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.

Cansado…tired…cansow.

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

Muchacho.

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?