Learning a new language is hard.
In the well known and critically acclaimed film The 13th Warrior starring Antonio Banderas, there is a scene where Antonio is sat around a campfire with the band of merry men he has pledged to accompany, listening to them converse in a language not native to his own. As the scene progresses, a few words in English start to crop up out of the noise. Then a few more. Then even more. By the end of the scene our hero has managed to grasp the complexities of a language he hadn’t heard 10 minutes ago and is laughing and joking along like one of the boys. It’s a really clever scene and a great way to represent how one can grasp a new tongue.
It’s also completely inaccurate.
If I were the star of the 1999 smash hit, then you would still be trapped in your local Odeon watching me sat around what would by now have developed into a large forest fire, as I crane my neck and repeat for the thousandth time, “I’m sorry, one more time”.
I have been staying in the Kuklucan & Friends hostel in Cancún for four days now. It’s a lovely, homely place that feels more like staying at an aunts house rather than a hostel. The matriarch of this establishment is a kindly bespeckled woman who speaks about four words of English, but each one comes with a beaming, motherly smile and a comforting warmth behind the eyes.
My fellow residents all hail from Latin America or the parts of Europe where they bypassed the British school of foreign communication of “speak slower and louder” and actually bothered to learn the language. The conversations therefore are free-flowing and boisterous and inevitably come with a distinct lack of my input.
As I sit around the scrubbed wooden table in the kitchen at breakfast or dinner time, listening to everyone laughing and getting to know one another, I feel less like Antonio Banderas and more akin to a fairly intelligent dog; like a Labrador or a Husky. As I sit wide-eyed and eager, my gaze flitting from mouth to mouth, there are a few key words programmed in my mind that set off a trigger of familiarity. My head cocks, my proverbial tail wags and I congratulate myself internally; but on the whole the nuances of the conversation elude me.
The irony of this analogy is not lost on me as I watch the hostel dog Coffee, a chocolate Labrador, trudge into the room and collapse on the coolest tiles. Why her name is Coffee and not Café – the Spanish word for coffee – when her owner doesn’t speak any English, I have decided is a mystery for better minds to solve.
As she lays there struggling in the heat I feel a bead of sweat crawl down my own clammy back and she looks at me through the torrent of rapid-fire Spanish as if to say, “tell me about it”. I almost see her eyes roll.
Back in no-mans land I muddle through these conversations with my slowly improving ear and dictionary apps – yes plural – open on my phone, and I reckon I understand about 20% of what is said. A fact I consider a resounding victory over my Duolingo app which only concedes that I am 2% fluent in Spanish.
I am helped in part by our resident chef and chief English speaking member of staff, Jesús, a quintessential Mexican man who has added carrots to this mornings breakfast of eggs on toast because he found a bag of them on the floor during his morning walk.
My other guide through this linguistic maze is an Argentinian man I befriended on my first night, and I have definitely become the Hose B to his José. N.B. His name is actually José, I haven’t just shoehorned that joke in there.
José’s English is slightly better than my Spanish and between the two of us we can manage a pretty decent conversation. We’re teaming up for a week as we happen to be going the same way; I’m helping him with his English and he helps me with my Spanish, plus handles all the interactions with locals/vendors/drivers and is pretty much the reason I haven’t got lost or robbed yet. It’s a solid partnership, if not slightly one-sided.
José’s tuition however should be taken with a pinch of salt. As I have learnt from half understood conversations – well one-fifth understood if you want to be pedantic – Argentinian Spanish is actually quite different from Mexican Spanish in many pronunciations and in some cases entire words.
An example of this being the oft-used Spanish soft “y” sound, is an Argentinian hard “j”. So “the beach” – la playa – becomes pla-ja. This makes the experience a bit like trying to learn the Queen’s English from a Geordie, or an Irish traveller. I’m getting the gist but for a lot of the things he teaches me, I have to reverse-engineer through a system of translation apps and half-remembered GCSE lessons.
I do very much enjoy my one-fifth of the conversation that I can take part in and am slowly working to expand my slice of the lingual pie. But as I sit in this group of jovial native speakers trying to snatch a semblance of meaning from the fast flowing conversation, fingers dancing over my smartphone; a part of me is fully coming to terms with the possibility that I may never leave this campfire.
Ah well, move over Coffee you’re hogging all the good tiles.