Tag Archives: multilingual

Out Of A Job – And Into A New Blog!

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. I’m not in the habit of plagiarising Dickens, but the two of us do have one thing in common: We were both paid by the word. Were being the operative one in this lamentable context. I shall explain…

Tuesday two weeks ago, at 11 am, I received a devastating call. I had lost my writing gig. “A change of corporate focus,” I was told. A decision taken by management in a far-away head office, by people I had never had any direct dealings with. Unlike all the other times, this latest reshuffle within the company, which had supplied me with a steady flow of work for the past twelve years, had not turned out to my advantage. To put it mildly.

There would still be some work for me, I was assured. However, it was going to be of a different nature and – as far as I could tell – there wasn’t going to be enough of it to keep me in fodder.

In short, it was the kind of news which puts the wind of existential panic up a freelancer’s arse. Or make that a hurricane.

The state of red alert lasted for about 24 hours. A fellow freelancer, bless her kindly soul, shuffled me a contact promising me regular work in my field. A couple of days later, another potential client registered an interest.

Maybe, just maybe, I was going to be OK.

But August being August, nothing happens fast, so I’m having to exercise my very puniest of mental muscles: my patience. A bit of distraction was called for, and seeing as I’d been sitting for absolutely ages on the desire to start a fresh blog venture, I decided to go for it, and my brand spanking new dedicated language blog Multilingual By Choice (it’s meant to make me sound like a purposeful and focused individual who doesn’t spend three quarters of her day lounging around in pyjamas ogling cake porn) was finally born.

No need to groan quite so heartily, people – I won’t be attempting to “make grammar fun” or go on about the aspirated phoneticisation of gerundiated nouns. It’s going to be more about life than linguistics. Take a look: http://www.multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

But before you dash off to coo over my shiny new baby, do have some cake! I’ve a splendid selection prepared for you, all sampled and approved by yours truly:


Holiday Cake 🙂


Lemon sponge cake. One of my Mum’s creations.


Posh Shopping Centre Cake


Made by one of my Mum’s friends with apples from her garden


Another friend, another cake 🙂 Apricot & custard this time.


And here it is in its entirety


Oh, and I’ve got a new blog, did I  mention that?! http://www.multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com



“Let me think about it,” was the response from my Toledo friends when I nudged them to come along to Madrid with me on Sunday for a Polyglot Meet-up. As if I couldn’t see their eyes glaze over with the red **NERD-ALERT** warning lights flashing behind…

So I went on my own.

I’d never been to such an event before. Social gatherings – hrrumpfh. But I quite fancied this one, not least because I would finally get to meet Alex Rawlings in person. I came across this personable polyglot a couple of years ago, when the BBC featured him in this video showing off his language skills. I started following his blog and we exchanged a handful of messages. Then, a few weeks ago, I was delighted to read that he was organising a meeting for language enthusiasts in Madrid.

Atocha Station, Madrid

Beautiful Atocha Train Station, Madrid, taken Sunday night

I’d had no trouble finding the venue, although the restaurant seems kinda deserted when I walk in. I eventually find a member of staff fiddling with a table cloth.

Excuse me, I’m here for the polyglot meeting.

The polywhat…? What is that?!

I decide to take a different approach.

Some people have booked a room for an event here this afternoon. Has anyone arrived yet?

Well… there’s some people downstairs…

He points me in the direction.

I recognise Alex straight away. Unexpectedly, he also recognises me as “Lady Of The Cakes”. I’m not quite sure how or why… it’s been almost a couple of years since we exchanged those two or three messages on the blogs. He’s been hopping from country to country and must have met thousands of new people. I guess having a superhuman memory and being a polyglot go hand-in-hand. That would also explain why I’m not one.

The organisers have prepared tables with language flags and ice breaker games. But there is no ice to be broken: People arrive and they immediately start chatting to the next-best complete stranger. I notice that most arrive unaccompanied… evidently, I wasn’t the only one cruelly abandoned by their so-called friends…

Me, Johanna (one of the organisers), Mr Circus and Alex Rawlings

Me, Johanna (one of the organisers), Bar (aka Mr Circus) and Alex Rawlings

Pretty much everyone seems to speak Spanish and English, the rest is potluck. I meet a Spaniard who has the best German accent I have ever heard. (From a Spaniard.) I chat to a young Israeli student, switching between English, Spanish and Portuguese. I ask him what he’s studying. Circus studies, he tells me. I blink. I confirm that I understood correctly. It’s like someone telling you they’re an accountant and you’re stuck for a response, but for the exact opposite reason. My brain is whirring with questions. Turns out his specialism is juggling, not lion taming.

