As part of my language learning activities, I sit in the local bar once a week and scour the local papers for news and photos of politicians I might recognise. This process of gradual familiarity with local faces, names and places in the news sets up future reference points for conversations.
Yet, if I am honest, regular fluency in this language is still on the far distant horizon. True, there were days in which I slide euphorically along the motorway of fluency, and then there were days when I stagger drunkenly into the side-lane of incomprehensibility. Try as I may to work out the why´s and wherefores, the more I analyse, the less I learn.
So I tell myself I must read more, talk more, listen more, study more...setting unachievable goals and ever extending to-do lists. For that is the way of languages: There is no end, there is no arrival point. Although there are moments when word order and conjugation appear fleetingly to have been embraced. One such moment was the day Mr. Fish Beard came to town.
ACCENTS AND THE LOCAL FLAVOUR OF LANGUAGE
One of the 'Seven Fathers' of the Spanish Constitution visited my town a few years back. He came to receive the Ibn al-Jatib annual award for cultural and social services to the country. Gregorio Peces Barba (or Gregory Fish-Beard in English) was an important lawyer and defender of many civil rights cases in Spain after the prolonged death of the Great Tortilla Dictator.
At times arrested, other times simply forbidden to practise law, Gregorio was eventually recruited by the new fledgling state to participate in the creation of the new Constitution during the traumatic post-Franco period. Later, he was asked to be a minister in the Felipe González government of the early 1980´s, but he declined and instead took the role as President of the Congress of Deputies (Leader of the House).
In 2004, Peces Barba was named as the High Commissioner for the support of terrorist victims during which he received much criticism from the conservative Partido Popular (PP) who portrayed him as someone partial towards the Governments (PSOE) view and not that of the victims. This arose after he refused to join a demonstration against the government (a demonstration organised by a group that had aligned themselves with the Partido Popular).
In short, Fish-Beard was a heavyweight: A man of great depth, courage, opinion and foresight. So when he rolled into town, I was there to listen to his speech. First on stage though came another speaker: Carlos Derqui del Rosall.
DR HOUSE AND THE EXTRA SET OF EARS
Carlos Derqui del Rosall was a local doctor who gave a long and anecdotal story of his life, told in a deep and (to me) unintelligible Granadino accent. I tried to enjoy his contribution to the evening, but experiencing one of my frequent fits of audible incompetence, it was as though I was watching a Chinese film and someone had selected the wrong subtitles. I understood nothing. I found myself drifting off into a fantasy world where I would be conversing not with Dr Rosall, but instead with Dr House. We discussed the pros and cons of surgical help and Dr House told me nothing short of an ear donation from a native speaker will overcome my difficulties with this local accent. I nodded in agreement and fondled my ears, wondering where exactly he would place the extra set.
Suddenly, I was shaken from my reverie by the real Doctor staggering back into his chair and old Fish-Beard himself rising to his feet. He staggers over to the microphone and I listen to his story in detail, before realising I´m understanding almost every word. Instinctively I reach out a hand in search of an extra ear, but find only my old and faithful set
As Gregorio spoke of his background in Madrid, I realised that my listening difficulties are partially related to the idiosyncrasies of this local drawl, and my geographical choice of town has played, and continues to play, more than a minor part in this eternal struggle with the Iberian tongue. Then suddenly he is finished, and I find myself applauding Gregory not so much for the content of his life but rather the manner of his speech. I wondered what it would be like to live amongst people who spoke that way all the time.
Gregorio Peces Barba died July 24th 2012.
(This is an abridged version of the Chapter on language leaning approaches in the book Inside the Tortilla.)