Learning Spanish in Seville: My Story

 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 gasp, “chiquilla, ya tienes el cielo ganao” – you’ve earned your spot in heaven, girl.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to move back to Spain to learn Spanish. Then I decided to call up my new Spanish roommate to practice.

“EEEE?” Sí.· Yes.
“Erm, Está Melissa?” Is Melissa there?
“EEE. Yen ereh?” Quién eres?” Who’s calling?

Shit. I hung up.

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, or just not bother to say the last syllable. 

I began to get nervous about my incorporation into the Spanish life I wanted to have. After all, most of my decision to move to Spain after college was to become fluent.

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 topic 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 apologize 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, warning, “Don’t learn to talk like them. It’s absolutely wretched to listen to some of these villagers.”

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?”

photo by Jeremy Basetti of APOML

Then there’s the boyfriend accent. The Novio was born in Madrid and began schooling there, leaving his accent clear and manageable. Only when he’s 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 that, during our first year of dating, when we used to spend every weeknight at 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 could 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 for too long. I moved across town, spent two years teaching babies whose Spanish was far worse than mine (and correcting them, too), and then took up a job teaching English with Anglo coworkers. In fact, when I took the DELE a few years ago, the oral fluency examiner guessed I lived in Utrera.

My accent seems to be suffering from lack of practice these days, despite conducting a relationship in Spanish and finally being able to watch TV without subtitles or without desperation for trying to keep up with the plot.. It’s become a little orphan accent, trapped between the olive trees of Olivares, the empty extremeño plains and a barrio called Triana. 

 

Looking for Spanish classes in Seville? Sevilla Habla is a top-notch language school whose unique methodology will have you perfecting verb tenses and improving your confidence in lengua castellana. Not only are they great, but the classes are also wallet-friendly.

I’ve teamed up with both Sevilla Habla! and COMO Consulting Spain, a relocation consulting company for North Americans, to run this great contest: two weeks of free non-intensive courses with Sevilla Habla!

 

 

 

 

Entering is simple: leave a comment with your favorite Spanish word or phrase, and then earn extra entries by following Sevilla Habla! on social media (or a mí, también). The contest will run until March 10th, but you can use the classes until the end of the year.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Even if you don’t win, Sevilla Habla! is offering Sunshine and Siestas readers a great promotion – on top of already economical classes, you can grab a 5% discount on non-instensive courses (4 hours a week) or 10% on intensive courses (20 hours a week). When Pablo and Marta ask how you heard of Sevilla Habla!, tell them the code, COMO.

Have you ever tried immersion learning? How did you learn to speak Spanish? 

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living among pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English Language Academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

Comments

  1. Corinne says:

    I’ve experienced a little of the same type of thing. I learned to speak German on the French border, then I moved to Frankfurt and they all thought I was French. Then I moved to Bavaria (years later) and my accent is so off from the local dialect, but the only people it seems to bother are other English speakers!
    Corinne recently posted..Palm Oil Plantations of BorneoMy Profile

  2. My favourite word is OJALA! There’s nothing like it in English! OJALA I win, because I love Sevilla, need to improve my Spanish because I’m hoping for a Spanish publisher for my new novel, and want to meet my miarma sevillano Twitter amigo in Triana!

  3. Kaley says:

    I thought I remembered you saying Kike speaks with a different accent, not Sevillano. I find myself picking up so much slang/pronunciation from my husband, so do you pick anything up from the novio?

    My story would be learning Spanish from Castilla y Leon sticklers who try to get me to pronounce the ll without the yeismo. (I still say me yamo and not me llamo)
    Kaley recently posted..Teaching English; Forgetting EnglishMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Yesss, I learn technical words all the time! Putting in a police report today, I learned guardabarros!

  4. No contest for us, just comments.

    This whole post makes me smile, from beginning to end. And that smile might be covering my fear. Haha.

    Our last conversation made me a bit ashamed. Here I am, learning the world of Mexican Spanish, thinking I can say a few things to you. Boy, was I waaaay off. I knew you were a pro and we obviously know what it’s like to be there and around that accent. And I know that yours is about 1000x faster than what we have here.

