Sunday, 16 November 2008

"Hablas muy bien español!"

Today I am back in Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, after a couple of days in Valledupar, a city a few hours inland from here.

I had planned by now to be on the second day of a six-day trek to la Ciudad Perdida (aka The Lost City - aka the sight of Matthew Scott's infamous kidnapping in 2003 - don't worry - security has improved drastically since) but the trek has been delayed basically because my Irish friend Jenny and her mates were still on their way here from Cartagena. So, at a loose end for the weekend, I decided to take up an offer from a Colombian girl I had met on a bus last week to visit Valledupar. I made this choice largely because of (not in spite of) the fact that Valledupar gets not one word of mention in my Lonely Planet guidebook. Not one. And it has a population about the size of Edinburgh.

My choice was rewarded by an authentic couple of Colombian days. Previously (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday morning) I had been in Taganga, a tiny village stuffed to the brim with western backpackers and - I would estimate - more budget hostel space than the whole of Edinburgh. In Valledupar I saw not one westerner. Not one. Even in the "touristy bits", which included - amongst no others - a pretty river and an impressively large main square.

I was quite pleased too to spend the whole time talking in Spanish with my new friend Jessica, her mates and the family she was living with.

For the past month and a half I have been - depending on the people I meet - varying between days of speaking almost entirely English, days of speaking entirely Spanish, and days of hardly speaking at all. (Estimated respective distribution: 50-35-15%).

I've found that my level of spanish in this time has oscillated considerably. Some days (or hours) my tongue feels completely tied and I make tons of mistakes and forget words. Other hours (or days) it all flows off the tongue readily and I have no difficulty. In general, though, my level has dropped quite a bit from the high of 2003. I have forgotten some words; I hear myself making mistakes but can't avoid them in time; I speak a bit slower on the whole; Colombian Spanish is tricky for me to understand.

The measuring stick for how well I speak is how often people complement me on my spanish. The more I hear "You speak very good Spanish" the worse I am speaking. If I'm not complemented at all, I know I'm on good form.

This rule of thumb rests on the following assumption: you only complement someone on their language if they a) speak to an acceptable level and b) sound like they need encouragement. If someone simply speaks a language, there is no need for you to remark on it, beyond perhaps: "Where did you learn to speak Spanish?"

I was pleased that over the course of the weekend and several hours' conversation, only once did I get the "Hablas muy bien!" treatment, and once I was able to pass as a native of Bogotá to a cab driver in order to keep the cost of the fare down. (Admittedly Jessica did almost all the talking in the cab.)

I've now set myself up to be vaguely studious with my Spanish, after the past weeks of simply staying still with it, practising but not improving. I'm reading García Márquez (the price which I haggled down with an elderly bookshop owner in a part-excahnge deal. After our chat about South American literature, he even commented on the irony of a white man negotiating a deal with a Colombian to save a few pesos on the cost of a Márquez novel. A classic moment which I'm only faintly ashamed of) and I'm making notes on the words I don't know.

But still, in keeping with the rythms that have built up in my trip of the last two months, I'm looking forward to a few days of just English. Yin and Yang.


Richard Smith said...

I like your observation on getting no compliments when you're speaking Spanish especially well. It's probably true in many other contexts as well, although I'd never heard the idea before. It's amusing that you get mixed up between compliment and complement: maybe you'll have to take an English course when you get home.

Jamie said...

Smithcito, I wholeheartedly agree with your comments on being complimented on your Spanish. Any time it happened to me i had to spit out a mumbled "gracias" through gritted teeth.

Re: Colombian Spanish. For me, the most difficult to understand in the entire continent, closely followed by the express train Chileans. Black Spanish on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is nigh on impossible.

Loving the Garcia Marquez stuff. Have you got to the islands i told you about yet?

In other news, cage cricket and football continues in earnest despite the weather. In a day for the real aficionados, Sunday saw a windswept and rain interrupted game of 10 10 with fallen leaves on a good length adding to the intrigue.

Oh yeah, and your place in the side is under threat......