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.

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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? 

Seville Snapshots: The Sights of Alcalá de Henares

The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid.

It seemed only fitting to make a day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to Día del Libro, a celebration of his death and contributions to the Spanish Language and its literature. My sister-in-law Nathàlia just finished up her degree at the famous Universidad de Alcalá, so I took the train early one Friday morning to Madrid and spent an afternoon wandering the old city.

The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world (and several of my blogging friends like Cassandra and James have earned masters degrees from the formerly named Complutense!). Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and interesting history of the campus.

Nath and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, gossiping while huddling together from a biting April day before dipping into a bar near the law faculty for a few tapas. Bars clustered around the university buildings typically serves free tapas with drinks, so we toasted to Nathàlia’s big move to Dublin and one more city to cross off of my list.

If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 line from Atocha. Be sure to visit the Plaza de Cervantes, the Casa Natal de Cervantes (free, like tapas in many bars, too), and the university tour cost less than 5€ with a student card. 

How Much Spanish Should I Speak to Travel or Live in Spain?

One of the most common questions I’m asked about moving to Spain is the level necessary to be able to understand and be understood while traveling and working. This is a loaded question, as Spain is a place where English is both commonplace and rarely spoken. 

When I came to live in Seville, I had years of study and a few months in Valladolid as backing. Little did I know that Spanish was such a complex language, or that doing adult things like opening a bank account and settling claims would turn into such a frustrating task. After all of this time and the pummeling of different accents, my own manner of speaking is laughable.

Still, the importance of learning languages has hit Andalusia full-force, and English is much more widely spoken than five years ago. Here, your questions answered:

What Level of Spanish Do You Need for a Trip to Spain?

Spain is rightly regarded as one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world, but regardless of whether you decide to soak up the sunshine on a long, sandy beach or enjoy the food and exciting culture of cities likes Barcelona and Madrid it is a good idea to learn some of the Spanish language before you go. Of course, how much you need to learn depends upon what you intend to do with it and here are a few examples of to get you thinking.

I recommend having a working knowledge of transportation vocabulary and basic phrases, and the same goes for food and lodging. While many people in the travel industry will have some English, a little legwork goes a long way, especially if there’s a problem.

To Make Friends

The Spanish people are famously friendly and outgoing, making Spain a wonderful destination for anyone who is interested in becoming friends with people from a different culture. In this case, you will want a fairly wide vocabulary and to be able to speak in as relaxed a manner as possible. You probably won’t be overly worried about some grammatical faults, as you will iron these out once you start talking to your new Spanish friends.

Intercambios, or language exchanges, are becoming ever more popular with Spaniards and foreign residents alike. These weekly meetings are often held at bars or public spaces, and encourage language participation on both ends. In Seville, couchsurfing usually meets for an exchange on Thursdays, and there are several in the Alameda. You can also use University message boards to look for a one-on-one.

To Sample the Food

Spain is also famous for its magnificent cuisine. If you love food then you will want to try the likes of paella, tortilla de patata and other local treats. In order to get the most out of your culinary experience you might like to learn a good variety of food related words. This is going to be especially relevant if you plan to head off the beaten track and eat in small restaurants where English might not necessarily be spoken. If you are able to say, the best of my Spanish lessons in Miami is the bit where we talk about food for hours then you will be on your way to learning what you need.

Knowing regional dishes will not only enhance your visit, but also help you guarantee that you’re getting great service. I tend to shy away from places where English, French, German and a handful of other languages are present on menus, though I still have to learn parts of the pig in English!

To Look for a Job

Perhaps you are planning a dramatic change in your life and want to look to further your career in Spain. This is becoming an increasingly popular option in these days of the globally mobile workforce. There are some parts of the country with a high population of English-speaking expats and it is possible that you could land a job there with little knowledge of the Spanish tongue. Still, you’ll want to have a decent grasp of some formal Spanish phrases in order to make a good impression on the person interviewing you.

Yeah, Guiri Puss, aprende español!

Interested in studying for an exam to prove that you’re a Spanish crack? The DELE diploma is valid in nearly every country in the world, and I passed the C1 in November 2011. Check out my Do’s and Don’t post and what to expect on the exam.

This post was made possible by an outside source. As always, I reserve all rights of submission.

Do you learn any language bits before you travel?

Dancing in the Fountain: Enjoy Living Abroad Book Giveaway

I’m five minutes early, and there’s just one table left. It’s in the sun and cramped between two groups of German travelers. Karen strides in with just a moment to spare, wearing her signature animal prints. While there’s a gap in age between us, Karen is the type of friend you can have who personifies “Age is just a number.”

I’m eager to catch up with Karen over coffee and talk about her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. I devoured the book on a trip this summer though the Eastern seaboard, often subjected to gut-busting laughter and the wise head nods. The book was, in short, delightful.

As someone who loves travel books, Karen’s story of how she and her husband, Rich, moved to Seville is what Maria Foley calls a “love letter to the Andalusian capital.” Indeed, Karen captures the essence of Seville – its people, its food, its quirks that drive every single one of us crazy, all while deepening our love for this enchanting place. The perfect book for dreaming about getting away, of starting over in a new country and making it all work. 

