Language is cultural as much as grammatical. The Spanish don’t say “my” as much as we do. I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing, something to do with not wanting to boast, not wanting to appear too proud, or what. It felt odd at first, but you become accustomed to it. “The head hurts me” to the doctor. “The tooth hurts me” to the dentist. No need to say “my tooth” – after all, nobody else’s tooth is likely to hurt me. “I’m going back to the flat”. “I think we will go in the car”. Not “MY flat” or “MY car”. I may be wrong, but this reticence seems to me to be connected to the avoidance of the use of “yo” or “tú” etc except when really necessary for clarity or emphasis. Something about not wanting to draw attention to themselves, maybe. Not wanting to stand out.
That’s another obstacle, then, to overcome at my Tuesday English “class” at the day centre. I say “class”, but I’m not a teacher. It’s a rather random group, all levels, never the same people. Quite impossible, really! My most regular, most committed is T. Her stroke muffles her speech somewhat, but she has a reasonable level of English from when she worked for a year living in an English family’s house, and she turns up every week without fail (mind you, they get chucked out of the homelessness hostel during the day, and our day centre nearby is warm in winter and cool in summer, so I don’t imagine they come just for the excitement of a bit of English conversation!). But she is very traditional. It’s hard to get her to use personal pronouns or possessive pronouns – she is more comfortable just saying “like it” rather than “I like it”. And “the handbag” rather than “my handbag”.
So I’d prepared an exercise to practise all this. Photos of basic shopping items, with the English name underneath. Useful for the absolute beginners who often turn up, but nice and flexible to make into a more advanced exercise for T. Her task was to make a whole sentence with the item. A carton of juice – “i put the carton of juice in the refrigerator”. A blue scarf – “I want a blue scarf and I will wear it in the winter”.
The food items went fine. She put most of them in the fridge, and a few on a shelf. One item, a jar of chick-peas, she refused to talk about, saying that beans in jars were “una barbaridad”. I insisted she made a sentence in English, and she said “Chick-peas in a jar do not exist!” Grammatically correct, albeit a little surreal.
The clothing and furniture items changed the mood. I had prompted her several times to use “my”. Suddenly, talking about a painting, she said “I would like to put this painting in MY bedroom in MY house”. She shouted the word “MY”. Then without waiting for me she rushed onto the next photos, jabbing her finger at each one, “This cupboard in MY bedroom, this jacket in MY cupboard, this table in MY house, this sofa on MY terrace.” Her tears were flowing but she didn’t stop. “Blue towels in MY bathroom, big cushions in MY lounge, red curtains in MY house MY house MY house.” And she ran out of steam. Despite the tears, she had an enormous smile. Then she flipped back into Spanish and it all came out between her sobs.
After eighteen months in the homeless hostel there was now a slim chance, just an outside chance, that she and her newish boyfriend were quite high on the list for a flat. His amputated leg and her speech and walking problems seem to give enough “points” and the housing department is considering them for a flat once her boyfriend’s disability money gets sorted so he can pay the rent. “MY flat MY flat MY flat” she smiled, borrowing a tissue to blow her nose.
We were joined by a new student just in time for the last exercise of the morning. They were to choose a painting from the art book, and describe first what they could see, and then whether they liked it or not and why. He chose a 17th century nude, said he could see her breasts, and that he liked it because he could see her breasts. His grammar was more or less OK. Then T’s turn. She leafed through the well-worn book and chose a Degas painting. She accurately said there were five dancers, young women, wearing blue tulle and ballet shoes. She brilliantly added “They SEEM to be outside, POSSIBLY they are in a garden or in a forest. The grass is green.” “Why do you like it?” I asked. “Because I was a ballerina” she answered. And then, as so often, she burst into a Beatles song – “When I was younger, so much younger than today-ay-ay …” and hooted with laughter. She continued with “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away”. Behind the smile I could see her tears were about to come again. As a young ballerina, how could she have imagined that later she’d be living in a dormitory in a council hostel, half-paralysed by a stroke and far from any family?
Then her internal song changed again. Madness came, literally. At the top of her voice, waving her arms above her head, the song burst out of her. “MY house, in the middle of the street. MY HOUSE!” The other student looked confused and went back to looking at nudes in the art book. T and I smiled at each other.
© Tamara Essex 2016