When moving abroad to Spain the fact that I wasn’t great at speaking Spanish wasn’t a huge concern for me. Not because I thought everyone would speak English, more that my job would be to teach people to speak English and then away from my job I hoped my girlfriend and I would be able to get by and even progress in terms of our Spanish language skills. That has happened for the most part, albeit frustratingly slowly at times.
I was not a complete beginner when I arrived but I was very close to being one, and I wanted (/still want) to improve which for me has made some situations more frustrating. This post is not intended to form a list of excuses or complaints for my lack of Spanish fluency. The reason my learning Spanish is a slow process is entirely down to me.
And whether I am fluent or not, I still love living in Spain. Why wouldn’t I when this is at the bottom of my street ?
However, I would still like to share some issues or situations that may arise for you upon a move to a foreign country where you don’t speak the native language confidently, or at all.
My apartment in my first year was directly above a supermarket and during every visit, after waiting in a queue so slow my products sometimes passed their sell-by-date, the cashier would ask ‘tarjeta tienes?’- as in did I have the store card. 7 months after my first visit, and around 1 month before I would be leaving the region where the store operated, for some reason I decided it the ideal time to get myself a tarjeta. I asked for it in reasonable enough Spanish (apart from using the word for ‘mobile phone app’ not ‘application form’ ) and at just the right time to cut off the inevitable question. What could go wrong?
I was given a form to complete which they insisted I filled in on the spot despite me sweating profusely when I forgot my mobile number and half of my address. Already regretting my impulsive decision, my two shopping bags full of avocados and Greek yoghurt were callously taken away from me and packed up in some weird box. The same sort men from Asda used to bring to my door in the land where people speak English.
I had unwittingly registered for a one-off home delivery, quite close to the exact opposite of what I wanted, and at the bonus expense of €4. When I realised the confusion I tried to explain as best I could but, perhaps also realising the mistake, the cashier proceeded to speak to me in the fastest Spanish I have heard to this day, resulting in my face looking like this…
My options were; arguing my point and hoping to get the situation resolved, rolling around the floor in tears, or simply accepting defeat. No decision really, so I soon had to undergo the indignity of walking with the delivery guy a whopping 6 metres to my apartment door as he effortlessly carried 1 kg of shopping bags on his little finger, making me feel like a true Hollywood diva. Hollywood divas probably pay less per metre.
The dreaded haircut
In any language getting a haircut is a completely terrifying ordeal where you plan your conversation topics weeks in advance, convince yourself that this time you’re going to ask for that stylish look everyone else seems to have and not just say ‘spot on’ at the end when they show you whatever it is they have done with the back of your head. In a foreign language it’s even more difficult as I haven’t yet studied ‘tapered’ and ‘squared’ sideburns in Spanish, and as I’m not sure what they mean in English it wouldn’t really help.
I’ve had different sideburns with almost every cut, sometimes a beard trim, once a massive fringe, and sometimes my ears set on fire. This despite the fact that I always ask for the same thing, in the same place. Now I know what happened to Beckham and his hair when he was at Madrid…
He probably only asked for a short back and sides each time.
Since first writing this paragraph I have resorted to showing the hairstyle of a famous person and evidently my hair cannot achieve the same look as Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders, nor the dreamy cheekbones.
Undesirable shopping trips
Sometimes in life you have to buy awkward things, and you either buy them online, bury them under more groceries or mutter them quietly to a pharmacist whose daughter was in your class at school. Things in this category include cream for jock itch/piles/thrush etc. If you move to a country with a different language you will still need these goodies on occasion, the Google translation for them won’t have been correct, and you will have to explain the symptoms in broken Spanish or act them out. Just be happy you won’t be buying all three of the examples at once, like ‘my friend’ had to. A game of charades the pharmacist didn’t see coming.
Pais Vasco is famed for its ‘pintxos‘, and these are generally very tasty and popular but can be difficult to order, particularly when you don’t like seafood and your partner is a vegetarian. This ordeal definitely requires a reasonable level of Spanish, confidence and flexibility in a region which sells a vegetarian sandwich containing both ham and tuna! Our orders usually followed this script – ‘Can I have one of those? No, the other one. Not that one no. That’ll do.’ I found with pintxos, more often than not there was a sneaky little anchovy tucked away under other non-disgusting ingredients.
This type of problem commonly occurs at places where similar items are sold alongside one another and it is not possible to point, e.g. a butchers or a bakers. Not that big a deal until your chicken breast baguette is replaced by a horse-meat croissant, with an anchovy inside.
