets of eyes on me that I was a “foreigner” never mind a “stranger”. The fact that I was reading Marca and watching TVE made me no less suspicious!

    Some of the pensioners shouted the local dialect rather than spoke it and if I had not known better I would have thought it might have been Lapp! It was all I could do to order a coffee. Any attempt at conversation was futile! My e’o e’ as a contraction for eso es seemed positively verbose!

  7. I love different accents – it’s what gives people their identity, isn’t it? It’s just a pity that an accent can stereotypically class people as poor or less intelligent – even when that is definitely NOT the case. It’s no wonder I struggle with the Andaluz dialect when, if my life depended on it, I have no idea what a Glaswegian is saying!

  8. So True Marianne I have a very pronounced midland accent which has often been my downfall, people think I am thick,but here in my little Spanish village and local town they just know I am extranjerjo, they don’t even care from which country.I am also guilty of scuttling off Tamara, in the beginning making an excuse I have a cita somewhere, but now I find time for them because I have stopped caring if I am conjugating my verbs correctly, what do they care, they just want to ask Que tal Donde Va??

  9. Wish I’d first read this when I first arrived in Freila, nr Baza many years ago! I was lucky enough to make friends with several of the village ladies preparing for the Feria de San Antonio, going to sewing groups, helping one fight in the local elections, but always felt held back by my inability to keep up with the chatter of a large group. I eventually seemed to attune my ear! I was also lucky enough to join a Spanish Tai Chi group – the instructor didn’t say a word!

  10. You are very brave Tamara,a friend of mine who speaks quite good spanish came to Pitres in the Alpujarra and found the local Andaluz impenetrable! However they could understand him!
    As to Scots dialect I am not sure it is in the same league, yes there are some different words and phrases but most Scots understand each other, but then there is Gaelic!
    I was in Denmark recently and was grateful that the Danes mostly speak English,as they say ” we have to,no one else speaks Danish!”

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