WHEN I was a young lad in Junior Secondary School, I had a wonderful teacher by the name of Kathleen Hatton.
She was an adorable, hard working creature who had an absolute passion for the Arts. Amongst the subjects she taught were Geography, Ballet for boys and girls (not this boy I’m pleased to say!} , and the English language. One morning I came into the classroom to find that she had written in chalk on the blackboard: ‘The English language is one of the most beautiful in the world.’ I have always remembered this, and so many years later when I discovered that
Miss Hatton was spending her final days in a Nursing Home, I dedicated one of my books, THE CHANDLER’S DAUGHTER, to her. She wrote back ‘Thank you for making my life worthwhile’. I only tell you this story because at the age of 92 Miss Hatton started to learn Spanish, and became, I am told, quite proficient in it.
It has often been said that when it comes to travelling to foreign countries the Brits are the laziest in the world, and in particular when they are going on holiday or settling down as expats in Europe. ‘They should learn to speak English’ says the ill-informed British tourist. Why, I ask? This is Spain where the spoken language is Spanish – Espagnol. But, as we all know there are always two sides to any argument. Let’s face it, if you are five years old your brain is fresh enough to absorb any language or complicated new technology, but if you are of an advanced age it can be a real struggle to take things in, especially if you have taken the brave step to move to another country, like Spain.
What is it about the elderly human brain that positively resists any attempt to try to understand something new? I remember, when I first arrived in Spain, even the sound of the locals speaking the language scared the daylights out of me. It was all so fast, like a machine gun being fired at me. For the next few weeks I tried to make sense of Spanish newspapers, watched with a totally blank mind Spanish television hoping that I would be able to pick out a word here and there that resembled English, and making an absolute fool of myself in a café where I said ‘Buenos noches’ to the waitress at ten o’clock in the morning. Since then, however, my confidence has grown. In Supermarkets I now know how to ask for lamb’s liver and toilet paper in Spanish, but I have to admit that on one occasion my ego took a bit of a blow when, in perfect tourist guide book Spanish I stopped a burly looking road worker to ask him where I could find the nearest men’s toilet. His response was grim and threatening and when he called across a man from the Guardia Civil I soon understood why. ‘I hope it is the hombre’s toilet you are looking for Senor,’ he said with a thick English accent, ‘and not for the Senora?’
I have to say that since I first arrived in Spain fifteen years ago, great strides have been made amongst the British community to get to know the language. Spanish classes have been set up in people’s homes, there are one to one sessions in bars and restaurants, and many of the local authorities are offering free lessons to expats of all ages. And so dear readers, it’s up to us. If we are serious about getting to know the language of our hosts, no matter what our age, it boils down to concentration and perseverance. Not easy. And I should know!