Can I borrow that…?

Posted by on February 17, 2010

© GettyA while back, I was lucky enough to spend some time living in South America. As anyone who has lived abroad knows, it can be a mind-expanding (and mind-blowing!) experience, immersing yourself in a completely different language and culture.

What surprised me though, was how hard it was to go back to speaking just English when I got home, given that it’s my native tongue, and I’d spoken it for more than 30 years.  I’d only been in a primarily-Spanish-speaking environment for a year, and yet it seemed that one language was no longer enough for me.

I found myself constantly swapping between Spanish and English, sometimes in error, but often because mixing the two just seemed to allow for more direct or elegant communication. Saying encargarse, for example, sounded more to the point than take responsibility for; and sobrevivir and superar seemed somehow more poetic and powerful than survive and overcome.  Yet there were many other instances where English offered the more straightforward or descriptive solution; overnight rather than de la noche a la mañana (literally ‘from the night to the morning’), or being able to use an apostrophe to show possession, instead of needing several words, e.g. George’s shoe not el zapato de Jorge (literally ‘the shoe of George’).

This is, of course, the way language borrowings or loanwords come about – people begin using a ‘foreign’ word and over time, it gradually becomes part of regular speech.  Words like macho and guerrilla are just a couple of examples of Spanish words that are now commonplace in English.

For me, though, there were also things that I had only experienced in a Spanish context, and which I struggled to bring into my English world, for example, Harry Potter. I’d started reading the books in Spanish a couple of years earlier, to improve my vocab, and I’d just carried on. But then someone gave me The Order of the Phoenix in English – I was stuck! To me, the whole story existed in a Spanish frame, and it made no sense talking about broomsticks and wands – they were escobas and varitas. And who on earth was You Know Who – oh, you mean Quien Tú Sabes!

Even now, having been back in the UK for several years and read the final three books in English, the Harry Potter story still essentially exists for me in Spanish – many of the key words and phrases have, for me, become loanwords. My niece, born a few months after I got back to the UK, happily answers to the nickname chica (‘girl’), without having any real idea of where it comes from, and she’s now started using it on other people too. Chica has become a well-recognised ‘borrowing’ within my family, and I think the ability to grow and change is one of the things that’s so much fun about language, whichever one you choose.

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Comments (2)
  • I was delightful reading your text.
    Thanks

    Posted by Miriam on 17th February, 2010
  • Dear Sharon,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences before a new language learning.
    It’s very interesting to reflect on your article from different angles.
    I would like to focus on the aspect of “immersing yourself in a completely different language and culture”. In my view, the new language environment tends to be overwhelming, of course. At the beginning, it’s common to exist some “swapping” between the new language and our native language. But gradually our mind is getting used to the new language frames, and it starts processing every part of speech, I think. At this step it occurs some sort of “discovery” that ends up fascinating us…
    I still remember some particular words that fascinated me when I travelled to Britain for the first time in 1980, and stayed there for two weeks or so . Words like “gorgeous”; “absolutely fabulous”… still echoe in my mind .
    Best wishes,
    Maria

    Posted by Maria do Céu Costa on 18th February, 2010
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