We all learned how to communicate at an early age, expanding and refining our vocabularies as we mature. That refinement allows us to gain confidence in our original language. Nonetheless, while studying abroad most people lose that selfassurance as they try to relay their needs in another language.
I, on the other hand, grew up with Spanish as my first language and thus I have experienced a completely different sensation of misplacement studying abroad and living in Madrid. Communicating with Madrileños (or “people from Madrid” in Spanish) in Spanish is first nature, although asking for directions is just as awkward as it is in English. The toughest part isn’t the language barrier, but the fact that I speak Spanish differently than everyone else.
Spain Spanish is filled with it’s own colloquial sayings and emphasizes on specific syllables. Even travelling outside of Madrid north or south the accent changes. Spaniards often pronounce their “z” and “c” like the “th” sound we make in English. Meanwhile, I, along with most Latin Americans, was taught to pronounce those letters with as “s” sound. The Spanish “j” is also quite pronounced, with a noise coming from the throat rather than a soft elocution like in Latin America. There is even a whole new grammatical person in Spain: the “vosotros” or “you all” (second person plural) that is just the “ellos” or “they” (third person plural) form in most of Latin America. Let’s not forget the copious amounts of words in Spain that mean something very different in Latin America and vice versa.
These few, yet noticeable, changes in articulation have a great impact on the everyday conversations I have. I may not be stuttering my every word or talking at too slow of a pace, but the moment I speak I can see them trying to place me. Usually they can’t, as I have basically neutralized my accent. People will usually ask me where I’m from right off the bat, guessing my ethnicity from a range of Venezuelan to Chilean (both of which are wrong, as I am of Colombian and Ecuadorian descent). At this point, I have noticed, many Spaniards try to emphasize their way of speaking even more than they did in the beginning of a conversation. It’s almost as if they feel the need to dominate the conversation, or present their form of speaking in a greater light. Personally, I think that it makes them seem silly and pompous; however, it is a well-known stereotype that Spaniards, indeed, are a proud people.
This is where it gets tricky. The old adage, “If you can’t beat them, join them” comes to mind. I’ve been wracking my mind deciding if I should embrace the Spanish style of speaking. I know how to change from “s” sounds to “th” sounds, but is that rude? Will the people that I talk to think that I’m mimicking them? Yes, it would help in the process of communication, and it would be part of the whole “full immersion” concept, but is it worth it? My parents repeatedly joked that they would “disown” me if I came back “lisping and spitting” when I speak. Now that it is a reality though, it is has become an actual concern. It may be ridiculous to worry about something so slight, but to someone that cares so much about language, it is. I don’t plan on changing my accent completely, but also think that maybe a little change won’t hurt.
Story by Steven Venegas and photo by Allison Everett