As we are getting ready to part ways, I reach into my bag to find my wallet is empty. In an oh-so-Spanish move, Karen shoes my hand away and offers up a five euro note. “This will more than take care of it,” she says with a slight smile.

After getting back home later that day, I write my friend to apologize again about the coffee. Her reply is quick and telling: It’s happened to all of us.

Photo by the man in the hat himself, Rich McCann, at Karen’s book party

Just like your friend from toda la vida might say on any other sunny day in Seville.

The Contest

Karen has graciously agreed to donating a paperback copy of Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad to one of my readers, and I’m willing to ship it anywhere.

In order to win, I’d like you to tell us, in 25 words or less, why you’d like to live abroad, or why you chose to if you’re already here. You can earn more chances to win by following Karen and I on twitter or liking our Facebook pages, but we’re both interested in hearing what you have to say about packing up and moving to unknown lands.
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Contest begins today and will run two weeks. I’ll send the winner, who will be generated randomly, the signed book to any corner of this great big Earth. But wait! I’m also going to give away a $15 Amazon gift card to the reader with the best answer, judged by and agreed on by both Karen and me.

For more information about Karen and her book, visit her webpage or follow her on twitter at @enjoylvngabroad. If you’ve read this book and enjoyed it, let her know! You can also find the book in both Paperback and Kindle version here: Dancing In The Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad.

Learning a Language for Love

Ven, gorda, que te voy a dar un beso. Enrique held his arms outstretched as I let the words slowly formulate a sentence in English in my head.

When they did, I pivoted and strode into the bedroom, pouting as I sat on his unmade bed. Masked between a coax and the promise of a kiss, my new boyfriend had just called me fat.

When Enrique and I had met several months before, I was having a friend over for dinner at my flat. The smell of burnt tortilla de patata – and the smoke that accompanies it – wafted through my small place as I rushed to pick up a roommates’ notes and textbooks, cursing myself for deeming Arrested Development more important than cleaning. As I used a wet rag to dissipate the smoke, a buzz came from the telefonillo.

“Um, hey, hola,” I said clumsily into the speaker. The voice that came from the other end was masculine, not that of the other girl I’d invited.

Kike knocked on the door twenty seconds later, wielding a bottle of whiskey and a half-drank bottle of Coke. “This is for the party,” he quipped.

As we ate burnt tortilla, potato chips, cured meats and cheese that night, I marveled at how he could partake in conversations with me in English, my Spanish roommate in his native tongue and German with my other roommate.

“Yeah, I’m also learning Arabic,” he told me later that night.

Over the next few months, our bilingual texting and tapas grew more serious. I learned pillow talk in Spanish and corrected his preposition use in English, confessing to him that I didn’t think I’d ever get a good handle on castellano or even start learning a third.

Don’t word, guapa, practice is the one thing that makes a tongue perfect, he said in his smooth Spanish. Leaning in close, I kissed him hard. Pulling away, he laughed. “No, no, no,” he said in between belly laughs, “I mean that practicing speaking Spanish will help you improve!” The word  lengua means both tongue in your mouth and tongue that you speak.

Was it any surprise that the first time he told me he loved me, he did it in English so that I wouldn’t get confused? Those three little words were shouted over the pumping music of a discoteca, but I got the message loud and clear.

I often ask my students why they’re studying English. Most say to be able to travel and communicate, or to have better job prospects. In coming to Spain, I would have answered the same. But after falling for a Spaniard, it was clear: I would learn a language for love.

After fuming over the gorda comment, I finally got tough and confronted him. Um…tú eresmuy mean. He laughed and between breaths said, “This laugh? It’s called a carcajada!”

Always quick to point out a new word.

When he calmed down, he explained that gorda was a pet term that people give to one another often, the same as feo (ugly), rey (king) and pequeño (small one). I had a lot of studying to do.

As our relationship has evolved, so have my tastes for Spanish food, the destinations on my Been There list and the number of experiences we’ve been able to share together – often in two languages. His handle of English and willingness to learn more has allowed him to entertain my best friend while I had strep throat during her visit, understand both football and baseball and say hello to my parents on Skype each weekend.

At an American’s friend’s wedding to her Spanish mate last year, she read her vows in Spanish for his family to hear; he did the same in English for hers. I was too busy wiping my tears away as gracefully as possible to remember exactly what he said, but it was to the effect of, being in a bilingual relationship means giving you twice as much of everything: friends, foods to try, vocabulary to say “I’m sorry,” holidays to celebrate together and laughing at the other’s language blunders.

Nearly five years later, Kike and I are now in a unilingual relationship: Castilian Spanish is the only language that we ever speak to one another. I love you is te quiero, kiss has become besito and baja la basura de una vez is as common for him to say as jó, haz la cama de una vez is for me.

Our one exception? Our pet name for one another is no longer in Spanish.

Has learning another language helped you to travel? Fall in love? Get a promotion or pay raise? Sound off in the comments!

