When I used to tell people that I worked in the little town of Olivares in rural Andalucía, all those big fancy sevillanos used to flip their hands as if to say, ain’t no big thing and let out their mourning Virgen sighs and say, “chiquilla, ya tienes el cielo ganao” – you’ve earned your spot in heaven, girl.
When I was first assigned to work at IES Heliche, I was thrilled to be put 10 miles outside the capital of Andalucía. I found my apartment, looked up information on banking and bills, and got my visa application completed in no time. Then I decided to call up my new Spanish roommate.
“EEEE?” Sí.· Yes.
“Erm, Está Melissa?” Is Melissa there?
“EEE. Yen ereh?” Quién eres?” Who´s calling?
Shit. I hung up.
Dialect is really a product of one’s environment. My mom grew up a mere mile from the Chicago border and knows only one vowel. You guessed it, that obnoxious ChicAAAAAHHHHgo /a/. But, since I grew up in Michigan and Detroit before transplanting to Iowa at age 18, I somehow only adopt said accent on certain words. But, it’s funny, because I always pick up on them, both in English and Spanish.
My Spanish accent, the product of American teachers and a few weeks’ time studying in the cradle of modern Spanish, was no match for the fast-talking Andalusians and their tendency to “comerse las palabras” – drop off the second half of their words. I began to get nervous about my incorporation into the Spanish life I wanted to have.
Luckily for me, Melissa was raised in London and, despite her indecipherable Spanish, speaks the clearest English I have ever heard. We spent most of our three years as roommates speaking in our first languages – English. Thank God, or I may have been cleaning the bathroom with glass cleaner instead of bleach. Nevertheless, I adopted her gaditano accent from Cadiz: perahh for espera (wait) and amovehr for vamos a ver (we’ll see).
In Olivares, words and tenses I knew became, literally, lost in translation. I was supposed to play dumb and say I only knew enough Spanish to get around, but my high schoolers aren’t that dense. I would try to hide my giggles at their jokes, punish for swear words (clearly the first and most important in language learning) and let a bueno or hombre slip every once in a while. I couldn’t understand them half the time, as evident when a kid came to the teacher’s lounge and motioned me over.
“tee-shaiir, ehn.” Teacher, ven. Come here.
Eh kay allay t heugh kayr poh lakaleruh, pa pehdeer-tay pairdohn pour aber-me ray-i-oh. COMO? Es que ayer te vi caer por las escaleras, para pedirte perdón.
Baby talk, right? Nope, the second accent I picked up. The kid called me over to apologized for having laughed at me when I tripped on the stairs. I had to get another teacher, raised in Valencia, to step in as a translator. She laughed and in her perfect British English, warned, “Don’t learn to talk like them. It’s absolutely wretched to listen to some of these villagers.” The only one I fooled was David, who invited me to the graduation dinner my first year but told me not to feel left out because no one was speaking English. David is now studying to be an English teacher, so rest assured he could at least speak one accent well!
Nevertheless, my adoption made me popular among my students who began to call me one of their own. And, after three years teaching, I subbed Que pasa chica? for Que´pah, mache?, Olivareño for “What’s up, pal?”
Then there’s the boyfriend accent. Kike was born in Madrid and began schooling there, leaving his accent clear and manageable (in Spanish, not English.) Only when he’s been drinking or using Andalusian slang does he begin to slip into the realm of misunderstanding, which has actually resulted in a few fights. When I don’t understand something, he’s quick to jump in and explain. I remember my first year dating him, when we used to spend every weeknight drinking Cruzcampo in La Grande. He and his friends would joke around about people, issues and memories that were already foreign to me, on top of the accent and slang. Towards the end of my third year, his friend David paid me a complement when Kike picked up a book from a trash heap in front of the same bar. A que somo unos gitanos, verdad? “Coño,” David said, “I remember when you used to fume because you couldn’t keep up in conversation now. Look at you now!”
So, if environment and the people you’re with are akin to the dialect you speak, I had an outdoor classroom in my old neighborhood of Triana, the magical place so Spanish it killed me to leave it. Once outside mini Cádiz in my apartment, I was free to roam amongst the lifelong inhabitants of the island carved by the Guadalquivir and its canal, people who are so fiercely from their barrio that even Triana has its own accent. And you better believe I picked upon it. People ould identify my place of residence just from hearing me speak with the bartenders who served me beer and montaditos, the grocer who I often ran into on public buses, Fernando at Java café.
But as much as I tried, my accent had too many outside influences to let it be trianero. Case in point: my friend Kelly, who thinks she was born in an alternate life on Calle Rodrigo de Triana, has a trianero boyfriend and refuses to move out of the neighborhood. I was helping her out at her school one morning when several of her coworkers applauded my Spanish skills. Kelly, having a total canilady attitude, stepped in and said, “But my accent is more trianero than hers.” Possss vale.
Now that I work at a yuppy school where my companions are between three and five, I’m correcting their Spanish as much as their English. My accent seems to be suffering from lack of grown-up interaction. It’s become a little orphan accent, trapped between the olive trees of Olivares, the empty Extremaduran plains and a little barrio called Triana.