My worst fear – that someone accosts me in French (this is my kryptonite right now!) – does not materialise. Instead, I get myself caught up in a maelstrom of Hebrew, until the speaker realises from my deer-in-the-headlights-stare that I’m not getting any of this. I point them towards Mr Circus.

Three hours go by in a flash. I only manage to nab a fraction of the people who I would have liked to interrogate have a chat with. I fix a lunch date for Tuesday with a lovely couple visiting from Vermont who had already been planning to come to Toledo.

On my way back to Atocha station, I’m thinking… I wouldn’t mind doing this again… and it didn’t even involve cake! I must be coming down with something…

And one more...

And one more…

Post Script: It has just transpired that the next Polyglot Meetup Madrid event will be held on 17 January 2016. Just in case anyone wants to “think about it”… ahem.

[Find Alex Rawlings’s language blog here: www.rawlangs.com]

Is Learning Three Romance Languages At The Same Time A Route To Insanity?

I ask myself that question every day. And whether an overdose of irregular verbs can make one go blind. I think the only reason why my grey matter hasn’t liquified yet and made a gushing exit through my left nostril is that I’m at different stages with my languages, so the learning activities I engage in are quite varied. Every time terms like “partitive carbuncles” or whatever give me the urge to go and drown myself in the toilet, I remember that, in the end, it’s all about wrangling a bunch of words into the right order, and that if a four-year-old can do it, so can I.

Spanish – Airily Advanced

The frustration-fun balance has decidedly shifted in favour of the latter. But it sure took a lot of blood sweat and tears to get there. Those of you you’ve been with me from the beginning will probably remember my whiny rants and tantrums. I’ve been living in Spain for nearly four years now, although I don’t have what you’d call “full immersion”. I work from home in English all day. Hence, my progress was a lot slower than I had initially expected.

It’s been a very different experience from the one I had with English when I moved to the UK 25 years ago. I had a job in a local company and was sharing a house with British people, and so I was forced to communicate in English all day long. It was tough in the beginning, but I made progress at lightning speed. My situation here in Spain is very different, and so I’ve had to learn to moderate my expectations without feeling like a total failure. I’ve come to accept – gnashing my teeth an’ all – that it will take a good while longer until I get to squirt the icing on the cake and achieve the level of competence I strive for.

Nevertheless, I can read proper books and watch films without struggling. I can have in-depth conversations about complex topics. I can hold my own in groups.

I still very much consider myself a learner: I look up words every day, I google expressions, I bug my long-suffering friends with questions, I ask them to correct my grammar. Besides the odd clarification, though, I no longer need “special consideration” from the people around me.

Of course, my Spanish nothing like my German or my English. I’d say I’m about 70% there. I’m even starting to “sound like myself” on occasions. Being able to communicate, even if you’re fairly proficient, is a completely different kettle of fish from sounding like your true self. I have tackled the subject in this post, for those of you who are interested:

Language Matters: Do You Sound Like Yourself?

Blue Flowers

Portuguese – Interminably Intermediate

This has been tricky. It’s virtually impossible to find any good quality intermediate-level teaching materials in European Portuguese. It’s all smooth, melodious Brazilian, when what I want is the bushy, impenetrable Peninsular version replete with shshtshshtshshhh sounds, dog-chewed vowels and pronoun arrangements that make ikebana seem like kindergarten foolery, because, when I travel abroad, it tends to be to nearby Portugal – I love it there.

So, I had to take special measures. I have a Portuguese teacher (from Lisbon) whom I see once a week for 1-2-1 lessons. I watch children’s cartoons, which is something that I’d never even considered before, but if you’re stuck for resources, you have to take what you can get. I’m also chatting to a bunch of nice Portuguese people over Skype two or three times a week (I found them on conversationexchange.com).

And yet, It’s my Portuguese, which I’m struggling with most right now. The intermediate stage can be disheartening, and it drags on forever. It’s also extremely dangerous territory: If you stop, even just for a few months,  you risk losing everything, while, at the same time, you gaze with trepidation at the vast expanse of treacherous linguistic swamp you’ve got to wade through before you get any good.

It’s not like being a beginner, when you’re swept up in the initial thrill of new discovery, or when you’re an advanced learner having fun filling in the gaps. I’ve written about this vexatious stretch of language-learning hell here:

The Messy Morass of the Intermediate Language Learner.

