Tongue-tied in Catalonia

The waitress gazed at us in bafflement. All she wanted to do was to take our order.  We became more and more frustrated and slightly hysterical at our inability to explain that we’d only given our order (‘café solo e café con leche’ – we could cope with that) about a minute ago to her colleague.  Sadly, he wasn’t in view, so we couldn’t point him out.

We were in Catalonia visiting our daughter for the weekend, and we couldn’t wait for her to join us in the bar.  When she arrived, she smoothly took over, explained the tapas menu to us, and gave our order to el patron.  He complimented her on her Spanish, but then spoilt it by wondering if she were Belgian.

She’s already had an interesting few months as a language assistant in a Catalan primary school.  She’s more likely to hear Catalan, but Spanish is common too, and this is the language she’s keen to learn.  The family she’s currently living with speaks Catalan, Spanish, German and English – even occasionally French – round the dinner table, but she claims this as a positive and helpful experience, probably because they all correct each other.

We found it difficult and frustrating being in Spain with only the most rudimentary language tools.  Any efforts on our part to communicate in Spanish or Catalan were greeted with friendliness and enthusiasm by the locals.  We battled to be understood, they battled to understand, and laughter at each other’s efforts broke down lots of barriers.  Still, we can’t go on like this.  We want to make an effort to learn a little more of the language before we visit Emily next.

How do people who come to live in Spain (or France come to that) cope if they don’t try to master the language?  We know of people who’ve been here ten years or more and can still hardly communicate.  If we found it hard booking a ten-journey train pass or telling the waitress we didn’t need her just then, how much worse would it have been if we’d been trying to contact a plumber, say, or the local town council?

And most of our best times here are spent sharing experiences – whether it’s a walk, an hour at the gym, or simply having a coffee together – with our French friends and neighbours.  Unable at the moment to replicate those free and easy exchanges when we go to Spain makes us feel we’re missing out.  Must Try Harder.

14 thoughts on “Tongue-tied in Catalonia”

  1. It was worse in Hong Kong; I couldn’t even read the road signs! It’s fascinating observing our grandson learning to talk in two languages but a pity our son doesn’t share his enthusiasm.


    1. It was mystifying in India too. But everything was in English too, on the whole. Just as well, or I’d have had a very thin time. Yes, Emily has met many multi-lingual children at her school: guess it’s so easy for a child, less so for us poor grownups.


  2. Just pray that you never find yourself having to ask for directions in the Basque country! No matter how fluent you might be in French or Spanish, just HOW do you get your tongue round those extraordinary place names …..??


  3. My best was when we spent some time in the U.S. We were at a supermarket checkout in Charleston where the packer (ex Alabama) & the cashier (South Carolina) couldn’t understand each other and we translated. Apparently all four of us spoke English!
    And frequently in French Canada they run Canadian French subtitles when doing a broadcast from France!


    1. Love it! We went to a talk once about the differences between the French spoken in France and that in Quebec. In Canada, they’re more French than the French, and apparently simply won’t use those English words, like ‘Stop’ and ‘le parking’ which are now part of mainstream vocabulary here. Now then. Did you make the panforte? We ate a slice tonight – our first. Yum. And since this is my only means of doing so, I’d like to tell you that I’ve been trying to comment on your blog, but Blogger won’t let me do so, on yours or any other Blogger blog. It causes the text to vanish, or tells me I’m putting the anti-spam characters in wrong. I’ve put a query into their ‘Help’ forum, but no replies yet. Grrr.


  4. Besides always enjoying your style of writing & your perspectives on “God & the world” as they say, found the ideas on languages interesting. I come from a country that has 11 OFFICIAL languages. It is compulsory for children to learn 3 languages at school but on average they speak more. This could now start a philosophical conversation because I’ll throw out the question: “Do you think that the more languages a child learns, the more tolerant it will later be of other cultures?” Enjoy! x


    1. That’s an interesting one. My daughter’s currently a languages assistant in a school near Barcelona, where to speak both Catalan and Spanish at least is a given. Lots of children in her school speak more languages, and she wrote about this recently Language skills are valued. My own view is that many English – and French too if it comes to that – learn other languages with some reluctance. Those who do make the effort are perhaps likely to be more interested in, and open to other cultures anyway. Chicken and egg. So your experience of South Africa (I assume you’re talking about South Africa?), where being multi-lingual seems to have become normalised, would be interesting. Is it just the younger generation who are multi-lingual? And are they a tolerant bunch?


      1. I think tolerance is about much more than learning a language. I have met non Europeans who think that “tolerance” is patronising and they don’t want to be merely tolerated but accepted for who they are. I agree that learning a language is often indicative of a mind set which pre-disposes an interest in other cultures and that this deeper knowledge is important in furthering understanding. However only the most polyglottal and time rich among us could find the time to learn more than a handful of languages and if I were a betting woman (which I’m not) I would guess that the majority of those would use a western alphabet. My view is that understanding is more likely to occur from a grounding, at an early age, in religion; one’s own “national” religion and others as it is from this aspect of life that much misunderstanding occurs. Perhaps I shouldn’t have raised this thorny topic in such an open space but I really beiieve that it is misunderstanding which is at the root of so much lack of acceptance and intolerance. These sweeping generalisations are my initial thoughts but thanks for starting this discussion.


      2. Mmmm. I guess I want to know what you mean by ‘a grounding, at an early age, in religion’. I agree that a grounding in the religion of one’s own culture and that of others is important in understanding and interpreting history and culture. However, so much world conflict has arisen in the name of religion that it’s hard to see it as a force for good, notwithstanding the fact that a belief system is a nourishing and helpful thing for many individuals and groups. When religion develops into single-minded fundamentalism, or becomes mired in a lust for power, territory and control, it seems that mutual respect flies out of the window.

        Less seriously – yes of course we’ve all been used to learning languages where at least the alphabet is familiar. But things ARE changing. Look at the increase in Mandarin Chinese in mainstream schools. As the world gets smaller, we’ll all have to try harder.


  5. What I meant was that whether a person/nation’s belief is monotheistic, polythiestic or neither it is fundamental to their preconceptions and if we have no concept of the thought processes which influence others then understanding and acceptance are doomed.


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