    But goddamn, I was severely punished by even attempting it, trying to speak my slow, Mexican Spanish only to have you fire an AK-47 of Sevillana at me. We’ll have a lot of re-learning, learning, and adjustment to do when we return!
    Ryan from Jets Like Taxis recently posted..Next Stop: Gone to Guanajuato, MexicoMy Profile

  5. Stacie says:

    My favorite Spanish word is Cigüeña which means Stork. When I first came to Spain my spanish was almost nil. I had taken 4 years of Spanish back in high school but we never learned how to speak the language and after so many years of not using it, I pretty much forgot most of it. When I moved to Spain I lived in a pueblo in the Extremadura region, another area known for it’s difficult accents. It’s also known for the many storks that like to nest on the old cathedrals and other high places in town. I also learn a lot from my students and friends but I try to include classes too. I need both. I like to learn things in class and then apply them in the real world. That’s what cements it in my brain.

  6. Hahaha I LOVED reading this post because it brought back aaaaaaaaall the memories of dealing with el andalú last year. I really loved it, I honestly did, the whole dropping-off-consonant-final-Ss, Rs, Ls, and Ds was beautiful…but the speed at which everyone spoke made things essentially ununderstandable. Like, at lunches with fellow teachers I could understand 0% of the conversation…it was kind of disheartening.

    Here in Galicia I have no problem understanding the Spanish accent and can even pick up on 80-90% of the Galician conversations–despite it being a different language! But over the course of 5 months I’ve almost lost my andalú accent :( It just became a hindrance since no one could understand me–I got a funny look when I asked a teacher “¿cómo van lo’juogo’?” for “¿cómo van los juegos?” Oh Well.

    Missing Andalucía right now…thanks for the post :)
    Trevor Huxham recently posted..10 Tips for Rolling the Spanish RMy Profile

  7. Courtney says:

    Mad props, chica. Even after living in Cádiz for 5 months, I STILL couldn’t understand their accent! (Except for “¿Qué pasa, picha?”, but that was pretty much the extent of it.) Thankfully, I don’t have that problem now that I’m living in Madrid. But still, after 10+ years of speaking Spanish, I have so much trouble understanding pretty much everyone in Andalucía. Try as I might, no puedo. I seriously envy your skills!
    Courtney recently posted..Eating My Way Through Huertas with Madrid Food TourMy Profile

  8. Mike says:

    Great read, Cat! This definitely has me missing Andalucía, even though the accent took me a long time to understand. I can fondly remember my host mom laughing about me not being able to understand her accent. She then explained that they “se comen las palabras.” It was easier to understand then because I knew that they were leaving off parts of words opposed to me thinking they were words I had never heard of! I can’t wait to be back in Spain, and this post about learning Spanish only added to my excitement!
    Mike recently posted..One Year of BloggingMy Profile

  9. Cian says:

    So, naughty words being the ones that people teach you first (I don’t think being Australian has a lot to do with it) – my favourite Spanish word is mamporrero – literally the person that aids a stallion into.. entering a mare. I mainly love the word, due to the person explaining it saying, “Yes, but they only do it to the best horses”.. so I now have an image of all these other sad, mediocre horses standing around – which leads to “Why the long face?”

  10. Gosh. In so many ways, I wish my first year was in Basque Country and 2nd in Andalucia to see how the big differences. When I set foot in Almeria area, I was so lost in Spanish already from 10 years without classes or practice that it was a constant game of figuring out what was being said. However, I did learn and how to decipher when they comerse las palabras. I remember when my then bf visited me, he couldn’t make out what many Anadalucians said, and I was explaining…

    Now when Spanish speaking folks hear me in the States, they say I have a SPAIN accent. Thrills me to pieces that I don’t have a N. American accent. But little do they know the variations within Spain!
    Lauren @Roamingtheworld recently posted..Reflections of what I gained from my first year in SpainMy Profile

  11. amelie88 says:

    I studied abroad in Malaga so I remember the Andalu accent very well. My host mother spoke clearly and slowly for me but her brother also lived with her and I could not understand him to save my life. I probably could now but back then it took me 5 minutes to think up a sentence in Spanish.