French – Bare Bones Beginner

I’m now in my third month of French (see here how and why that started) and still very much in the honeymoon phase where everything is new and exciting. I’m determined to stretch it out to the max. Please do not tell me about how crazy the sentence structures are going to get later on, I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW! Thanks.

Unlike hapless learners European Portuguese, budding Francophones are spoilt with a wealth of free online resources, which means that I can cover the same topics by watching six or seven different YouTube videos without getting bored.

There is also an unexpected benefit to being a beginner in French: Portuguese is no longer my worst language! I feel stupidly happy about this 🙂

So, to sum up, I don’t think that learning several languages at once is necessarily a recipe for disaster. Having said that, I did bang my head against the wall more than a few times when I first started learning Portuguese two years ago, because my Spanish was still quite wobbly back then, see here:

Project Multilingual: Two timing troubles.

Next up: The Italian challenge!

…OK, I am not that crazy…


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



Language Learning: Darn Interference!

Teresa, my Portuguese teacher, harbours a dark fantasy. She would love to get hold of one of MemoryEraserthose Men-In-Black memory eraser sticks and expunge every trace of Spanish from her students’ brains. Then she could finally teach us proper Portuguese from scratch.

Sadly, since this fantastic gadget doesn’t exist in the real world, her little fantasy is doomed. She’ll just have to keep on rolling her eyes every time we say “pequeño” instead of “pequeno”, and sigh in quiet desperation over us pronouncing what should be a mellifluous sing-song language in the machine-gun-like staccato characteristic of Peninsular Spanish.

But it’s not just poor Teresa who suffers.

My brain is no blank canvass. Besides being littered with useless factoids, it comes with two languages fully installed that don’t always play very well together, a third one is running at 72% (and still loading), and now I’m attempting to pour another one into this turbid pond.

In general, I guess it does hold true that the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another one, but the downside is that they interfere with each other in menacing ways. For instance, the similarities between Romance languages are both a blessing and a curse. Because of their considerable lexical overlap, if you’re a laid back kind of a person and just want to “communicate”, you’ll do great by kidnapping Italian words to plug the gaps in your Spanish, but if you’re a stickler like me and you care about getting it right, it’s the road to insanity. Verbs are among my biggest headaches, as I’m still battling with the fifty or so versions that exist of each Spanish verb. With Portuguese thrown into the cauldron, the putrid, gurgling broth isn’t going to turn into a bowl of translucent consommé any time soon.

More of a messy stew...

More of a messy stew…

...than a clear broth

…than a clear broth







Some people I know have given up. One of my Spanish friends, while living in Barcelona years ago, attempted to learn (the local language) Catalan. She abandoned the attempt, because every time she tried to speak it, Italian (acquired during a year studying abroad in Rome), shot out of her mouth instead. An old college friend of mine keeps insisting that all those years studying Italian as a youngster have prevented her from communicating in coherent Portuguese to her Portuguese husband’s family.

I follow this blog http://myfiveromances.wordpress.com, owned by “Bernardo”, a very witty Australian guy, whose personal challenge lies in tackling Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian simultaneously. I believe he spent last summer in Romania to get to grips with the latter. His grammar posts from back then made my head spin. I’ve no idea how he maintains his sanity, I really don’t.

It’s not just closely-related languages that cause an interference problem. During the early-to-intermediate stages of language learning, it’s a very common phenomenon that our brains, while labouring hard to retrieve the required vocabulary, dredge up the corroded remnants of languages we haven’t used in years. When I first started learning Spanish, what kept popping into my head was my long-forgotten Russian from half a life-time ago.

Green thicket

Interference can manifest in many ways. For instance, I seriously struggle with gender agreement in Spanish and Portuguese. It’s not too difficult to match nouns with adjectives that directly follow them, but if the adjective or a pronoun refers to a noun, which occurred in a previous sentence or even further back, I tend to get it wrong. And it’s not my fault. It’s my German that’s doing it.

Grammatical genders are, for the most part, entirely arbitrary, and so German and Spanish genders don’t usually coincide. Since German is my native language, its genders are indelibly etched into my brain stem. I never realised this would lead to so much trouble.

Naively, I thought I had an advantage, because I was, at least, familiar with the concept of genders. Unlike native speakers of English, Japanese, Chinese, etc, I didn’t have to go through the futile questioning stage: “How can a table be male/female – it makes no sense!”

