Thursday, 24 March 2011

Not quite so lost in translation

It is probably ironic that despite considering myself as something of a linguist, this is the second experience I have had in my adult life of moving to take up residence in a country in which I do not -or at least on arrival did not at all- speak the local language. Obviously this has added to the spice in both cases though the first time around I was in the process of having babies and had even less time to dedicate to intellectual pursuits. Now that both children are at school and nursery respectively at least for a few hours a day I have no excuse so have made a positive effort to get my head around Spanish which is a challenge and a stimulus. Oddly enough after having been here for a few months my ears were automatically making some kind of fine tuning adjustment and I found myself suddenly understanding a good deal more than I had at the very beginning, though my own stilted efforts were still ungrammatical and graceless. Now that I have officially started a course of lessons it is as if the fog is gently but steadily lifting as things which were previously totally incomprehensible suddenly crystallise into intelligible sound. So that's what they've been saying all this time... if only I'd known before, it would have been so much easier. Chilean Spanish is however notoriously full of slang and with a heavy accent so perhaps it isn't the best place to learn good Spanish. As luck would have it my teacher is Argentinian so speaks far more clearly than most Chileans do anyway, though of course she has promised to teach me "proper" Spanish including local and wider usages. So far I have been amazed to discover that South American Spanish differs greatly from the Spanish spoken in Spain not only in its pronunciation (which was obvious even to me) but also in quite basic and general grammar and usage. I suppose this shouldn't surprise me as British English and American English are two quite different languages but somehow I wasn't expecting it would be the same for Spanish, though if one really thinks about how the language was brought over the Atlantic a few hundred years ago the situation is of course incredibly similar. South American Spanish seems to be a simplified version of its European counterpart: not only have entire sounds disappeared but tone and register have become homogeneous too in order to facilitate communication. For example, the second person plural form of all verbs in all tenses and moods has vanished into thin air and now is interchangeable with the third person plural. Apparently children at school are taught the correct part of the verb which is still in current and correct usage in Spain but which they will never ever need or encounter in South America. Perfectly ordinary and everyday vocabulary in the Spanish spoken in Spain is considered here at best antiquated and at worst at times vulgar or offensive. Thank goodness someone has been kind enough to point this out... As it is the pitying looks I get from other mothers, nannies and the world at large are enough to get me scurrying for my textbooks. At DD1's school the problem is not so serious as the school is officially bilingual thus the teachers at least are supposed to speak English, although in practice DD1 says a lot of communication goes on in Spanish (which is of course a bonus for her to pick up another language). However at DD2's nursery it has been harder to follow what exactly is going on though I must say they have been very patient with both her and myself so far. As far as I can gather she is enjoying the activities on offer once she is there and seems to be able to follow though maybe doesn't say that much... Judging from the diary and timetable DD2 is taking part in maths and computer "lessons" as well as art, language, music and movement but as I said what this actually entails at age 3 is not completely clear...yet. What is interesting is the fact that she needs to take a sponge bag complete with toothbrush, toothpaste, comb and cologne with her every day despite the fact that she doesn't even stay for lunch. When I questioned whether this was really necessary I was told it was to encourage good habits in the children after their mid-morning snack, so I put together a small sponge bag for her as instructed, but minus the cologne which DD2 does not yet possess nor, in my view, need. Now when I pick her up often her hair has been neatly combed and even wetted to tame her unruly curls, and today she was even giving off the not unpleasant scent of something which one of the well-meaning "tias" must have doused her with...

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