 

Writer’s note: Sending lots of abrazos for those of you who gave my page a like, both on Facebook and through the competition page. Sadly, tons of great writing went unnoticed when Kaplan International, the sponsor of the contest, decided to make the spamming more important than content. While I ended up with over 200 likes and within the Top Ten, there were posts with 6,000 likes that had little to do with what the contest asked. Reagrdless, you guys mean the world to me, and I greatly appreciate your shares and great feedback, and I likely wouldn’t keep blogging like a maniac between a new job and a master’s program if it weren’t for you guys. Mil gracias!!

 

The Rain in Spain

“I knew the weather was changing during my morning cigarette yesterday,” the Novio mentioned as he smoked his [fifth] evening piti.

That’s the problem with being a pilot, he confessed. You start to understand the weather patterns. His friends nodded, confident that we were about to enter the Veranillo de San Miguel. Like most moments in my life in Seville, I shrugged and gave them a puzzled look.

Alas, not three weeks after returning to Spain, I’m putting away my summer clothes and actually sleeping under sheets. We welcomed Autumn this week with spouts of drizzle, chillier temperatures and the need for a jacket in the evening. Now is the time people start chiding you for not wearing a scarf (reason for getting a cold), for sleeping with your window open (reason for getting a cold) and walk in stocking feet in your house (reason for getting a cold).

Spanish idioms about the weather are some of the silliest I know, and I’ve made a point to put them into my speech for a dramatic effect when talking about Seville’s 300 days of sunshine, and 65 days of cold, damp grossness (for the record, the only think I like about Fall is anything pumpkin-flavored).

Veranillo de Membrillo/de San Miguel – Indian Summer

The little summer of quince or Saint Micheal is what we Americans call Indian Summer – a deceptive window of time where summer returns for just a few short days, complete with high temps and sunshine. Currently, it’s been in the low 70s, and sevillanos are hoping to squeeze out one more beach weekend.

Hasta el 40 de Mayo, no te quites el sayo – Bring your jacket

Like the Veranillo de Membrillo, the above refrán refers to just the opposite: to not be deceived by warm weather, as there will always be a burst of cold. It literally means, until June 10th, don’t take off your light jacket. This old idiom begs you to consider covering up so as not to catch a cold.

Tiempo de perros – Foul weather

The weather of dogs means nothing more than bad weather – storms, blustery winds and the like. Use this idiom with the verb hacer to talk about the weird weather that descends on the land of sunshine and siestas to impress your Spanish friends.

Tener más frío que robando pingüinos – To be very cold

There exist dozens of ways to talk about cold, including the “cold that peels” or the cold that likens you to playing with seals. My favorite is to be colder than robbing penguins, conjuring up a winter wonderland at the North Pole. In Seville, it hasn’t snowed and stuck for over 50 years, so the blue skies that are ever-present in winter trick you into thinking it’s warming up. Nope. Get your penguin-catching nets ready.

Tener carne de gallina – To have goosebumps

Goosebumps are weird sounding, but the Spaniards go ahead and make it goose skin. Even weirder.

Estar calado/a hasta los huesos – To feel damp

I didn’t realize just how cold Seville gets in winter until the Christmastime rains came. All of the sudden, my clothes wouldn’t dry and I found myself shivering under the covers with the heat on, nothing more than my eyes peeking out over the top. Because the city sits in a river valley surrounded by mountain ranges, Seville weather is damp and humid at any time of the year, prompting old ladies to admit to being damp in their bones as the walk their carritos to the supermarket.

Similarly, Spanish employs weather terms to describe people and situations.

Darse ni frío ni calor – to not matter

Spend the last weekend of Indian Summer in la playa or the mountains? No me da ni frío ni calor, really – I’ll take a weekend outside of Seville and away from my computer anytime. Anyone who is wishy washy uses this expression with a shrug to reaaaally let you know that they don’t care, and it’s translated literally as not giving you neither hot nor cold. Cue Katy Perry music.

Cambiar más que una veleta – to be fickle

Speaking of which, you probably have a friend who tells you it doesn’t give him hot or cold, but then changes his mind. Someone who changes more than a weather vane is said to be fickle, and I could easily blanket stereotype with this one, but I won’t. Hey, we’ve all got friends like this.

Llover sobre mojado – When it rains, it pours

As I listen to the rain finally pounding down on a very dry Seville, it’s easy to envision this idioms: When one bad thing happens on top of another, it’s raining over what’s already wet. I made friends with another auxiliar when she was living in Huelva five years ago. As much as she loved Spain, she got dealt one bad hand after another, finally leading her to leave spain after one year. Her reason? It didn’t just pour, it poured over what was already wet.

Pasar como un nube de verano – to be short-lived

You know what passed by like a summer cloud? Summer itself! I have to admit, I’ve never planned my outfits around shoes, but when you haven’t got many options for Fall shoes on a sudden rainy day, it happens. Anything short-lived is remembered nostalgically as a summer cloud. The only problem is, in Andalucía we’ve got either zero clouds or sun protection, or the icky grey skies known as borchorno.

Que te parta un rayo – to go to hell

Straight out of Greek mythology? Damning someone means wishing they get halved by a lightning bolt. I like it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Got any other to share? Leave them for me in the comments – I love learning Spanish idioms almost as much as teaching them in English!

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