    And this post brought me back to high school when I was learning Spanish watching the Destinos video language series (there are episodes on Youtube)! There were about 50 episodes. It was made in the 80s and everybody is wearing 80s fashion and carrying around 80s technology like brick cell phones and prehistoric laptops. It followed a reporter named Raquel from LA (not sure if she was American or emigrated there) sent on a mission to find the wife of Don Fernando, a guy who emigrated to Mexico from Spain during the Spanish Civil War. That’s the simplified version of the story but it was such a hilarious entertaining telenovela.
    amelie88 recently posted..Teaching English in Spain: UCETAM FAQMy Profile

  12. Pedro Meca Garcia says:

    some of you talk of Andalú accent as one accent that applies to the region…..there are many accents within the region, totally different to Spaniards’ ears (perhaps English speaking people are not able to distinguish them, just like i am not able to distinguish people’s accents from Leeds and Bradford in England, two close cities, but with different accent).

    anyway, i can tell you that a person from Cadiz sounds totally different from someone from Malaga, and someone from Sevilla totally different from Granada…….let alone towns and villages outside the cities.

    many a time the intonation changes from towns to other close towns…..here in Murcia we speak Castilian of course, but i can say if a person is from the interior because of the way the person does make an effort on a last or first syllable, etcccccccccccc

  13. Lewey says:

    My favourite words in Spanish? “Que pasa calabaza!”
    Short. Simple. Brilliant!

    Also, I love “Adelante como los de Alicante!”, anything that rhymes I think is brilliant!

    Great site! Keep it up! :)

  14. One day…. I dream of writing a post about how I learned German, because it’s surely not by speaking English with all ze Germans. Oops. You’re a champ!
    Alex @ ifs ands & butts recently posted..my unblogged hobby.My Profile

  15. Julia says:

    I can totally relate to this. I began to near fluency in Granada because of my relationship with a granaíno, and my accent was decidedly andaluz. Now, almost all of my Spanish friends here in Madrid happen to be re-located Sevillanos and my American friends make so much fun of my accent. “S”‘s at the end of words are a thing of the past, pronouncing “ado” takes effort and almost everyone is my hija/o. It’s really incredible how your environment shapes you!
    Julia recently posted..Granada: This Must be the PlaceMy Profile

  16. I love this story, because it’s the slang and colloquialisms that make us truly fluent.
    wanderingeducators recently posted..Beehive Fireworks Festival: Taiwan’s Most Dangerous EventMy Profile

  17. Julee says:

    My favorite word is izquierda! No specific reason, I just love the way it sounds! :) and the way the Spanish say I love you with “te quiero” and “te amo”… I don’t think those words can sound any more romantic in any other language!

  18. Jill McAleese says:

    My favourite word? Una mascara, meaning a mask. But if the bank-robber has makeup on, (she) will also be wearing mascara. Same word in Spanish, always gives me the giggles!

  19. Karli says:

    Great post! I learned Spanish studying abroad in High School in a tiny town outside of Valencia, and now I’m back again in Andalucía- Lucena- and can’t believe how different various phrases and the accent between the two areas are! And ever since Spanish I “hablábamos” has made me giggle… along with any of the trabalenguas & refranes I suppose :)

    • Cat Gaa says:

      The imperfecto is the best! For me, having to learn the Andalusian way of using the present perfect when in English we learn the past tense was mind boggling! How do you like Lucena?

  20. Larissa says:

    I could use this. . . I’ve never gotten much beyond “donde esta el bano (with a tilde)”!
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  21. Love it!
    Lillie – @WorldLillie recently posted..Can You Believe the Size of This Hole in the Ground?My Profile

  22. Edit says:

    My favourite Spanish word is ‘ayuntamiento’, it just sounds sounds so nice!:-)
    I learn a lot of Spanish from my students and I also have lots of intercambios with Spanish people. I seem to speak this strange language a lot better when I’m slightly tipsy.;-)

  23. John says:

    Great post Cat. Very funny….I could relate to so much of it. Took me two years to understand what one of my brother-in-laws was saying. His Malagueño accent was so heavy I couldn’t make any sense of it.
    John recently posted..Top 10 free and natural places to visit near Malaga with childrenMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      There’s a learning curve to Andalucía that I don’t think exists in the same state in other parts of Spain! I’m fortunate that my suegra is asturiana and easy to understand!

