Tag Archives: Living

Four Annoying Things That Spanish People Do

Talking VERY VERY LOUDLY

When Spanish people socialise, even if it’s just two or three of them meeting up for a coffee, a curious thing happens: They seem to lose any awareness that there are other people around them. I’ve had to raise my voice on many occasions to keep communicating with a friend sitting  a few inches away from me because of a group of diners in another corner of the restaurant. They were not drunk or rowdy, just Spanish.

In the UK or Germany, this kind of behaviour also happens.  Usually, though, the perpetrators of  noise pollution are either hormone-crazed teenagers or legless lager louts. In Spain, well-dressed middle aged ladies have no trouble outhollering a busload of pupils on their annual school trip – after all, they have half a century of practice under their belts and are eager to demonstrate that they are not fettered by the shackles of consideration for others or any such social niceties. The louder the merrier!

Kids everywhere, at all hours

Spain has one of the lowest birth rates in the world – just 1.3 whelps per woman in 2015. Even child-averse Germany’s is higher (1.4).

And yet, you cannot get away from tantruming toddlers. A true paradox.

A visiting UK friend remarked to me once, on seeing a 5-year old being wheeled around in a buggy one late Saturday afternoon, “That child is too old to be in a push chair!” Indeed. What she didn’t know was that the vehicle wasn’t about saving the poor little blighter’s legs, but about saving everyone else’s nerves much, much later on in the day. That buggy, was, in fact, a mobile bed.

The parents were going to be out till the wee hours, enjoying good food and wine. After running around and shouting its little head off, the sweaty, worn-out sprog would eventually collapse into the wheeled sedan chair around 1am. It’s my personal theory that this is why events like concerts start so late here in Spain – everyone has to wait patiently until the kids finally pass out on their own accord before people can get on with the adult stuff.

In Germany or the UK, a young child in a restaurant (or any public place) after 8pm is a rarity. There’d be disapproving looks. The little one needs its sleep. Some would consider dragging a cranky minor around in the evening to be kind of child abuse. Not so in Spain, school night or not.

Incidentally, Spain has the highest rate of “fracaso escolar” (lit. “school failure”) in the European Union. According to Eurostat data released in 2015, 21,9% of Spanish students abandon the education system prematurely without any qualifications, compared to an EU average of 11.1%. Am I the only one wondering whether, perhaps, there may be a possible correlation…?

Finders Keepers

If you happen to lose your bag, your wallet, your favourite pen, etc, you may as well say goodbye to it the second you notice. The chances that anyone will hand it in or, if you’ve left it in a shop or a restaurant, keep it under the counter in case you return, are extremely slim. If you’ve forgotten it at someone’s house it’s perfectly safe, of course, but strangers encountering lost property seem to operate a strict finders keepers policy.

This miserly mindset, you may be surprised to learn, is sanctioned by a saint. Yes. A saint. An Italian one that goes by the name of Saint Rita, aka the patron saint of impossible causes.

There’s a Spanish saying that’s commonly evoked when someone is blessed with some unexpected providence: “Santa Rita, Santa Rita, lo que se da, no se quita”. Loosely translated: Saint Rita, Saint Rita, what is given cannot be taken. In other words: finders keepers.

I lost a nice pair of sunglasses once here in Toledo, in either one of three shops that I frequent on a weekly basis. They never surfaced again. I also lost a laptop in Copenhagen, which duly found its way back to me. Thankfully, nobody’s ever heard of bloody Santa Rita in Denmark! I rest my case.

She said you can keep it...

If she says you can keep it… who’s to argue with divine providence?

The smoking

Before moving to Spain, I’ve never really had any close friends who smoked. It’s not that I’ve consciously avoided making friends with smokers, but it just so happened that people I connected with didn’t usually smoke.

Smoking prevalence is higher in Spain compared the UK, where I’ve spent most of my adult life – 21.1% of Spaniards smoke compared to 18.4% of Brits. In the US, just 16.3% of the population are smokers and in Canada it’s 15.6%.

Another factor, in my observation, is that in Spain, just about anyone, regardless of social background or level of education, may whip out a cigarette on a balmy evening. In the UK, the US and Germany, by contrast, people who went to university are much less likely to be hooked on tobacco.

