How I Join a Conversation I Don't Understand

by Lauren Simmonds on Thursday, January 24, 2013

Spanish Conversation

I am currently enjoying my Erasmus year in Salamanca, Spain. The friends I've made are mainly of French, German and Dutch orientation. Luckily for me, English is the common language between all of us, so usually when we are together, that is our language of choice. However, every now and then, those of the same nationality speak together in their mother tongue. On several occasions, I have found myself joining in, granted in English or Spanish, with a conversation that began in French, German or Dutch – three languages that I do not speak a word of.

Each time this has happened, I have watched my friends’ confused faces as they realize I have understood them. And almost every time, I have not even realized what I have done. In other words, I have thought that the language I had been hearing, or at least the portion of the conversation that I latched onto, was my own language. If you think this is bizarre, read on to find out the pretty obvious explanation…

Spanish is a Romance language. It has evolved from Latin just like French, Italian and Portuguese. English is a Germanic language and is closely related to Dutch and German.  Already, you can probably see why a native English speaker like me will understand the odd bit of French, Dutch and German. There are two key events in history which explain why Spain and English are so heavily influenced by other languages. These events are as follows: the Norman Invasion of England and the Arab invasion of Spain.

After conquering Spain, the Arabs stayed in Spain for nearly eight centuries so it’s no surprise that they have left an Arab-shaped mark. Here are some Spanish words of Arabic origin that appear in the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy: “Aceite”, “Almohada”, “Aceituna”, “Alfombra”, “Aduana” and “Arroz”. Every time you encounter a Spanish word beginning with the letters “AL”, you can be pretty sure that it has been borrowed from Arabic.

When William of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he bought a new language to London known as Norman French. As reported by Bill Bryson – best-selling author of books on the English language – forty per cent of the English language has been borrowed from Norman French. As a result, the English we speak today is much richer. There is more than one way of saying almost everything: answer/reply, smell/odor, wish/desire etc.

When speaking in English with my friends who all come from different parts of Europe, I often have to re-word a sentence in order that they can understand me. It is moments like this when I realize just how many similarities there are between French, German, English and Dutch. Often I say one word which they do not understand, then swap it for a different word which means the same and they say, “Oh yes, we have a similar word in “French/German/English/Dutch”. Assumedly, this is why I can sometimes understand them when they are speaking in their native languages. There are so many similarities that sometimes I must pick up on a word and subconsciously translate it into English.

Knowing both Spanish and English undoubtedly helps me to understand other European languages. The English word “orange” for example is the same in French (although different pronunciation) but entirely different in Spanish (naranja). Equally, there are some Spanish words which resemble French words. Therefore, as a speaker of both Spanish and English, I have more words in my vocabulary from which to draw comparisons to foreign sounds. 

Keywords: spanish,spanish words,speaking spanish,speak spanish,spanish conversation


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