  24. Sophie Scullion says:

    I abs loved this blogpost, I really wish I’d read it (and you’d written it) when I first got here in September!
    I started studying Spanish at beginner level when I went to Uni in Belfast to study French. I thought since I was on a “Beginner Spanish” course everyone would be in the same boat as myself – not even being able to count to 5. Nay, everyone had at least GCSE level Spanish :( My confidence in speaking has been rock-bottom since then as I always felt I was trying to catch up with someone; hence one of my favourite words in Spanish being “si” just because it was my go-to word when I arrived here. When someone was firing rapid Sevillano Spanish at me I’d just smile and say “si” and hope for the best. I have since learned that this is an impractical (and almost dangerous) way to reply to any question under the sun.
    Apart from “si”, I love the way the Spanish are so direct. Words like claro/dame/dime/hablame/quiero… would be deemed beyond rude in Ireland – answering the phone with no less than “Hello, who’s speaking please?” would be frowned upon, let alone answering “clearly/obviously” to every question asked of you! The Spanish are Spanish and make no apologies about it!
    I was excited about your competition because I’m fiiiinnnaallllyyyyyyyyyy feeling a bit more confident in my conversation and am motivated to get going on classes here! I’ve already emailed Sevilla Habla about starting in a couple of weeks so even if I’ve no luck in the competition, thanks so much for the discount code!
    And apologies for the giant response, I should just go write my own blog :S

    • Sophie Scullion says:

      *not able to count to 5 IN SPANISH, Good God.

    • Cat Gaa says:

      No need to apologize! Learning a language is difficult and takes discipline and a big dose of self-confidence, so I’m glad you found the post useful. I’d definitely animarte (encourage you) to check out Sevilla Habla! and tell them you hear from me or COMO Consulting!

      I actually had a discussion about indirectness in English and my first reactions to the direct nature of Spanish speak. They had a ball acting all proper when asking me things like the homework and the time and what page we were on!

      Suerte!

  25. Although we live quite close to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria’s Triana, we were rather more taken by Seville’s Triana when we visited. And, yes, it would be hell of a wrench to leave there. Maybe you’ll get back there one day?
    Gran Canaria Local recently posted..La GaritaMy Profile

  26. Gabriella says:

    I’m going through the same process of trying to understand the Andalucian accent right now! I’m 15, from the US, and living in Sevilla for the next 6 months with a host family and even though I’ve studied Spanish since middle school I can barely understand anything my family or classmates say to each other! After being here a month I assumed I would have gotten the hang of things but honestly I really haven’t, at least I’m in the city where the accent is much less strong. Glad to know that it is difficult for other people to adopt as well! (and even though the language barrier is difficult, I am in LOVE with Sevilla and having a great time here)
    Gabriella recently posted..ME FAILED MY ENGLISH EXAMMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      You’ll be amazed what you’ll catch onto when you’re settled and open to learning. Mucha suerte!!

  27. Sounds like you’ve had some interesting adventures learning the language and the local accent. Seville seems like a great place to learn Spanish. Thanks for offering the contest.
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..Are Backpackers Destroying the World? Q&A With Gringo Trails Director Pegi VailMy Profile

  28. Great observations — a great-sounding contest. As I discovered when I lived in Tokyo, just because you’re surrounded by native speakers doesn’t mean learning the local lingo is easy.
    Terry at Overnight New York recently posted..Hotel Americano: Feeding VIPs at the Armory ShowMy Profile

  29. Heather says:

    Regional accents and dialects can be tough. I lived in Shanghai for two years, where the locals speak Shanghainese, not Mandarin – they are practically two separate languages! I was studying Mandarin so never had any clue what the locals were saying. The further west we traveled in China, the more clear the Mandarin became. But heading northeast towards Beijing and beyond, the Mandarin takes on a distinct pirate sound, as though every word ends in “arh.” Needless to say I did not become fluent in Chinese :-)
    Heather recently posted..Walking With Dinosaurs at the National Museum of Natural HistoryMy Profile

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