Smoking is forbidden in Spain in bars and restaurants, and this is widely observed, but if you’re from North America or Northern Europe, you may be in for a surprise if you get invited to people’s private houses for a meal, a party, or some other type of social gathering. They will light up. Right there at the table. In a closed room. It will fill up with smoke, your eyes may be streaming, your unprepared respiratory system may start to convulse in distress. And nobody will give it a second thought. You have been warned.

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Disclaimer (of sorts): I admit, I was scraping the barrel when I wrote this post… the positives of hanging out with Spanish folk far outweigh the negatives. I gather from other blogs that, in many countries, new arrivals, especially those who are longer in their early twenties, tend to find it hard to enter into rewarding friendships with locals. In my experience – and I’m far from being outgoing, personality-wise – this is not a problem here in Spain, where people, on the whole, are welcoming, open-hearted, generous and inclined to strike up a conversation with a stranger and show genuine interest in them.

As an aside, the old stereotype that Spanish people are notoriously unpunctual, is, in my opinion, totally unwarranted. People may, on occasion, be a few minutes late. I may be a few minutes late. Noting out of the ordinary. The bizarre thing is that the Spanish seem to have internalised this belief about their chronic unpunctuality, and are highly apologetic about this perceived shortcoming – particularly those, it seems, who are rarely late themselves. I’m not quite sure what that is about. I’ve heard that poor time keeping is particularly rampant in the south of the country rather than in the central/northern parts, but since I have little experience of southern Spain, I can’t really comment on that.

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

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The 5 Most Annoying Pieces of Language Learning Advice

The more arduous a task, the more pages you’ll find devoted to “shortcuts” and “revolutionary techniques”. Language learning is a prime example. Bah humbug, I say.  Below are my five all-time favourite bullshit tips. (Incidentally, they all have one thing in common: Their faulty rationales are based on a tiny nugget of truth. Once you shine a light on them, though, they quickly turn into fool’s gold.)

“Learn like a baby”

This one has got to be the top fallacy coursing through the language forums. Actually, it’s not so much learners’ forums that propagate this myth, it’s companies trying to sell their “super effective” language teaching method, which will have you learning your new language with about as much effort as a rosy-cheeked infant sucking a candy cane.

Yeah. Right. First of all, have you ever observed a young child learning its first language? It makes a ton of mistakes and is corrected by its elders every two seconds. It’s definitely NOT a doddle for anyone involved. And neither are these companies going to supply you with a set of “language babysitters” to bake cookies with you and follow you around the house imparting all that useful domestic vocab every three-year-old has down pat.

Second, you are NOT a child. You cannot learn as fast as they do. And there is an even greater obstacle: You already have at least one language firmly installed into your brain. An old dog CAN learn new tricks, but there’ll be blood, sweat and a lot of yowling involved.

Any new language will, inevitably, be filtered through the linguistic framework that is already firmly imprinted into your hard-as-dried-window-putty grey matter; your adult mind is irreversibly “contaminated”, it will never revert to its pliable, pristine, virgin state. Besides grappling with unfamiliar grammatical structures, you’re highly unlikely to ever reproduce the full register of sounds. In other words, no matter how good you get, you’ll be speaking your second language with an accent, even if it’s only a residual, barely noticeable one.

Expecting an adult to acquire language in the same way a young child does is like expecting a frog to sprout a fifth leg. Well, bad news: that leathery old croaker is no longer a nimble little tadpole. And neither are you. And that’s that. That new leg will have to be a strap-on.

OldFrog

Grain of truth: There is something to be said for copying native speakers conscientiously, learning the appropriate language for a given situation and, above all, not overthinking things. A capital advantage, that very young children have, is that they do not question, they just accept. (Well, actually, kids DO ask a lot of questions from a certain age, but those are mainly to do with their surroundings). An adult language learner would do well take a leaf out of their book and not get bogged down in examining every single idiomatic expression in minute detail. “But it’s NOT logical!” is not an argument you can ever throw at a language and expect to win. Nor are you likely to hear it from a toddler.

“Start speaking the language from day 1”

Nice idea.

