Forked Tongues

My response to French grammar in high school was to play the class clown. Both bored and frustrated by the gender of tables and cups and pencils, and befuddled by the complexity of the pluperfect and the future imperfect, I protested by being obstructive.

When later on I moved to Canada, which is officially bilingual, I used my schoolboy French once or twice a year on business trips to Quebec. As each three- or four-day visit wound down, I’d find I was starting to recall grammatical constructs and the vocabulary I’d spurned years before, and regretted my poor learning skills in my teens. I sometimes thought about living in Quebec for a couple of months, to make my French more serviceable, but never followed through on this.

When, therefore, I decided to try Mexico, almost fifteen years ago now, I realised I’d have to follow through with a new tongue, and master enough Spanish to survive on my own. The Spanish Centre in Toronto offered the best options, I found, after trying two other places first. But once again, the pointlessness of gendered nouns and adjectives, as well as the long lists of irregular verbs, brought out echoes of my old sense of despair. This time, I couldn’t tell myself I’d never need to know this stuff, because I knew I would, and soon.

This kind of ambiguity, I think, plagues almost anyone apart from a few natural linguists. A native language is one that we acquire at the same time we become independently mobile, and learning to make our parents understand us is one of the challenges and triumphs of early childhood. Having to reconfigure the way we use words is not just hard, but sometimes actively distressing. There are times I manage to sustain a conversation in Spanish for several minutes, and times when I can’t even remember the response to a simple question.

The English language, I read, has about two hundred irregular verbs. Spanish has more than twice that. Worse, while an irregular English verb like ‘to teach’ has ‘taught’ as its past participle, and uses ‘teaches’ in the third person, there are no other variants to be learned. I teach; she teaches; we taught; you taught; he taught; they taught. That’s it. No ‘teached,’ or ‘taughted,’ or ‘taughting’ or ‘teaughted.’ Spanish, however, has not only a variety of different endings, depending who is speaking, but the stem of the verb can change as well.

Further, because the ending already demonstrates whether I, you or they is/are the subject of the verb, the subject is usually dropped. There is no I, you, he or they employed as the subject in everyday conversation, only as an object. Translated literally, an enquiry about whether I’m going to the bakery would be:

“Go to the bakery?”

“Yes, go.”

“Open today?”

“Yes, believe so. Is closed only on Sunday”

It’s not that difficult a principle to learn, once you set out to accept it, but for a long time, it sounds odd. I think Latin has similar constructions, but not French or German. Or English.

Some of my expat friends are relatively fluent in the language. Others are confident despite weak grammar skills; and often, confidence communicates what correct but mumbled grammatical formations would not. Then there are perfectionists like me, who stumble over our desire to ace each sentence.

We learn our Spanish more or less in waves. We develop an ear for it, and gradually begin to tame our obdurate accents; to utter longer vowels, and to place the stress on the ‘wrong’ syllables in words. We go past the present, perfect (past) and future tenses, and begin to use the imperfect, the conditional, and one or two other of the thirteen tenses Spanish has acquired. All with their varying endings and changing stems.

Part of my own plight is that I earned my living for four decades from writing English. I’ve now acquired what’s called ‘survival Spanish,’ and manage most everyday situations. But since I’m used to using a wide vocabulary in my native language, I have to fight frustration when I stumble through three or four Spanish sentences. Irony can be impossible, and humour is notoriously hard to translate. Some days, the words come to me when someone addresses me, and some days I go blank. It can be hard to adopt a positive attitude to a language that constantly poses mystery and frustration.

I tried the teaching at one local school here, run by a woman who was a good-natured martinet. She would have us there three times a week for five hours of instruction, on the immersion theory: if you speak Spanish all day, something will go in. Alas, I would just leave stunned. When I finally squirmed out from under her controlling attitude, it took me months to rebuild the confidence to speak anything more than five-word sentences.

Age of course, is a factor in all this. I said I still had some of my high school French – or I did, until Spanish replaced it. But I learned French, albeit reluctantly, when I was still able to absorb immense amounts of information. I began with Spanish in my fifties, when there’s no learning on the sides, so to speak. I either get it, there and then, or the expression or verb gets lost in the gutters of weak memory.

The reality, for an expat, is that many of us lean on our own community a lot, where we half-guiltily use English. We save our Spanish for the landlord, the grocery store, the waiter or the bus driver, and we often feel envy towards the people who can sustain a spontaneous conversation without effort.

But we don’t give up. We came here, we weren’t dragged, and we appreciate the welcome we’ve received. Speaking in the local language is an obligation but also, despite what I’ve said above, sometimes a pleasure. The whole point of moving to a different country and culture is to experience that culture, and the small successes we have are little triumphs that sometimes we privately celebrate out of all proportion to their actual significance.

But I would love to know how Spanish acquired so many irregular verbs. And do something nasty to the person or people who persuaded the people of Spain to adopt them all.

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