I know I have written quite a few letters about my adventures with the mysteries of language.  For me, it has been quite a journey so far.  I was raised and educated in middle-America, chose to become British, and now live in Spain.  Right.  First, the whole thing about English.  Upon my arrival in London years ago, it became painfully clear to me that what I thought was English, really isn’t English at all.  Not that either one is right – the real essence of language is that it is simply a way for people to communicate. 

When I was growing up, I was able to communicate with family, friends, and teachers (well, not so sure about my communications ability with teachers, but that is an entirely different thing.  When I moved to England, I was also able to communicate.  But I did discover that there are little nuances that seemed to lurk around, waiting to catch me out.  One of them surfaced the other day when I was talking to Nancy.  I had said that an Aunt was in hospital.  I didn’t say she was in the hospital, only that she was in hospital.  (she is okay by the way, thank you very much).  There are other little variances in how the English language is used between the USofA and the UK. 

One example is that you wouldn't say "I am going to watch rugby."  You would say you were going to watch the rugby. I know that if I said to a British mate ‘are you going to watch rugby on Saturday,’ he would understand.  But because I have always tried to learn how to assimilate into a chosen culture, I try to use the local language of choice.  Which brings me to the fact that whilst I may have chosen to become British, I don’t live in Britain; I live in Spain.

As I have probably said before, I did learn some Spanish in school whilst growing up.  But the Spanish I learnt was more Mexican that proper Spanish.  So when we moved to Spain, I thought I would be completely buggered, but I wasn’t, and it didn’t take that long for me to pick up some of the nuances of the language as it was spoken.  But there was a minor problem…I was living in Barcelona, which although is in Spain, it is actually in Catalunya.  The Catalans are very proud of the fact that they are different and part of this pride manifests itself in their desire to hold on to their own language. 

Catalan (or Catala) does have some commonalities with Spanish, but the key word here is ‘some.’  The same holds true here in Mallorca (where they speak Mallorquin, which is sort of like Catalan on steroids).  The good news is that according to my experience and some data point that I heard, almost everyone understands Spanish (Castellano) and only 75% of them speak their local language. 

So just to expand (or confuse) your understanding of the complexities of language here, I thought I would give you some examples of what I encounter when I leave the house (and then you may understand more why I am content to not go out).  And so you know, I promise not to get into any of the specifics like when to apply unstressed vowels, the correct usage of post-consonantal ‘X’s’, inchoative endings, or the use of medieval nasal plural in proparoxytone words.  (When I read this collection of confusing and barely understandable terms online, I realised that some academics must have way too much time on their hands, which is probably why I almost failed English in school). 

Enough.  On to the examples I have heard since coming to Mallorca…

When apologising, what is often heard includes:

Spanish (Castellano) – Lo siento

Catalan – Perdó

English (UK) – Sorry

English (America) – Yeah, right.

When asking where a bathroom is, you may hear:

Spanish (Castellano) – ¿Donde esta el aseo?

Catalan - ¿On és el bany?

English (UK) – The loo?

English (America) – Gotta pee.

Other language nuances apply to the actual level of speaking.

Spanish (Castellano) – quite animated, usually with some hand movement

Catalan – very animated, usually with hand gestures

English (UK) – soft spoken, not wanting to sound offensive

English (American) – very very loud

Don’t get me wrong.  I do love languages, and I do love to hear them spoken.  But I have never been too big on going to classes to learn a language.  Several years ago I attended a full-immersion French school for several weeks.  No, full immersion does not mean I simply fell into a vat of a nice Bordeaux.  The classes were brutal, but as no one was allowed to speak any native language at any point throughout the day, the full-immersion thing did wonders. 

My French soared and I was able to hold my own in just about any conversation.  Of course when it was over, I flew back to Spain and my French knowledge drained away faster than a good gin-and-tonic on a hot day.  I guess I am content to just surround myself with a new language.  Just hearing the sounds or seeing the words is wonderfully helpful, and I try to read as much as I can in the Spanish media.  I don’t know about everyone else, but this works for me.  I may not understand all the words, but it doesn’t take long to figure out what is being talked about.

So this morning, I was trying to adjust something on my desk telephone (in which all information in the little digital read-out is in Spanish).  After trying just about every combination of button-pressing, I finally thought that perhaps the easiest way to make the adjustment was to first switch the read-out to English.  I pressed the ‘menu’ button and began to scroll through the various options at my disposal. 


After several clicks, there it was – idioma.  Fab.  I clicked on ‘ok,’ and as I began to look for ‘ingles’ I saw ‘Euskara,’ ‘Gellego,’ Valenciá,’ ‘Catellano,’ and ‘Catalá.’  No choice for English.  This meant, of course, that I was totally and completely buggered...but then realised that part of being here is all about exploring and learning.  So, as they say in northern Spain, Txin-txin!


terrace delights


a neighbours roof (garden, so to speak)


my geographical frame of reference


what seems to be my daily weather frame of reference


in front of the house today


Villefranche-sur-mer, where I was fully immersed


the evil phone

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copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, James B. Rieley