Guest Post: If you don’t speak Castellano you won’t truly understand Spain

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Jessica is a third year Modern Languages student coming to the end of her year abroad in Spain. This guest post considers the Spanish language and its relationship with Spanish national identity and culture…

It’s safe to say that my Spanish has undergone a profound transformation in the last 8 months. From my first day arriving in Madrid when I quite confidently thanked the taxi driver in impeccable Thai, ‘khob Khun kaa’, for taking us to the train station, I knew I had a long road ahead of me. After five weeks in Thailand I had unconsciously memorized a few local phrases, and I wondered how living in Spain would do the same on a much larger scale. Living in a foreign country is vital to truly surround yourself in the language, perfect the pronunciation of words, and obtain a variety of idiomatic expressions and fantastic swear words from first hand sources. But as you start to notice
the subtle nuances a language holds, you notice the hidden linguistic messages through which the Spaniards individually and collectively project their culture and identity. There are some things that just can’t be translated.

From my experience at least I’ve found that Spanish people are generally much more open than the British; they love to chat and they express their opinions with less hesitance. When the headmistress and head of studies at a small primary school started heatedly debating the pros and cons of after school homework, I was convinced I was witnessing a ferocious and savage battle between two soon to be distant enemies, and the sure and steady decline of the school as an academic institution. But this was a reserved Brit’s interpretation of what was actually, to be corrected by another teacher,
‘just a fun and lively staff room discussion. And what do you think Jess?’ I certainly had my own view, and it certainly was never going to be voiced. I would have been eaten alive. This was probably the first example I had of the ‘fierce Spanish woman’. It’s a stereotypical foreign perception that actually holds true in a large number of cases. And it was the Spanish language that provided the medium through which the teachers could hysterically debate without it becoming an argument. If they had been speaking English using the same vocabulary and expressions the consequences would have been disastrous. The same holds true with a work colleague who just the other day was speaking that unintelligible non-stop Spanish (that I will never be able to fully comprehend) with such emotion and anger I had to ask him what was wrong. Nothing Jess why? Oh sorry, it’s just you seem really upset about something. They were just chatting about something. And that was that.

I myself have been an example of this culture difference. After speaking an hour with my friend in Spanish, and then immediately switching to English my friend commented that my whole persona changed slightly. Spanish Jess is much more expressive, sarcastic and resilient; English Jess still possesses those characteristics but they are held back by a more calm and relaxed composure. The language you speak, to a certain extent, defines who you are without you even realizing it. It’s the case for me at least. And for a foreigner living in Spain, this innate Spanish passion and disposition to express what you think can be interpreted to the point of rudeness. When my boss abruptly
demanded ‘mañana, coleta, vale’ (tomorrow, ponytail, ok) and stormed off, the Englishness within me immediately interpreted the forceful demand as a dislike of my beloved plaits and an ill-mannered accusation in front of my colleagues. But she is one of the nicest people I’ve met here in Spain, and she was just telling me (with that fiery Spanish intensity) that now I’m working in reception a ponytail would probably be better so that all the receptionists look the same. In Spanish the phase could still be interpreted as rude, but the point is that it’s less rude than the English equivalent would be.

This cultural difference manifests itself right down to the use of tenses employed in specific contexts. To complete the process of check-in at the hotel where I work the guests have to sign a form. A straightforward phrase to use according to my colleagues is ‘necesito que firme aquí’. This would be translated as ‘I need you to sign here’. Fine. It gets to the point. And in Spanish it’s polite simply because they use the third person singular pronoun ‘usted’ (or as I like to call it, the ‘formal you’ tense). It would be like saying in English ‘I need him to sign here’ when what you are really saying is ‘I need you to sign here’ but you use the third person instead of the second person ‘you’ because it’s much more formal. This change in tense allows for the abruptness of the phrase whilst maintaining a sufficient level of politeness. It’s as if the Spanish have created a way to be polite without having to be polite.

Because in polite English wouldn’t it be more common to hear something like, ‘If you would be so kind as to sign here for me please’ or ‘I would be grateful if you could sign here?’ We use the conditional tense of ‘would’ or ‘could’ to imply less of a demand, more of a courteous suggestion towards what we would like our guest or colleague to do. In Spanish the conditional tense is used much less frequently. If my work colleague wants me to come towards them they’ll say ‘ven’ or ‘ponte aquí’; literally, ‘come here’ or ‘put yourself here’. Definitely a command, yet definitely not rude or obtrusive. In English this type of command would be reserved for use amongst close friends, not work colleagues. The reverse of this is when my English friend here in Toledo asks her Spanish husband to lay the table saying ‘puedes poner la mesa’ (in English ‘can you lay the table’). Not a question, a demand. In English you’re being asked to lay the table. Obviously. But in Spanish the phrase is not sufficiently authoritative enough to get the table laid. The Spanish husband interprets the phrase not as a command at all. In Spanish you have to actually say ‘pon la mesa’ or ‘lay the table’ (using the imperative) if you want the table to be laid. The English and Spanish languages use different tenses to express different levels politeness and command. The result is that a literal translation of a phrase from one language to the other is insufficient to also transfer the meaning of that phrase. And hence the occasional confusion when my Spanish colleagues start speaking English and from my point of view seem rather demanding. They are translating directly from Spanish.

The Spanish language also provides an understanding of how the Spanish define themselves and foreigners. From my experience they like to generalize slightly more if they do not personally know the person. From my landlord who refers to me as ‘la chica’ because I genuinely think he’s forgotten my name, to the Chinese tourists simply being called ‘los chinos’ (or even worse) regardless of whether they are from China, Japan or any Asiatic country. According to friends here this has minor racial connotations. I’m still skeptical about this, but willing to accept that maybe in Spanish the generalization isn’t a racially aggressive as it would be in English. A further example surrounds religion. Typical Spanish names are Conchi (short for Concepción), Inma (Inmaculada) and Jesús which translated provide the names Immaculate, Conception and Jesus. I have met one of each of them. Yes, Catholicism is intrinsic to Spanish culture regardless of whether you’re catholic or not. The number of communions hosted at my hotel during the months of April, May and June was outstanding: this religious identity penetrates society to such an extent that it’s reflected in the language. And as you may or may not have just noticed, in the previous sentence I capitalized the months of the year. Because I’m writing in English. In Spanish months and days of the week are not capitalized. Don’t ask me why. But what can all this combined tell us about Spanish culture, and how can it illuminate our understanding of our own culture?

The Spanish language is a fundamental manifestation of Spanish culture, and although you can be told that the Spanish are typically one way inclined, it’s not until you speak the language that you see how this cultural identity expresses itself through the language. You can’t transfer a culture through a translation. Yes, there are obviously exceptions to all the examples I have provided above. There are extremely polite and cautious Spaniards, and forceful open-minded Brits. But these British extroverts have to adapt the English language much more forcefully to get across the same point a Spaniard might say in a few words, because the English language is just naturally more polite. A language exists in tandem with national identity and culture manifests itself through the specific employment of language.

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