In the early phase, the gender issue creates some minor problems for Germans learning English. We may refer to inanimate objects as “he” or “she”, but this usually doesn’t persist for very long. Everything is “it”, and even for animals sporting discernible genitals, you still get to resort to the convenient choice of “it” – now if that ain’t an easy rule, I don’t know what is!

I never thought I would keep jumbling my Spanish genders about in such a dilettantic fashion after all this time, but, as it turns out, overriding one’s primal programming is harder than herding cats with firecrackers up their butts through a dog pound.

As always, I’m curious to hear from my readers – how does language interference play out for you? Which “cross-contamination issues” are you struggling with? Were some of these unexpected?

Language Learning Strategies: Less Complacency, More Input

About a decade ago, the house I grew up in was to be torn down and my parents had to move. Although they are not hoarders, their possessions had accumulated over space of three decades, and my mother, daunted by the enormity of the task, said to me, “Imagine… I will have to handle each and every single item contained in this place at least twice, once packing it up and then unpacking it again.”

Much later, it struck me that there was an obvious parallel with regards to language learning. If you want to be truly proficient in a language, you’ve got to tackle all the contents of every wardrobe, cupboard and shelf, working your way with a fine-toothed comb through all the rooms of the “linguistic house”, including the dingy basement and the dust-ridden attic. And wouldn’t it be nice if you could remember vocab, phrases, verb forms and expressions by coming across them merely twice? As if…!

Like my mother at the point of moving house, I often feel totally overwhelmed by my self-imposed task to learn Spanish “properly”. It seems to me that I’ve lost a couple of toes to frostbite already, toiling up the frozen slopes of Mount Everest in air so thin I can barely breathe, only to find that I’ve dragged myself no further than Base Camp. After two and a half years in Spain, I’m reminded every day that I’ve still got such a long way to go.

During my first year in Spain, I was in perpetual linguistic panic mode. Despite having studied Spanish off and on for years, I understood precious little of what was being said to me. The prospect of having to make a simple phone call, where there was no body language to go on, was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat.

To fix the comprehension problem, I bought a radio and lugged it around the flat with me like Linus his blanket, so I could listen to it while performing mundane tasks like hanging out the washing. Every morning, with my eyelids still stuck together and before I even remembered who I was, I would flick on the little black box and let my eardrums be bombarded with the country’s economic woes (no end in sight), last weekend’s traffic accident death toll (shocking) and today’s weather forecast (mostly sunny).

This way, making the most of every spare minute, I racked up between three and five hours of listening time a day, and, within the space of four months, my comprehension improved sufficiently so I’d no longer have gremlins wrestling in my stomach before every appointment with my accountant.

Salamanca Poppies

The language learner’s number one enemy, in my opinion, is complacency. Once the red alarm light stops flashing, once you can sort of function in daily life, it’s very tempting to just settle in your comfort zone. A lot of people stop pushing themselves at this point, it’s all they strive for.

My own objectives, however, were set a couple of notches higher from the very outset, but this doesn’t mean that I’m immune to laziness. As communicating became more manageable, I gradually let my daily radio routine slip, preferring soothing silence over the constant witterings about corruption scandals, royal hunting accidents and La Merkel’s cracking of the fiscal whip.

Trouble is, when learning a language, input is absolute key. Good comprehension is one thing, but building a sizeable active vocabulary and verbal eloquence quite another. We’ve all heard people say things like, “Oh, I understand [X-Language] just fine, but I can’t really speak it all that well”. Well, I’m sorry, but this is no good to me. No good at all.

To be able to produce language in a natural manner, to synthesise its components into fluent and flawless speech, without the need to translate or awkwardly dodging your way around tricky constructions, you need A HELL OF A LOT of input.

Language is, first and foremost, a copy cat endeavour. You need to hear the same words and phrases being said over and over again, in different contexts, to be certain of how to use them appropriately. Even being “original” requires that you know the rules before you start mucking about with them. Listening to the radio is an excellent way of receiving input, so I re-committed to this strategy four weeks ago, and I’m going to stick with it.

Whenever I get too bogged down with the seemingly unfathomable Spanish subjunctive, the tricky conditional and the pesky prepositions, I remind myself that, instead of letting these persistent trouble spots wrench all the joy out of my learning, I just have to “trust the process”. Instead of kicking the skirting boards, I need to let it seep in naturally and allow my clogged-up brain to assimilate the information in its own time. It will happen, eventually, I firmly believe in this (because I’ve done it before), even it it takes a lot longer than I had originally anticipated. For someone as impatient as I, accepting this is half the battle.

What Does Your Language Suck At?

