Musings: Time Marches On
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Musings: You know You Are Fluent When....

image from does it mean to be fluent in another language?  Many people think it means to be able to speak as well in your second language as you do in your first.  Maybe.  I consider myself fluent in Spanish.  Is my grammar perfect?  No. I read in Spanish at the same level as I do in English (novels by Perez-Reverte, Maria Dueñas, Julia Navarro as well as newspapers- La Nacion, Clarin, Perfil) I go to movies that are in Spanish, the doctor, lawyer, government offices.  My students on Facebook tell me that my written Spanish has greatly improved over the years.  I am contemplating writing this blog in both languages. Eeek.

There are those who confuse pronunciation with intonation. (You can't possibly be fluent, you don't sound like a -take a pick-Argentine, Mexican, Chilean..etc.)  It is one thing to pronounce the words properly, and another to have the cadence, pitch, and tone of a second language.  The first is learned.  The second is not as easily acquired.  Children, actors, and some mimics are able to achieve good intonation, others, myself included still have the tone of their native language. More often than not, people think I was raised in a family where Spanish was spoken.

Not all second language speakers understand the concept of fluency.  I used to be one.  Before I moved to Argentina, I thought that I was fluent in Spanish.  It was a whole different ballgame to have to converse with a doctor, ask for things in a store, and go to government offices.  It was not the same as ordering food in a restaurant, asking where the bathroom was, and carrying on a non-intelligible conversation with a kindly soul who just nodded and smiled at you, or a milonguero with alternative motives.  I found myself frustrated, and many times blaming the Argentines and not looking at myself.  After all, I was fluent.  Right.

Fourteen years later I look back at those times and wonder how anyone ever understood me. My Spanish regardless of what I thought at the time was horrible. Baño-Cerveza Spanish. (Where's the bathroom, I want another beer)   Once I realized the issue was mine, I did something about it.  I don't like other people talking for me.  I could not live in a country where I could not communicate and become a part of the society. There are lots of people like me, who learned their second language out of necessity and because they wanted to, and then there are others who are happy to plod along in their first language and mangle the second.

 I now find myself in the crossfire of second language English speakers and second language Spanish speakers who do not speak their second language well at all, but will fight to the death to prove they do (or tongue in cheek don't.)

The second language Spanish speakers always have this excuse: "I speak Castellano, you speak Español." The English second language speakers proudly announce "You speak American English, and I speak British English."  OK, let's shout your language ignorance even louder by using these excuses.  What do these idiots think?  That as an American I cannot understand people from England?  What about people from Australia?  New Zealand? Canada?  Do they speak a different English?  Do they think people from Chile, Colombia, and Mexico do not understand each other? I am always amazed when someone throws this at me.

I cannot tell you how many times someone who has no clue how to speak Spanish (they speak baño-cerveza Spanish) is indignant because they are not understood.  Recently in the hotel I was staying in, in Casablanca, the man in reception asked me how to say ice cream in Spanish. (He was telling me in Arabic)  I told him "helado" (ā-lah-doh)A few seats away, a fellow piped up with "No, that's not correct. It's HELado."  This was not a native speaker of Spanish.  He was an English speaker. "You don't pronounce the H." I told him.  The response? "I speak Castellano, you speak Español."  Can we have an eye roll please?  

What is the difference between Castellano and Español?  Nothing.  The word Castellano comes from the province of Castile in Spain.  Castellano is the original name given to Spanish.  In the early days, each of the provinces had its own language. (Catalan, Basque, Aragonese, Galician to name a few)  Through wars and marriage came a unified Spain and Castellano became the default language.  There you have it.  In some countries it is referred to as Castellano and others as Spanish.  Native speakers never say "Hablo Castellano, tu hablas Español" (I speak Castellano and you speak Spanish) only the ignorant who do not really speak the language use that as their defense.  

That is not to say that accents are not different or even words and slang.  This is true not only by country, but by regions as well. (New York vs Texas, Cordoba vs Madrid, Manchester vs London) When I travel the Spanish speaking world they immediately know that I come from Argentina by my pronunciation and use of words.  I was in Spain recently and not once did anyone say to me "Oh you speak Español, we speak Castellano here."  More often than not they would say "Oh you are from Argentina"  Was there a difference?  Yes, the accents in different parts of Spain and words. They say zumo for juice and everywhere else it is usually jugo, they say bocadillo for sandwich and depending on your country it could be torta (Mexico) sánguche, or even just sandwich. Regional differences not a different language.

The same sort of ignorance is found with the second language speakers of English, not just here in Argentina, but anywhere.  I have had second language English speakers challenge my corrections regardless of where they are from.  Once a student used an English word incorrectly and when I corrected him, he told me that he did not agree with my correction.  He was adamant. I showed him the actual definition in and he insisted it was wrong and that he was right.  "That is an American dictionary and you are American."  OK, so I went to the Macmillan dictionary to show him that the word means the same regardless of the accent or pronunciation.  The issue was a "false friend".  He was confusing a Spanish word that was written similar to be the same in English. (Just like people think embarazada is embarrassed and not aware it is pregnant or dirección is direction and it is actually address in Spanish) 

When  I was in Miami last month an American man who spoke no Spanish, informed me that the best Spanish was spoken in Spain. "I see," I said to him, "So does that mean the best English is spoken in England?"  An educated person regardless of where they are from or what language they speak..speak a language well whether it be the king's English or Spanish.


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