Learning the Language

It’s not so simple, learning the language.

I remember learning to speak French in France…..I had ‘done’ French in school…in later life I picked it up again and had good reading skills, but living in rural France was an eye opener.
For a start all my neighbours spoke patois….

It could have been a disaster had my neighbours not also been kind and patient and had I not been introduced to a retired headmistress who wished to improve her English.
While announcing that in my spoken French I was clearly a woman with no past and no future, speaking as I did only in the present tense she told me not to worry.

Talk to people, listen to people…do what babies do…communicate…and one day what you’re hearing will be what you’re speaking.

She was right. I muddled along, read a lot, especially the newspaper in order to be abreast of the current scandals and one day I got there.
I spoke French.

And now I’m learning Spanish. Costa Rican Spanish, not the Castilian Spanish spoken by my husband.

I was talking about my language learning problems to a taxi driver….one of those chatty, friendly men who have proved to be superb teachers.

You’ve come to the right place to learn Spanish, he announced. Here we speak clearly; none of this limp wristed lisping in Central America!

He might have a point….but I suspect that at some stage in the colonial experience a Glaswegian element intervened as nowhere outside that jewel of the Clyde have I encountered a more pronounced glottal stop.

Ganado…cattle…is pronounced Gannow.


I must be getting somewhere with the local version, though,  because when I bought a train ticket in Barcelona recently the ticket clerk replied:

Pura vida!

The watchword of Costa Rica.

And that from a Catalan……saucy devil!

But learning the language is one thing….how I’m using it is another.

Costa Ricans refer to themselves as Ticos….supposedly from their habit of noting affection or sympathy for something or someone by using the diminutive ‘itico’.

On the (mainly) North American expat fora, Tico is banded about readily when referring to local people or customs, usually in a somewhat condescending way….

A Tico house as contrasted to one built to North American standards….

What Ticos do as opposed to what the contributor does…..

And when the established expat human mosquitoes invite the newbies to  a get together to see how much they can  take them for you also tend to hear disparaging comments about Ticos.

So, though my Tico friends refer to themselves as Ticos…I feel inhibited from doing so from the way Tico is used by the expat groups.

I use Costa Rican…….Costarricense.

Then I’ll be with Costa Rican friends having coffee in the Teatro Nacional.

They’ll call the waiter over and address him as


A bit like  saying ‘Garcon!’ to a French waiter.

But instead of peeing in the mustard for revenge, he takes it as normal and brings the order.

I can’t do that…or I feel that I can’t.

Yet when, years ago, we were travelling to Nicaragua, I didn’t find the same inhibition.

As we stepped off the bus at the frontier, a lady with a wad of immigration forms approached the passengers, offering to fill out the details for a sum of money. I said I could fill it in myself…but she still wanted money, despite notices all over the buildings stating that all formalities are free  of charge.

So at the entrance to the immigration offices…a Cecil B. de Mille crowd scene if ever there was one… I approached an unwary policeman and told him that the ‘muchacha’ wouldn’t give me a form.

He went off to the clerks at the desks and came back to say that they had run out of forms…but not to worry…the computer was working so no need to do anything.

So why did it come naturally to refer to her as ‘muchacha’ when I can’t call a waiter ‘muchacho’?

Is it that it was indirect…not to her face…thus not requiring respect?


33 thoughts on “Learning the Language”

  1. Learning a language is one thing; understanding its nuances is another. And don’t even get me started on France French and Canada French. When I hear Canadian French, it’s hard to believe I was ever once fluent in French (which I’m sadly no longer thanks to not using it for a couple decades).

    Oh, and here’s hoping no waiter ever pees in my mustard. 😉

    1. I would imagine it accounts for that ‘je ne sais quoi’ factor people remark on in France…

      And as for French Canadians: I came across a group researching their Acadian heritage round Loudon and was startled when one chap dropped his camera and exclaimed ‘Tabernacle!’.

      1. Oh, yes, ‘Tabernacle’–that’s a good one!

        As for the ‘je ne sais quoi factor,’ that gave me a good laugh. But I certainly hope pee in mustard isn’t behind it. 😉

  2. My God ‘puta’, don’t ever say that in Greece.

    At least, dear Helen, you don’t shout at bloody foreigners in English when you can’t make yourself understood in their country.

    Your French lady was right, the best way to learn a language is by communicating with the ‘natives’ in the country. Fearlessly and brazenly; they’ll put up with you gladly for practising rather than doing the aforementioned shouting in English.

    I have a lovely story about Glaswegian, I must try and remember to post it soon, before I forget.

  3. In college I took Italian; the professor a tiny blue haired woman. I enjoyed the language and occasionally took time to stop and chat with the road crew working at the end of my street all summer. Something I said in class one day, and sadly I cannot remember, caused her to bring the class to a halt. “My dear, we do not use that accent in this class.” I think, worse than Sicilians, they may have been Corsicans. Oh, dear.

