“Tim, your Spanish vocabulary is better than mine!”
This wasn’t true, wasn’t close to true, but last month I still felt buoyed by the Spaniard’s compliment as I shuffled to the busy Ventas café counter for our next round of drinks. Capcioso was the word I’d just used, that had so impressed my companion. He’d had to look it up in the DLE.
‘You’re getting there, Tim,’ I thought, and gave the order to the waitress. She responded, politely but quickly; a server in a hurry, telling a customer in rapid-fire, native-speaker-to-native-speaker register what he needed to know about picking up the drinks.
The buoy sank.
I hadn’t understood her. Not at all, not a single word.
This wasn’t an isolated example.
I navigate daily life in Spain much more gracefully than when I posted Polyglot Tips N’ Tricks in early 2018. I chat sociably in Spanish, sometimes for hours, fear the phone less, take in first-run, un-subtitled Spanish movies at the cinema, only occasionally have to research vocabulary before completing errands. But I still contend with an intermittent haze of partial fluency, that dissipates completely in some conversations and then descends in a pea soup fog in interchanges like the one with the waitress. I have adapted to accommodate the unpredictable fog, like one with hearing loss.
These issues must be familiar to others who have emigrated between language domains — from, say, Costa Rica to the U.S., rather than from Costa Rica to Chile. Our taken-for-granted native language skills matter more than we knew.
Before I could walk, talk or even babble, I was surrounded by the communicative utterances of my native tongue, by phonemes and morphemes conveying meaning in English. I logged thousands of waking hours of passive exposure to English before I said my first words, and would continue to be so exposed as I learned to hold a crayon, a cup, a spoon, to tie my shoes. I can fill in the gaps in some slurred, mumbled catchphrases almost instinctively, because I have heard the same catchphrases so many times from other native English speakers.
Advanced language courses may offer little help to a student determined to cross this barrier, and may dwell on matters irrelevant to the exigencies of day-to-day life. One Madrileña lamented that she lost points on a C-level English test for not recognizing wont. Millions of Americans will finish long lives as absolute strangers to wont (as I presume Spaniards have passed on to la Almudena without ever uttering capcioso) … but they understand waitresses who talk to them in restaurants, strangers who give directions, CSRs who tell them what they have to do to get the refund.
A few examples, in MP3 format, variations of experiments I have tried often at in-person language exchanges:
I’ll bet that only native English speakers will understand what I say in the linked .mp3 recordings 1A, 2A, and 3A. Students will make out some words, but mostly will be lost. Intermediate and advanced English students should understand the same paragraphs in versions 1B, 2B, and 3B.
Another example, a song: musician George Thorogood performing a raunchy rock standard, from the 1:16 mark to 1:55. A native English speaker will note grammar errors, will hear that the lyrics are voiced quickly … but also will understand all the words, without conscious effort. No native Spanish speaker understood more than a few phrases. One had to ask if Thorogood is even speaking English.
I have been masochistic enough to log my personal experiences with these fluency issues. A small sampling:
7/29/2020: A doctor offered a running commentary on what he saw onscreen during a sonogram. He might as well have told me that an eagle is devouring my liver, like Tityus’ in the de Ribera painting. I understood nothing.
12/28/2020: A bank chatbot wanted my NIE number. It was trained to understand native Spanish speakers, not guiris. I tried three times, gave up. (Perhaps a ready made comedy skit for actor Gabino Diego.)
3/5/2021: ¡Cuidado con la mampara! warned the staffer. I would have, if I’d had any idea what a mampara is. I finesse my way through many chats without knowing all the words, but not if the word is key. This one was.
‘But that’s not a bad track record for a foreigner in Spain, Tim,’ you may think.
And you’re right! It’s not. I understand much more than I did even a year ago (largely thanks to my ever-growing collection of made-in-Spain movies), will understand more in 2022 than I do today. I successfully jumped language domains, even though I was pushing forty when I first dared a present tense conjugation of estar.
But these fluency issues still inhibit full assimilation. Americans regularly talk to each other at the pace of the ‘A’ recordings. Not always, but often enough. Spaniards do, too.
Many members of one U.S. demographic group will effortlessly understand the ‘A’ recordings, and equivalents of the ‘A’ recordings in Spanish, too: the children of Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Mexican immigrants I taught and worked alongside in Los Angeles. I can leaf through old class albums to remember names and faces, or click through online photo galleries of TransitPeople trips past.
I spoke low B1 Spanish when I knew them and envied their fluency, but never thought of them as privileged. Today, I do. The Spanish they grew up with sometimes wasn’t polished, but this post will show why I think that matters much less than childhood exposure to two tongues. Only a few regulars in our online language exchanges belong to this demographic, but their complete fluency in both languages ranks them head and shoulders over most of the rest of us. Command of both languages was a taken-for-granted fait accompli by high school.
Me quito el sombrero, students and colleagues past! I never knew.