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The Music Maker

Conversation stopper

Are you frustrated with your attempts to learn the Spanish language? Do you find that every time you try to engage in a conversation with a local, you get a reply in English? This is Peter Edgerton's experience...

Friday, 15 March 2024, 17:13

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On a fairly frequent basis, a dejected-looking person will slump at the bar in the pub and avail anyone within earshot of their frustrations regarding their attempts to learn the Spanish language. They'll say that they're really doing their best but every time they try to engage in a conversation with a local, they'll get a reply in English.

The trouble is, a good number of the Spanish people that a foreigner comes across on a day-to-day basis will be working in jobs which pay the minimum wage and will only have been convinced to take the post because 'there'll be a great opportunity to practise and improve your English'. It's probably the highlight of their first day of employment to see a ruddy-faced chap in a baseball cap shuffle in, looking vaguely confused by his surroundings, grappling in vain with a bum-bag. Imagine the bitter pang of disappointment, then, when his opening gambit is 'Hola'.

When I first arrived in Malaga, I felt it was really important for me to speak as much of the language as possible in order to pick it up quickly. Unfortunately, having been dubiously blessed with features that couldn't be more British if I'd had a union flag tattooed on my forehead at birth, I was constantly faced with the problem of everyone talking English to me at every available opportunity. It was often a battle of wills – two gunslingers in a one-horse town eyeing each other suspiciously, seeing who would be the first to flinch. I'd always play the first card.

"Hola."

"Hello." (Dammit).

"Qu...i..er..o un..a cer..vez..a, por fa...vor."

"Of course, sir. Which would you like, draught or bottled?" (Dammit again - her English is a million times better than my Spanish. I'll have to up my game. There's only one thing for it - I'll have to employ the nuclear option: the one complicated phrase I know, learnt by heart for just such an occasion).

"Desafortunadamente, he dejado mi cartera en casa y tendré que volver para buscarla."

Your rival is shocked by your language skills and has no choice but to reply in Spanish. You have no idea what she says but you sense victory, whip out your wallet, wave it in the air and slap your forehead in the time-honoured 'silly me, it was in my pocket all the time' style. For the rest of the evening the vanquished, deflated waitress talks to you in Spanish and you smile, nod and point at things as if you have a clue what she's going on about until, some time later, you leave feeling pretty pleased with yourself.

Not for long, though. In your heart, you know it was a Pyrrhic victory – your Spanish is no better than it was when you first walked in and the burden of guilt that you carry, knowing that it would have been much kinder and more productive to let the lovely girl practise her English for a while, is almost too much to bear.

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