Last month, Linda of expateyeonlatvia wrote an impassioned piece about a number of vexatious statements put forth by her students, which had made her blood boil. One of her hapless tutees opined, for instance, that “English wasn’t a rich language”. [Click here if you want to see the post].

I commented on Linda’s post that a Spanish friend of mine had once said something very similar. The general consensus in expateye’s comments section was that if you didn’t speak a language very well, then, of course, you wouldn’t be able to express yourself eloquently. A vocab of a paltry 3,000 words may be enough to communicate your basic wants and needs and let you spout a few fusty opinions about the latest Matt Damon flick, but, well, it doesn’t compare to what a fairly well-educated native speaker can expound on with their 60,000 words. And then there is a wealth of expressions, colloquialisms and cultural references, which even an advanced learner, who’s never lived in the country of their target language, hasn’t got a cat in hell’s chance of mastering, no matter how many episodes of How I Met Your Mother he submits himself to.

All good and well… but then… after ruminating over this for several weeks, I’ve now come to a seemingly contrary conclusion: The “you just don’t know enough” rebuff is far too simplistic. In fact, I concede that you may not be able to express all of your sentiments in another language, no matter how proficient you are. And herein lies the crux of the gripe voiced by these pesky students, prompting them to vent infuriating pronouncements at their long suffering teachers about the woeful inadequacy of whatever language they happen to be grappling with.

Let me give you an example. Spanish (and this is also true for other romance languages) makes a huge great big deal of diminutives, and the opposite, namely augmentatives, are equally as important. Spanish diminutives are achieved by adding -ito, -cito or -illo suffixes to a noun, and the augmentative is formed by tacking on -azo, -ato or -orro, for instance. To illustrate: “Beso” means kiss, besito is a little kiss, and besazo a great big smacker.

English doesn’t really do diminutives (nor augmentatives). Instead, you’d have to opt for an entirely different word, employ an adjective like “little”, or turn “dog” into “doggy”. And that’s just not a good style. Ahem… 😉

German, on the other hand, does have proper diminutives, constructed by furnishing its nouns with -chen and -lein endings. However, these should be used very sparingly. They have the (intended) effect of infantilising the language, and overuse will make you sound like you’re talking to Forrest Gump.

Spanish, though, slots diminutives and augmentatives into sentences left, right and centre. And they don’t just work with nouns, you can even tag them onto adjectives, which is outright impossible in English or German.

Therefore, it is entirely understandable that a native Spanish speaker will feel somewhat bereft to find that a whole linguistic dimension of how he expresses himself on a day-to-day basis, how imbues his statements with humour, warmth, ridicule and exaggeration, amongst other nuances, is pretty much a no-go zone in English and German.

I suppose that each and every language has seams of glittering richness as well as areas that are a bit more on the threadbare side. English, for one, sports an inordinate amount of synonyms, which, more often than not, differ ever so slightly in their connotations. English also lets you have great fun with homonyms (words that sound the same, but differ in spelling and/or meaning), which introduces an entire universe of humour inconceivable in Spanish or German.

While both English and Spanish lend themselves fairly well to creating portmanteaus, in German, you can really go to town when it comes to fabricating entirely new words by merging any number of nouns into fancy compounds. You can make them stretch all the way to Mars and back, if you’re so inclined.

Compound noun mania does not only afflict German speakers with a sense of linguistic hilarity. A machine designed for producing a certain type of liquorice sweet is called a Lakritzschneckenaufrollmaschine (four nouns fused, not at all uncommon), and a (now defunct) law dealing with the supervision of beef labelling is termed Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (seven nouns joined in holy matrimony!).

Lakritzschnecken (= liquorice snails)

Lakritzschnecken (= liquorice snails)

Returning to my original point, the upshot is this: Every language learner will, at some stage, make a frustrated attempt at using their target language in the very same way as their native language. If it can’t be done, then of course they end up feeling like they are being censored, and that the language is, therefore, “deficient”.

Chances are, when learners hit a language’s inherent limits, and then rail on about how “unexpressive” it is, they will not yet have discovered its richness.

Learning to express oneself in a new language, which features alien cultural and linguistic concepts as well as uncharted facets of expression that do not exist in one’s native tongue, requires a high degree of competency. You actually have to be able to “think” in the new language, rather than just translate from one to the other. It’s like going fishing in a new lake: By the time you realise that your familiar fish don’t live there, you’re still a very long way from discovering the oysters at the bottom, never mind getting at their pearls.

