Schoolboy French proves useful – in Spain

school

Cray Valley Technical High School where I was a pupil from 1964 to 1970.

It was back at the end of April and beginning of May that my wife Lisa and I flew to southern Spain to look at properties that we might choose to buy and make our home.

In fact, it was only the second that we saw that, as soon as we went inside, we both agreed ‘this is for us’. I have often heard people say that while house hunting they knew instantly when a property was right for them. I had always dismissed such stories as nonsense – until it happened to the pair of us.

Having found our dream home so quickly, and much faster than we thought was possible, we suddenly found ourselves with much more time on our hands than we expected. Time that was not to be wasted but enjoyed. Nine days of glorious sunshine. Beautiful.

There was one little difficulty, the language. Lisa learned some Spanish at school but, not having used it since, has forgotten most of it. And my knowledge didn’t exist. I have no memory of Spanish being offered as a subject in my school. I spent five years learning French to no real level of success.

But one evening what I could recall of my schoolboy French proved invaluable.

We were sitting in a lovely restaurant with the Mediterranean Sea just a few yards away – and I do mean a few, no more than 15 yards I’d say. On arrival we had been greeted by a young man and shown to our table. I could already say ‘hello’, ‘two’ and ‘thank you’ in Spanish but that was about the extent of my vocabulary at the time.

Well, once we looked through the menu and made our choices, the same young man returned to take our order. Mine was easy, I just pointed to the dish on the menu. Lisa, however, wanted to know how the vegetables, provided as part of her meal, were cooked. She hoped they would be fried.

I tried to ask but the young waiter spoke as little English as I then spoke Spanish. In other words, the communication between us was not very good. Actually, that is an understatement, our level of mutual understanding was non-existent.

At that point, either as a brilliant idea or out of pure desperation and I think it was the latter, he said “Parlez vous Français?” Really, I should have said ‘Non’ but I didn’t and my lessons of 1964 to 1969 came back in bits and pieces.

I replied, in faltering French, that I could speak and understand a little – but slowly. He understood, we had established a level of communication. I managed to ask in as much French as I could muster, the question that Lisa needed to be answered. I recall using the words ‘legumes’ and ‘frite’ but the rest is a blur. The first bit of good news was that he understood and the second was, having checked with the chef, he returned to say that they were indeed fried.

So, being reassured on that point, Lisa ordered the dish she had chosen and we both proceeded to thoroughly enjoy a great meal.

As that was the only way the waiter and I could understand each other, the French language needed to be used several times before the meal was over and, as we made our way back to the car, I thought of the effort my French teacher had put in, 50 or so years ago.

Thanks, Mr Reader, I may have failed the Spoken French part of the GCE (year 10) examination but your work was not wasted after all.

¿Puedes hablar español? Not yet but I am learning

abc_frontpageA 2009 front page of ABC newspaper in Spain

Preparing for our move to Spain is much more than packing the belongings we want to take with us, it is also about getting ourselves ready to live there.

In fact, there is such a long list of things that need to be done before we leave that I have created a spreadsheet. Using this, we can keep track of what needs to be done with a planned date for it to be actioned and when each item was actually completed. Organised or what?

One entry that is not there, however, is one that we have already started, will continue right up to the day we leave and carry on even after we arrive at our new home.

I am talking about learning to understand and speak everyday conversational Spanish.

If we had chosen to move to a tourist area, we would have probably been able to get by in English alone but we wanted a different lifestyle, we wanted to live in an area in which, when we go to the nearest village, we would need to speak Spanish.

Now, anyone who knows me well would be aware that, other than English, my language skills are pretty limited. Learning languages is not something I ever found to be easy.

I studied French for five years at school only to have it give me up as a lost cause when I failed the spoken French exam, age 16. I think that the main problem was that I could not learn to think in French so I had to translate the question into English in my head, think of the answer and, hopefully, translate that answer into French. All that took too long, it was hopeless.

It was a similar tale with learning Welsh. Although I understood some of what I heard, I only ever learned to say a few words. Interestingly, though, one day when I was working as a journalist for the Caernarfon Herald two of my colleagues were talking to each other in the newsroom. I heard Eryl ask Neville a question to which he did not know the answer. I did, so I happily told them what it was.

There was silence. I had looked back at what I was doing but quickly looked up again to see two surprised faces. I didn’t know why until one of them said that they had been speaking in Welsh. I had understood the gist of their conversation without even considering the language and had then given the answer they needed but I had spoken in English.

Learning Spanish has, so far, proved easier than either French or Welsh but there is much still to learn and we will have to wait and see how it works in practice. One big advantage when learning Spanish is that its grammar, its sentence construction is very similar to English.

The development of my Spanish language skills may be at a very early stage but I am already feeling encouraged by my progress so far.

  • The Spanish in the heading reads ‘Can you speak Spanish?’