    1. Oh dear…your teacher would have been aghast at the French I picked up from my first neighbours…the local librarian congratulated me years later on my grasp of the rural essentials…

      I tried my minimal Italian on an all woman road crew doing up roads locally in my area of France….’Oh’ says one…’you’ve learned your Italian in Parma, then’

      And indeed, my friend who had given me basic Italian (not to speak of super recipes I have never found in cookery books) came from Parma.

  4. I can relate so closely to your opening remarks, as you can imagine. My spoken French is of the Spanish cow variety, although I read it well. Fortunately my neighbours don’t speak patois, although the elderly ones do swallow the end of their words, so a ‘table’ is a ‘tab’ for instance. I am quite well known in the village for being a chatterbox, as I will talk to anyone, even if it means introducing complete non sequiturs just so I can say something — I’m practicing, they are bemused 🙂 I try every day, but many days I despair that I will ever get there. I say ‘Comment?’ a lot.
    As someone who has frequently been identified as an Antipodean, a word I greatly dislike, I never refer to Frogs or Frenchies.
    I am enjoying the fact that I can now understand a surprising amount of spoken Italian, because I understand a good deal of spoken French.
    I picked up a glottal stop in English from our time in the east of London.

    1. No, I’ve never gone in for saying Frogs or Frenchies either…seems unfair to lumber everyone with the perceived faults of their governments….
      Patois was going strong when i moived in…even to the extent of inventing words to cover modern needs.
      Papy came over one day to borrow the ‘betoon’…..faced with total incomprehension he led me to the cement mixer….

  5. It doesn’t get any easier picking up a new language as you get older. I would have a terrible time as my memory is like a sieve.

    My DB would like us to leave France when my boys have left home. I’m thinking, yikes, learning a new language!!

    1. Tell me! I haven’t found it easy….and there are some situations where it leaves me completely…such as when the girlfriend of a friend insisted on telling me about her boob job. How you ask about silicone tits in Central American Spanish when not in the least interested is beyond me…as yet.

  6. I’m still struggling with our local village accent after 30 years. But as my husband also doesn’t recognise it as his mother tongue, I’ve given up worrying about it.

  7. I have at last decided that I must go to French classes!! I did not do French at school, and only after I turned 60 did I speak my first (badly pronounced) French word. Most around here speak Patois which of course is little help to me. I have struggled along with records and tapes, but although I can generally make myself understood I have no chance with understanding the reply!! My Husband took both French and German at school and has an excellent memory. He is also good with languages in general. This past year, since moving here, here he has improved no end while I have gone backwards as he does all the talking!!

    Wish me luck as I have my first lesson on Friday and hopefully some of it will stay put in the grey matter instead of floating straight through and out the other side! Oh and I forgot we play scrabble every Tuesday afternoon in French!! What a hoot, I come up with words that the French have to look up as they do not believe me. I have no idea what most of them mean but I sort of invent things that look like a word; look it up in the dictionary and generally find something similar :)) Keep well both of you Diane

    1. I love the scrabble! Good for you!
      I do sympathise about the patois…I wondered what on earth I’d got myself into when trying my French and getting something totally different as a response.
      Good luck with the classes…my husband took a course and had the good luck to have a fabulous teacher with whom we’re still in touch.

  8. Language is such a wonderful, diverse,painful yet rewarding thing to study..but somehow the textbook-writers and audio-makers never quite seem to want to make the leap into the “real” language that’s spoken once you’re in the country and it’s too late.
    Only last night, after I’d spent half an hour with my class explaining that they’d just have to learn when to use “make” or “do” , and composing (with their helpful input) a list of examples of each, we stumbled – in the very next thing we read together – on the phrase “You’ll just have to make do”. Cue much confusion..
    But you’ve hit the linguistic nail on the head. There’s a huge gap to bridge between learning to speak a language and learning how to use certain words or phrases appropriately.
    But congratulations and much respect for mastering the local patois (or “patios” as someone once wrote, bemoaning the fact that her neighbours were all speaking “the wrong sort of French”, and thus hampering her efforts to become fluent).

  9. Husband Mark continues to work so hard at his French. I am incredibly impressed. He has now joined 2 language cafe groups, as well as a small class. One of the cafe groups organise all sorts of activities, and I attended a recent one, where a delightful Belgian woman talked about her experiences of moving from Paris to Halifax. ( She claimed to prefer Halifax…..very strange ). Her accent was incredibly RP, I think she was very conscious that her audience was somewhat mixed ability, but it made us all feel good that we followed her every word.
    I am still hoping that my French will improve through listening, reading and joining in conversations when I feel able. I think I’m still better than Mark on practical every day stuff, as I seem to just launch into it without worrying too much about the grammar, and I seem to manage to be understood most of the time…..but he is catching up.