Now back to reality: You cannot launch into a conversation if all you have is two dozen words and no clue how to string them into an intelligible sentence. Most people need a great deal more input and many hours of conscious listening before they are confident enough to actually speak. There is nothing wrong with that.

And, even more importantly: there is nothing whatsoever wrong with YOU if you don’t feel much like talking in the early stages. In fact, the most accomplished foreign language speakers I know are reluctant speakers who took their time before starting to verbalise their thoughts.

Grain of truth: Your mouth actually needs to practise making those new sounds, and the earlier the better. It’s no good just listening and thinking the words. Some people even practice with themselves in front of a mirror. I’ve not tried this, but I can imagine that it might actually work. You need to say the words out loud, repeat what you hear, and, whenever possible, be corrected by a native speaker. It’s just that I would not really class these early attempts of parroting words and phrases as “speaking the language”, but this is how certain language courses market themselves.

“Don’t translate – just think in the language!”

The rationale behind this little gem of ill-conceived tripe is as follows: Thinking first of what you want to say in your own language and then translating it into the target language takes an aeon. Hence, if you just ditched that time-consuming first part, you’d be virtually fluent straight away!

Let me give you an analogy: A management consultant is called in to make an airline more efficient. The objectives are to save on fuel and get the planes to their destinations faster. The consultant analyses all the processes, procedures, inputs and outputs in great detail. Then he puts his conclusion to the senior pilot: “Well, it seems that 60% of your fuel and 30% of your time input goes into take-off and ascent. We need to get rid of these two phases and just focus on cruising.”

You see the flaw in the logic, huh? In order to get cruising in a new language, you first need to get your capabilities up to the right altitude. You cannot possibly start off there. I no longer translate from German to English or from English/German to Spanish or whatever, I just switch. It took me years to be able to do this. I still have to laboriously convert every sodding word into French (since I’m a beginner), and it’s a total bitch.

Grain of truth: You will not speak fluently while you’re still needing to translate every word and every phrase. However, you cannot magically circumvent this phase – that would be a classic case of putting the cart before the horse! Translating in your head does not mean that you are inherently inefficient, stupid, or doing it wrong. You are just at that stage in your learning right now, that’s all.

“Adopt another persona – act like you’re of X nationality”

I remember being quite horrified when I came across this one for the first time. I can’t even think of how it might work in practice without having to cringe. Gallic shoulder shrugs performed by French learners to the point of articular dislocation? Students of German yelling “Jawoll mein Oberst!” at four hundred decibels like in a WW2 movie?

What could “impersonating” someone of another nationality/culture possibly entail if not a rendition of lame stereotypes? If there’s one surefire way of alienating the people whose language you’re trying to learn, then this has got to be it. Humans across the globe, as diverse as their cultural backgrounds may be, do not generally take kindly to fake people, and even less so if they appear to be ridiculing them.

Frenchman

Grain of truth: Once you’ve lived in another country for years, you adopt new mannerisms, hand gestures, facial expressions, cadence and speech rhythms etc. We mirror what we see around us, this happens quite naturally as we gradually adapt to a different social environment. It’s a basic survival mechanism. When a bi/multi-lingual human switches between languages, their way of thinking changes and a different aspect of their personality comes to the fore. It’s not an act. It’s who they are.

“You just pick it up”

It’s a pervasive misconception that all it takes to learn a foreign language is to go and live in a place where the language is spoken, and, hey presto, give it a year or two, you’ll be gabbing away like a native.

Remember, you’re an adult, not a preschooler. Without at least some targeted study of these alien structures, your brain just won’t know what to do with all this confusing information. It’s like seeds bouncing off a parched, unploughed field – in this unreceptive environment, they have nowhere to take root. 

In order to assimilate new input, your brain needs to be taught to recognise, sort and categorise before it can deploy. You actively need to help this process by constructing a whole new set of “boxes” in your mind. New boxes have a habit of arriving in flat-pack format and they turn into a usable facility only by filling them, bit by bit, with new grammar, vocab and idiomatic expressions acquired by focused studying and real-life input working in tandem.

Grain of truth: Immersion rules.

Cake rules, too!

Cake rules even more…

Have you ever been seduced into following some ingenious-sounding language learning advice which absolutely did not work for you? What was it and why did it fail? I’d love to have your feedback 🙂

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

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