Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Musings Near The Med

I don't seem to be getting any happier about the idea of regularly (well, once a year) being flown off to various European locales so I can fail to understand the most basic of directions, but since it keeps happening, I might as well continue to offer my half-baked and entirely uniformed thoughts on the process. Think of it as the Rough Guide To Europe, as written by Oscar the Grouch.

This is my second time in Spain, indeed the first time I've ever returned to a country I wasn't born in (well, there's Scotland, I suppose), and my problem with it remains. My time in Madrid gave me the distinct impression that it was the least English-proficient country I've visited (currently it competes with Germany, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic), and so far a data set of exactly four people suggests that this is just as true in Andalusia. I fully realise that English people complaining that others haven't bothered to learn their language is bad and wrong and makes me a bad person who is wrong, but I don't have to like it. Even my contact at the University, who is in all ways lovely - though he does look like a Spanish Hans Landa, which means I get nervous every time he asks me a seemingly innocuous question - has a fairly shaky grasp of English, which made trying to figure out what exactly my set-up is pretty difficult. He seems to be one of those people whose vocabularly vastly outstrips their grammar (I once met the foremost authority on Shakespeare in all of China, and he had the same problem, though he may simply have been resisting the urge to tell us we were all a bunch of malthorses and coxcombs). Nothing wrong with that, of course, and you have to be impressed with someone who can't understand "How far is it from my residence to the department", but can apologise for having sent me a picture of himself that makes his face seem "less elongated" than it should be.

Ultimately, the situation seems to have been resolved. I have a nice little flat (which is closer to a hotel room, in truth), on the third floor of a strangely featureless building about 5km from the department (I have decided, perhaps unwisely, to attempt to walk it tomorrow; just to get my bearings), and nestled within a labyrinth of narrow streets that I am assured are entirely safe until around 2am. Food is acquired by the strange process of being issued food tickets from reception and taking them to a nearby cafe. This gains one a fairly impressive three course meal with beer and coffee, though that's counteracted somewhat by the beer coming in a wine glass, the coffee in something best described as a shot glass for Wookies, and tonight's "soup" proving to be some kind of seafood concoction halfway between a Dickensian broth and a shellfish battleground. It was like watching Ronald D Moore attempt a gritty, contemporary remake of Sharkey and George.

So here I am, sitting in my new place, and listening to people on all sides sing at me. Again, this is based upon very little data, but it doesn't seem five minutes go past in this place without someone starting up a gusty singalong. The tunes themselves most closely resemble what Hollywood would insist was a gusty Viking drinking song, albeit with a bit of Latin flavour, like something Antonio Banderas might have belted out during The 13th Warrior (yes, he was playing an Arab in that, but he wasn't really doing it very well). It's... unusual, to say the least. Hopefully it will stop in time for me to get some sleep.

More soon, assuming I'm neither poisoned or mugged, lose my way tomorrow, or finally manage to deliver an academic talk so gut-wrenchingly awful I am sentenced to death.


Chemie said...

You are indeed a bad person.

Academics inevitably read and hear English better than they speak it. They have very little opportunity to speak English in conversation. And their active language rarely includes everyday vocabulary (doesn't mean they don't know it, it's just passive). Just watch how fast they improve after a few hours of speaking to a native speaker. Also Native English speakers are a nightmare to understand - did you really use the word 'residence'? Poor Spanish Hans Landa.

Enjoy your seafood soup and join in the singing!

SpaceSquid said...

Actually Spanish Hans Landa speaks the lingo better than he understands it. And for the record, he used the word 'residence', so I figured it best to copy.

Regardless, the point here is not that non-native speakers should be better than they are, just that so far Spanish people (academic or otherwise) are right at the bottom of the pile. Sure, this is entirely my problem, but it's also entirely my blog. So there.

Midget_Yoda said...

I would like to nominate America (well, at least parts of the mid-West) as the least competent Anglophones.

I once spent 9 months there and on multiple occasions had to resort to *writing things down* to make myself understood. And no, I don't have an especially pronounced speech defect nor a particularly broad accent, nor even was I talking to someone for whom "English" was not a first language...

Good luck with the Aquatic broth and enjoy the rest of your visit.

Tomsk said...

Squid - as a counter-anecdote I give you my recent trip to Barcelona, where everyone I met spoke excellent English. Thought that might just be a calculated Catalonian snub to the central government...

More generally if anyone's bottom of the pile it's us. In my experience at conferences and elsewhere, the non-native speakers are much better at making themselves understood in English *to the whole audience* than native speakers. Native speakers often talk too fast, use too many colloquialisms, speak with too strong an accent, etc. - not because they mean to be incomprehensible, just because it's the way they naturally talk. I plead guilty to this myself on numerous occasions (I'm still not very good at it). Which is not to say that native speakers can't give good talks in English to an international audience, it's just that they need to learn how to do it properly.

German academics I know would on the whole prefer to hear a Spanish speaker, say, giving an English talk than an English speaker. Which is a pretty damning indictment when you think about it. International English is not the same as native English, and we're awful at it.

SpaceSquid said...

I have no problem believing that objectively speaking we're terrible at communicating with anyone other than native speakers. I'm still getting the hang of presenting talks to anyone but my fellow Brits.

Of course, it doesn't really help when surrounded by people who you can't communicate with to remember how much harder it would be for them were the roles reversed.