In a fairly similar area is asking in a supermarket for specific or specialised products. For example, I’d been admiring Joe Wicks for a while and fancied making his chocolate overnight oats. I googled ‘cocoa powder’ in Spanish and headed to the supermarket ready to get ripped and hoping I wouldn’t have to ask where it is, but inevitably did. The friendly shop worker then led me to the requested product and it seemed to be an organic, gourmet, free-range, lifetime supply tub for 6 euros. In the UK I would confidently utter ‘I won’t bother actually’ and walk away unperturbed. As I don’t know how to say that in such a casual way in Spanish I felt compelled to buy it, as a reward for the helpfulness of the staff. I’ve since used it once and I am not ripped.
I have found it quite common that wait staff will leave you alone in Spain once you’ve placed your order. This means that I’ve almost never had more than one drink with a meal, because even though I know the words that people recommend shouting in order to get service, I am not comfortable shouting Spanish at someone as I’ll likely say it wrong or it’ll create the impression that I will then be able to confidently order a few more drinks in fluent Spanish with all the right colloquialisms. I would rather be thirsty.
Added to this, one of the words in Spanish to attract attention is ‘oiga’ which sounds too close to the similar sounding impolite way of attracting attention in English, a favoured chat-up line of Mickey Pearce in Only Fools and Horses, and my reluctance to use it often means I am sat waiting for the bill until it’s almost time to have another meal.
Being socially inept
One area that I have had major problems with is when a stranger tries to start a friendly chat in a social situation. The sort of small talk that it would be an odd type of overkill to respond that I don’t speak the local language.
‘It’s very cold today isn’t it ?’ ‘I don’t speak much Spanish’
It’s also frustrating because I do, just not enough to have any banter about the sea or the weather being cold. The other problem being that sometimes I don’t understand their small talk or, if I do, I am limited in where I can take the conversation – essentially the same applies in English, but in English I at least know I will understand everything that is said.
Responding with ‘I don’t speak much Spanish’ feels like a cop-out in this situation but it’s preferable to saying ‘I understand what you said mostly but my Spanish is generally limited to transactional situations or situations that I control, and I have no craic to be chatting about the weather or a place being busy’. It is also less weird than just silently looking at them hoping my brain will learn more Spanish on the spot.
(This problem is actually the most frustrating for me on a personal level and if anyone experiences a similar issue or has tips for how they dealt with this sort of impasse, feel free to share in the comments)
When speaking on the phone, you usually lack some context, and always lack social cues and body language. If you call to get something resolved from a company such as Vodafone, they will speak incredibly quickly and use specific jargon that you are usually not familiar with. It is great to practice the native language, but way more stressful than face-to-face interactions. Many companies naturally won’t have a customer service department that is multi-lingual so it is likely that at some point speaking on the phone will be necessary.
During a family wedding in Barcelona, the large group i was staying with all fancied a Chinese meal to be delivered to deal with their hangovers. In my equally hungover state the prospect of ordering a take-away for around 14 people didn’t do anything for my recovery. Thankfully, my numbers up to 99 are pretty solid in Spanish and the panic was resolved by ordering numerically. Thankfully nobody wanted a dessert or side which would have tested my 100+ numbers.
Disagreements in a second language
When the time came for us to leave the first apartment that we rented in Malaga so that our landlords could charge exorbitant short-term rent to people during the high season, our non-fluency became a bit of a problem once more.
Our landlord did a Jekyll & Hyde on us during her checks of the apartment, accusing us of harbouring or having lost the most pointless of items, i.e. this impressive haul…
The problem on her part was that we hadn’t done an inventory, and the problem this caused for us was that we couldn’t prove them wrong either. After her lengthy diatribe about things being missing or dirty and lack of interest in our responses, I started to feel like a naughty child unable to express myself The fact that I would never welcome such lengthy accusations in my native language, combined with my inability to express how ridiculous their accusations were, led me to announce that all the things she was saying were ‘not my problem’ rather than ‘not my fault’. Cue – raging argument in Spanish. Safe to say that arrangement didn’t end on glowing terms.
This point can be really frustrating when you find yourself having to be submissive due to not being able to explain yourself fully in a secondary language. If you are stubborn like me you’ll likely find yourself dwelling on situations where you let the other person get the upper hand or the last word due to language problems. For example, after reluctantly being drawn into a disagreement with a driver who almost ran me over on a pedestrian crossing, when my stating of the fact the light for me was on green didn’t end the argument like I thought it should have, the driver managed to continue to rant on and thus get the last word. As I had no clue what he said, he emerged victorious until I tagged his arm, said ‘you’re on’ and ran away.
Does anybody have anything they would add to the list that they have experienced whilst living abroad in a country with a different language? Or any solutions to reducing the difficulty of some of these situations? (I know that working harder to learn Spanish will solve most of them – it’s a work in progress!) Please feel free to comment with any language related tales or tips below. Thanks for stopping by.