Thursday, February 11, 2010

Espeaking English

One of the interesting changes that comes from living abroad is what happens to your native tongue, especially when it comes to speaking. I recently listened to some tapes from my first month in Barcelona and a few I recently had to do and I sound like a completely different person, which might explain why people ask me where I'm from every time I visit the states or meet a recently transplanted American.

A lot of it has to do, I think, with the natural evolution that comes from living in a foreign country. In order to be understood, your pace slows and your annunciation improves, colloquial vocab is replaced by more generic words, and contractions tend to become complete verbs. For example, whereas before I might have said, "I'm gonna bounce by my buddy's pad to check out the haps tonight." Now, I'll say, "I'm going to a friend's house to see what's happening tonight." In many ways, it's probably a better and more correct English, although judging by the expressions on my friend's faces back home, it's a foreign way to speak.

What's also happened, I found, is a Spanishization of my English. Gone are many of the niceties and the politeness. There's no more "Would you mind..." or "Could you..." before requests and "What?" is a common response when I didn't catch something instead of "Sorry." The influence of Spanish isn't just reflected in the syntax but also in how I speak. For example, I remember on a flight having a bit of a laugh at the Spanish lady who answered the question, "Coffee or tea?" with "I don't like coffee," to which the flight attendant responded, "That wasn't the question." Yet, I probably shouldn't have because I often find myself now offering personal opinions even when not prompted, likewise for being eager to recommend a great location or give unsolicited advice.

In fact, my friends and family back home have commented on this new willingness to eschew diplomacy for directness, which I guess comes from living in a country where it sometimes seems the national pastime is having a loud, opinionated  discussion. This isn't, of course, a bad thing for it's what makes the place lively and animated, but if there's one thing you can't be in Spain: it's meek when you speak.

I've also noticed the longer I've been here the more English I've forgotten and sometimes forming a basic sentence is a struggle.  Meanwhile, bueno, pues, entonces and nada are universally used for stop gap words when I'm searching for something to say, whether I'm speaking to my Spanish wife or my American mom. Most of my cursing is in Spanish with the odd British English expression thrown in and I make the same mistakes as many Spaniards do such as "more easy," " more better," "take a coffee" etc. Truth be told, listening to myself speak English nowadays, it seems more Spanglish than anything my friends and family speak, the only remains of my American roots being the drawn out vowels and the 'a' for the 'o' as in pot.

But, as I mentioned, this is to be expected when you live abroad, I think. It's not just a new language you learn but also new vocabulary and a different way to speak your native tongue that can make compatriots ask where are you from. Before, I used to try and explain that I'd moved from California to Spain. Now, nearly seven and a half years later, it's easier to say, "Barcelona," to which they almost always reply, "You speak excellent English!"


  1. I'm already starting to say "more better" etc. It doesn't help that my kids seems to be becoming master Spanglish speakers. I suppose I am now to blame, as I am their sole remaining "good english" influence.

  2. Oh, how I yearn for the day when my English skills diminish as my Norwegian improves. Now, it's still only Norwegians who ask where I'm from...

    I do, though, catch myself speaking weird English immediately upon switching from norsk to engelsk. As you write, I find myself speaking much more slowly and, sometimes---to my amazement---with a strange accent. Thanks for this post, as it's comforting to know it's not just me. :-)