    1. There weren’t groups like that when I was moving to France….though when there, much later, my husband found courses run by the Chamber of Commerce which were superb until squabbles among the English attending them led to closure.

      I just get on with it, like you…..

  10. I’m pretty useless at languages although I do think Turkish is really difficult to learn with all the aglutination. I do try though and can make myself understood most of the time, and I understand a lot more than I speak. One thing I have noticed is that please and thankyou don’t seem to be used very much by the Turks, and I wonder if they think I’m strange because I use them all the time?

    1. I could manage a few words…but, you’re right, please and thank you did not figure in the basics they taught me!

      There are phrases here which still take me aback…you ask someone how they are and they reply very well, thanks to the most holy trinity….
      or my lawyer, on the blower to a client, says good morning, illustrious knight…..

  11. I can hardly wait until I can understand ‘illustrious knight…’ !! I’ve been here nine months and am just now barging past my temerity and speaking spanish words that spoken together make enough sense for people to understand me…. and do they glow at my effort to try and communicate? yes, then do. I love most of the people here. Their hearts are open and they come from a good place. I think being afraid of making a mistake and looking foolish (the response I’d get back where I came from) gave me many months of immobility language-wise. Am so, so, so, happy to have met a taxi driver who wanted to learn English, so forced me to speak Spanish! Aren’t they just Angels?? We’re lucky to have run into two of them that have been so helpful.

    1. I’m glad you’re through the lack of confidence barrier…it takes a time, doesn’t it!
      Do you remember the taxi driver in San Jose who told me I was speaking Spanish with a French accent!

  12. I learned my French and German back in the days when translation on paper (both ways) and essay-writing took precedence over actually learning to speak the language. 🙂 Thankfully, when I actually had to speak them all the time in the months abroad before going to university (to study languages) I found that all the rote learning of grammar and vocab had been worthwhile and real fluency came quite rapidly.

    All this is now well over 40 years ago and the old grey cells are no longer so retentive, so that it has taken me quite a while to get my French back up to a
    reasonable standard.Of course our neighbours, especially the elderly, speak with a strong Norman accent and often in patois, but I persevere.

    I love languages and have had fun in more recent years learning some basic Italian and Portuguese for holidays, though I failed ignominiously with Czech. Never having been to Spain, Spanish is as yet a closed book, but I really think I should have a go…..

    1. I didn’t enjoy French at school…but when I had to get it up to speed again all the grammar drills were still there…once unearthed!
      Once again, grateful for a good education!
      There are moments with learning Spanish that I feel like beating my head against the wall…but it passes….

  13. The good thing about Spanish is that it is so phonetic. Well, until you are cansow of course. I laughed at that. So your taxi driver thinks they speak clearly? That’s as Andalucían as it comes. I used to try and be ‘posh’ and not drop the ends of words, or say hablow instead of hab-lard-o etc but I lost that a while back and happily speak pueblo Andaluz these days. Oddly it often gives you more street cred. They don’t teach that at language schools and both Spaniards and Gibbos seem impressed that you speak Spanish with a dialect 😀 Even worse in my partner’s case, he does it via Wales and Australia.

    I used linguaphone incidentally and really found it very good. Plus television with subtitles (in Spanish) because they spoke too fast for me to hear anything at all initially, the news was good, they were a bit clearer in their speech, and soaps were very good because their dialogue was so simple.

    My hallmarks of success were a) holding conversations on the ‘phone and b) listening to the radio – both no verbal signals or lip movements to pick up on and c) listening to my 80+ year old neighbours without their false teeth in. Spaniards, no idea about Latin Americans although we know Argentinians and Bolivians, are remarkably tolerant about those of us struggling to learn Spanish. I do admire you starting with a new language though. Have you started dreaming in Spanish yet? 😀

    1. Yes. Alarming, isn’t it!
      I’m hopeless on the ‘phone in English, never mind any other language…but i struggle along.
      Radio’s fine…especially football commentaries. I don’t like football, but the reports are always on in friends’ houses.
      Loved the no false teeth conversations!

      1. I was like Perp and learned exactly the same O level French, although as we were streamed a couple of other groups did a more oral version of the syllabus. Consequently I was hugely lacking in confidence with spoken French. Some years back (still UK based) we went to Spain, Gib Morocco and Portugal backpacking. I was delighted to arrive in Morocco and be able to speak French with ease compared with my then cruddy Spanish. The last time I was in France, I opened my mouth and Spanish came out instead. I haven’t been back since 😀

        I’ve writtten a few language posts on roughseas, so I might put a page together about speaking Spanish. I’m sure I’ve done one on Andaluz pronunciation too.

  14. I’ll take a look…though I’m still hunting for the Villa from Hell…..
    And as for coming out with the wrong language…on my flying trip in December I seemed always to be one language behind where I was…

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