Language. Levels. Layers. Depth. Perspective. New Horizons. [Pic taken last week at Algeciras seafront]

Language. Levels. Layers. Depth. Perspective. New Horizons.
[Pic taken last week at Algeciras seafront]

Now, I’m very curious to hear from those of you who are competent in more than one language… which features do you really enjoy in one of your languages that are tricky to convey in another? Any thoughts, whether from a learner’s or a teacher’s perspective, are very welcome 🙂

[For a short post on German compound noun craziness, click here.]

How Did I Get On With My Portuguese In Portugal?

My trip to Lisbon over Christmas was only my second time in a Portuguese speaking country. I spent a couple of weeks in Madeira about seven years ago, but I didn’t know a word of Portuguese back then, and my knowledge of Spanish, at that point, was pitiful. In short, I understood sod all and was 100% reliant on English.

This time, though, it was a different story. My Portuguese is still pretty basic where speaking and listening comprehension are concerned, but advanced in terms of reading comprehension, because I’m fluent in Spanish by now.

Surprisingly, it felt like there was no real language barrier at all, at least not for the purpose of touristy pursuits. My Portuguese stretches far enough to ask for directions, opening hours, prices, to order food, communicate with bus and taxi drivers etc.

For any more complex issues, the good people of Lisbon (at least those I encountered) understood Spanish perfectly well, and they had no qualms about replying to me in Spanish. I was quite amazed by this. In Spain, hardly anyone speaks Portuguese, despite so much shared history and Portugal being a neighbouring country. The Portuguese do not dub foreign films, which may be one of the reasons why  English is also widely spoken. However, as I was in the company of a Spanish friend, I hardly used any English at all during that week.

...and they totally did :)

…and they totally did 🙂

Portuguese and Spanish vocabulary overlap to a significant extent, and so, if you speak Spanish, it will get you quite far when it comes to deciphering written information. However, Portuguese has a habit of contracting articles and prepositions, which is a great cause of confusion to the uninitiated, even if they do happen to speak another closely-related Romance language like Spanish or Italian. But once you’ve cracked the contractions, reading Portuguese is (almost) plain sailing.

To briefly illustrate: the ubiquitous Portuguese word “no” does not mean “no” as it does in Spanish (and in English), but it is a contraction of the preposition “em” (in/on/at) and the masculine definite article “o”. The word “pelo”, which means “hair” in Spanish 😉 is a contraction of the preposition “por” (by/through/for) and “o”. So, knowing how Portuguese contractions work – and you will find these peppered throughout every sentence – instantly unlocks a whole new dimension of comprehension.

The language aspect of my trip was certainly very satisfying. I was assimilating new vocabulary quite effortlessly just by reading the signs and advertising around me, and at no point did I feel uncomfortable or panicky when the need to communicate arose. (I do get a bit anxious about these things… silly, I know, but that’s how it is).

Listening to people’s conversations in the street and on public transport was much more tricky, though. Spoken Portuguese (and especially that of Portugal) is difficult to understand, as pronunciation differs markedly from what you see in writing. Thanks to my patient Portuguese teacher back home, who is from Lisbon, I was able to catch bits, entire sentences on occasions, but I can’t say that I was able to follow in detail what folk were chattering on about. Not that I expected to, at this stage. I was reminded that I had the very same problem with my Spanish a couple of years ago, and it made me realise how far I’ve come since then.

Spanish and Portuguese may be lexically very similar, but there are plenty of "false friends: "Borrachas", which means rubber/eraser in English, are "drunk women" to a Spanish speaker ;-)

Spanish and Portuguese may be lexically very similar, but there are plenty of “false friends: “Borrachas”, which means rubber/eraser in English, are “drunk women” to a Spanish speaker 😉

Expat 101: How To Give Everyone Culture Shock

If the blogs are anything to go by, we expats are in a perpetual state of culture shock. It’s one harrowing experience after another – waiters don’t smile back at us, there’s hamster paws sticking out of our stir fry, one’s gophers keep ringing the doorbell at all hours for irritating reasons like returning a pile of freshly starched shirts.

And it doesn’t all end when the expat eventually returns to the homeland, oh no. There’s the much talked about phenomenon of reverse-culture shock, when people, after a prolonged period of absence, discover that they don’t neatly slot into their native culture anymore. It’s all very distressing.

How the hell, you might wonder, do expats stay sane?

I’m about to tell you. It’s a well-guarded secret that nobody ever talks about, not even on the blogs. ESPECIALLY not on the blogs.

Culture shock is like an electric current that constantly whooshes through our insides, torching our mental and physical wellbeing. To stop this beast from killing us off, we have to try and discharge some of it by zapping an unsuspecting victim.

Just about anyone will do, but by far the best targets are found among a particularly hapless group commonly referred to as ‘The Locals’. (By Locals I mean people who have not left their country of origin for any significant amounts of time, besides annual holidays or the occasional business trip.)

Individual talent for dispersing culture shock waves varies considerably, of course, but by rule of thumb, the expats harbouring the most virulent strains are those who have spent more time outside of the country that issued their passport than within it. Their power is further amplified by the number of countries they have lived in, and also by how old (read: young) they were when they left.

So, how do you go about offloading a hefty dose of culture shock? One highly effective way is to scramble your conversation partner’s conversational “script” from the get-go.

All Locals have firmly embedded, pre-existing scripts to help them deal with The Great Unknown, which, needless to say, includes foreigners. When confronted with such a specimen, the first question will inevitably be, “Where are you from?”

You answer will trigger a set of script responses. For instance, when I first moved to the UK, the initial reply to “I’m German”  would invariably be countered with, “I have a brother/cousin/ex-window cleaner who’s stationed at [insert name of British Army base somewhere in Germany]”.

Now, I have never seen or been to an army base in my life. These places, as far as I’m aware, are inhabited by a barely literate species typically referred to as  ‘Squaddies’ who only leave the grand hive in search of…erm… certain services that can’t be provided by their fellow drones.

Subsequent script lines would pertain to the Oktoberfest, German cars and, of course, beer. At one point, I seriously considered writing out a set of flash cards with the answers and handing them out on social occasions, with the words, “please read these. Once you’re done, can we talk about something interesting, pleeeeease”.

Well, I was a mere novice back then, but I’ve learnt a thing or two since. For example, that it’s far more fun to throw something at The Local that completely corrupts their script. So, one could say, for instance, “I have a French passport, but I’ve never actually lived in France. I grew up in Norway, went to University in the States, and then I worked on Asian oyster farms for fifteen years.” (Though my own script busters are much less adventurous than that).

For a few long seconds, The Local will assume the semblance of a fish pulled onto dry land, momentarily robbed of the ability to blink, their mouths gaping as if trying to suck in air through their paralysed gills. You can almost make out the cogs spinning behind their glassy little eyes, bashing against their square little brain cells in the desperate hope of extracting a viable comeback. But it’s too late. The contagion has taken hold and a short circuiting event is imminent.

It’s not only The Locals who make suitable targets, but also fellow expats, especially those fresh off the boat. Long-term expats’ accents, for example, can be a great source of confusion. In my case, I get mistaken for a Brit. NOT by actual Brits, I hasten to add, they can tell, but everybody else, including Americans, Australians, etc, are routinely taken in. I do get a modicum of amusement out of that, I must admit.

Once, on a flight to Miami, a Central American lady mistook me for being Spanish. I have no idea how that could possibly have happened (a lot of engine noise??), but it sure cheered me up. On the flip side, I’m sometimes told that my German is really quite good…

But anyway, these “linguistic perks” that are part of the long-term expat package provide a fun opportunity of changing nationality for an evening, enjoy a novel set of script questions (yipeeeeh!), and then, if so desired, go full throttle for the killer reveal.

So, are any of you bored stiff by having the same cliché questions and trite topics flung at you over and over again? What are your least favourite subjects? I might do a separate post on this, so I’m hunting for ideas…

Language Confusion Buster: ‘Dried Fruit’ Is Not What You May Think It Is

On my arrival in Spain, I noticed that many local shops featured the words “Frutos Secos”, which, directly translated, means ‘dried fruit’, on their signage. It did make me wonder whether dried fruit was the equivalent of hot cakes in Spain, or why else would a little shop keeper spend his hard earned money on advertising this on his (surely quite expensive) shop sign? Here’s a corner shop close to my house in Toledo:

Whatch out! This is the most expensive corner shop in the Western hemisphere. Do not go in there. Ever. Not even for an emergency pack of chewing gum. You'll come out with the shirt ripped off your bleedin' back, missing an arm and a leg. (O un riñon, si eres español.)

Whatch out! This is the most expensive corner shop in the Western hemisphere. Do not go in there. Ever. Not even for an emergency pack of chewing gum. You’ll come out with the shirt ripped off your bleedin’ back, missing an arm and a leg. (O un riñon, si eres español.)

But my bafflement over dried fruits’ powers of customer attraction isn’t really what I was going to talk about. (Besides, I’ve since figured out that “Frutos Secos” is a generic term for this kind or establishment, to which, in the UK, we’d refer to as a “corner shop”.) So, as I discovered a few months down the line, frutos secos are not what an English (or a German) speaker would naturally assume them to be, i.e. this stuff:

DriedFruitNo, for a Spanish speaker, frutos secos is this:


Dried fruit, it turns out, is “fruta deshidratada”, which, at least, is not totally counter-intuitive.

The conundrum was not quite resolved, however. There was yet another twist in store for me.

If frutos secos means nuts, I wondered, I  what the hell are “nueces”?? I I took that to signify nuts. Nuez/Nueces sounds just like nut/nuts and Nuss/Nüsse in English and German, respectively.

Una nuez

Una nuez

Well, it turns out that nueces, in fact, are walnuts, and not nuts in general. Up to that point, I’d been referring to all kinds of nuts as nueces. Ooops.

As to the difference between fruto and fruta: Fruta is what you will find in a fruit bowl, while fruto is a more general term describing not only nuts and inedible fruits produced by all manner of plants, but also the “fruits” of one’s labours (el fruto de tus labores), the fruit of Mary’s blessed womb aka Jesus (el fruto de tu vientre), etc.

Have you been using a word in another language incorrectly for ages, only to discover much later that it was, in fact, one of those treacherous ‘false friends’?

The Three Types Of English (According To Me)

There are a myriad of ways of classifying all sorts of different ‘Englishes’. Since leaving the UK and moving to Spain, I think about this a lot more than ever before, and it strikes me that I’m dealing with three different kinds of English on almost a daily basis:

1. Native-Speaker Level English
2. International English
3. The kind of English only understood by non-native English speakers who share the same same native tongue.

Let’s start with number 1. Needless to say, not all native English speakers understand each other, and even if they do, they like to squabble over whose version is the ‘correct’ one. I quite relish these little disputes, and, as a non-native English speaker myself, I enjoy the privilege of picking and choosing what takes my fancy without being sneered at as a ‘traitor’ to my linguistic roots. For example, I’ve adopted “gotten” as the past tense of “get”. A Brit would rather take a swig of sulphuric acid than let that one pass his lips. For the most part, though, I stick to British English, ’cause that’s what I know.

As for International English, it is arguably THE tool of global communication. But oh, it’s insipid, bloodless, without zest, stripped of all cultural context and regional idiosyncrasies, which make communication rich, satisfying, stimulating and amusing. International English is like a corpse that you revive to perform a particular task, and while its heart is beating and its lungs are pumping, it has no soul.

Twins :)

Twins 🙂

The third category is one that all adult learners of English (or any other second language!) inevitably pass through. They start using English by bending it to the pattern of their own native language, and while a Spanish-speaking person’s beginner’s level ‘English’ will easily be understood by a fellow Spanish speaker, an American or a Korean will sometimes be at a loss.  Two English learners of the same nationality conversing can be a bit like infant twins babbling to one another in their own secret language – they ‘get’ each other, but their jabberings are largely unintelligible to outsiders.

There are two obvious reasons why this happens: First of all, there is the issue of accent. Spanish, for example, only has five vowel sounds, while English has more than twenty. For a Spanish speaker, it is extremely difficult to hear these subtle differences, never mind reproduce them accurately. So, they will pronounce the words “sheet” & “shit” and “low” & “law” exactly the same. Most often than not, the meaning will  be clear from the context, but often it won’t be, especially if you’re not used to listening to a particular accent, or if there is not enough accompanying context.

The second hurdle to outsider intelligibility results from the translation process. Especially in the early stages of language learning, people directly translate what they want to say, often word for word, from their native into the target language. It’s the raw “Google Translate” mode, which yields famously unpredictable results. Just a few days ago, I had this email response from a potential new language exchange candidate:

“Ok, but I go few to Toledo. If I go, I tell you. At any rate, if you don’t come bad and you want, we can talk by the computer”

If I don’t come bad?! If you happen to speak Spanish, you’ll understand exactly where he’s coming from. The Spanish expression “Si te viene bien”, which, if you translate it directly into English, results in a non-sensical “if it comes you good”. But it actually means “if it suits you”. He’s used it in the negative here (that wouldn’t work in English anyway), which is akin to an informal version of “if it’s not too inconvenient for you”.

I know that a lot of the people who read this blog are either EFL teachers, or avid foreign language learners, or both. I’m hoping for some amusing anecdotes in the comments 🙂


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