It’s Embarrassing Being British Abroad Sometimes!

My whole Spanish experience has been about travelling to and from a week long stay at a retreat in Andalucía. My posts so far have chronicled my experiences of using the Spanish I had specifically learnt for this trip.

For the middle week of my Spanish adventure, I indulged in something different. Time by the pool, lots of vegetarian food and an improvisational comedy course to keep me busy. After 6 hot and sweaty days on the road on a motorbike, I needed a break from my travels.

Fellow guests here were English speakers so I didn’t anticipate using much Spanish. However, even with so many Brits, I had a few “Spanish” experiences that I’d like to share with you before I recount my language experience on my way home.

The Classic British Stereotype

There is a stereotype of British people abroad speaking LOUDER and S-L-O-W-E-R (in English) when trying to communicate with people in another country. For many this stereotype is assumed to only be found in bad soap operas or weak stand up comedy routines.

Well sadly, and perhaps somewhat embarrassingly, those stereotypes exist. They are out there around the world spreading their own brand of British diplomacy. They are deafening and bemusing ordinary natives in other countries as you read this right now.

I might be being disingenuous towards my fellow Brits. This is because I suspect this manifestation of ignorance probably occurs with native English speakers from other countries too.

However, let’s stick to my experience of my fellow countrymen/women.

I saw the LOUDER/S-L-O-W-E-R thing at least twice during my week of R & R.

The most notable occasion had me do a double take when I heard the conversation evolve. It was SO stereotypical with excesses of volume and much more reduced pace that initially I thought someone was being ironic.

Talking Louder And Slower!

The maintenance guy was doing his morning routines on the pool before sweaty blubber began their daily soak. One of the guests decided to progress Anglo-Iberian relations

“H-E-L-L-O   J-U-L-I-O.   W-H-A-T   I-S   T-H-E   W-E-A-T-H-E-R   L-I-K-E   T-O-D-A-Y?”

“I-S   I-T   G-O-I-N-G   T-O   B-E   H-O-T   A-G-A-I-N?

[Even louder!]   I   S-A-I-D   I-S   I-T   G-O-I-N-G   T-O   B-E   H-O-T   A-G-A-I-N?

This person actually thought this form of communication was acceptable! They were completely indifferent and ignorant to the impact they were having. A perfect example of “lecture language.  This is one way communication with no regard for the impact their words have or the appropriateness of their approach.

There was no rapport. Even the body language between them shrieked of the communication barrier being very effectively and rapidly built by my fellow Brit.

Julio just continued with his work, smiled and quietly said “Hará mucho calor hoy”.

It was painful to watch yet so absorbing at the same time. I couldn’t actually believe what I was seeing and hearing. It wasn’t a case of two worlds colliding.  More like two worlds being so far away from each other that they would be at the opposite ends of the universe.

Perhaps the most painful part watching this sort of experience is an implicit assumption.  This assumes that the person being spoken at has a lower level of intelligence just because they don’t speak English.

If the volume and slower rate of speech wasn’t enough it got worse.  Some of my fellow Brits resorted to just shouting simple phrases at (in this case) the Spanish staff looking after us. I am not quite sure what message shouting “Boom! Boom!” every time a particular member of staff appeared was supposed to convey.

But it was a feature of the week.

I Did Manage To Practice Some Spanish

In my own way, I tried to soften the ignorance effect by engaging in Spanish with the staff whenever I could.

I introduced myself to the lady who prepared the fabulous vegetarian food and asked her name. I got to use “Encantado” again. We had a bit of a chat about the limits of my Spanish and how long I had been learning it. Either whe was being kind or she was genuinely impressed with the progress I had made in 4 months.

Later on that evening, I asked her “¿Como se dice…?” And pointed to a piece of carrot cake. I was after the word “carrot” in Spanish. She said the word. I repeated it once and then asked her how to spell it “¿Como se deletrea…?” We talked about something else. And then I completely forgot what the word was. [It is Zanahoria].

Once again, I highlighted a subltle flaw in my approach. By not writing the word down, even after going to the extent of asking how it was spelt, it was lost to me. I had to look it up again as I wrote this.

At some point I shall learn this lesson, because it is not the first time.

I Had Some Spanish Lessons Too

One of the things the retreat offered as part of their package were optional daily 15 minute Spanish lessons. Not wanting to lose out, I thought I would go along and see what else I could pick up. I knew they would be basic, but even so I was sure I would get something out of them.

The lessons were given immediately after breakfast by the Irish lady who managed the resort.

A delightful couple from Windsor joined me for our first lesson which covered basic greetings and questions. There was a handout but we were only given that at the end of the session.

The teaching consisted of listening to a phrase, repeating it and then being told what it meant. After 4 months of applying myself to learning none of what was covered was new to me. However I decided to use the opportunity to remind and refresh what I had already learnt.

What was more interesting to me was watching how it was taught and how my fellow learners managed with the lesson.

Many New Learners Struggle With Pronunciation

Perhaps the thing that stood out the most was how my fellow students, who were completely new to the language, absolutely murdered the pronunciation of each phrase. It was so bad that each phrase was rendered intelligible and therefore completely useless.

Even with some intensive coaching, coaxing and syllable breakdowns from our tutor, this couple found it incredibly difficult to correctly repeat each phrase. To their credit they persisted.

And then halfway through the lesson, we were joined (late) by another guest who’s pronunciation was EVEN worse. To add insult to injury, not only did she arrive late she then dominated the class by asking questions as though the lesson was just for her!

Putting aside my slight annoyance at the intrusion, it is quite easy to see how and why people give up on learning a new language, especially if they are more “mature” in age. There is a huge sense of vulnerability and large doses of being self conscious when trying to get your ears and then your tongue and lips around alien sounds.

But it is possible… If you have the right mindset AND are willing to try and learn from your mistakes.

In 15 minutes the tutor couldn’t really make much of an impact. However what was clear was that just reading out phrases and getting students to repeat them, wasn’t really making much of an impact.

There were only two other lessons over the rest of the week and the couple who turned up for the first one, never got up from their sun loungers by the pool to attend again!

Miss Lesson-Hogger turned up to dominate both classes though and continued to create new (non-Spanish) sounds without ever getting remotely close to even half decent pronunciation.

Maybe I should have stayed by the pool!

At the start of the final lesson my Irish tutor (who could tell I was a little more advanced) asked me a question in Spanish. It was too quick and I didn’t understand it.

I asked her to repeat it and said “Repetir por favor” which she corrected to “repetirlo”. Had I said “puedes repetir por favor” that might have been better. I also asked her to “habla mas despacio”.

She did repeat it and I could hear the words but I couldn’t understand them immediately. Then I recognised the stem of the verb dormir and worked out she was asking me whether I slept well. I don’t recall the rest of the words she used, but I understood and was able to respond with a simple “Muy bien”. Another example of context being king. Sometimes it will work out that way

My Advice To Someone Who Wanted To Learn Spanish From Evening Classes

Over the course of the week, I shared meals with some really wonderful people and we engaged in all sorts of conversations. Invariably some of the conversations drifted onto our relative abilities to speak Spanish.

One lady expressed regret at not having learnt any Spanish for the trip and mentioned she was no good at languages.

She said she intended to go to evening classes to learn when she and her husband returned to the UK. I advised her that she shouldn’t and explained why not:

– In my experience, the courses delivered at night school are designed for teaching the topic in mind, not for learning it.
– Tutors are hampered by the curse of knowledge – they know their stuff but forget how they have learnt it.
– The material covered is a summary of what they know we should know, not the building blocks of how they learnt what they know.
– If you get behind the pace, then it is easy to feel overwhelmed and feel like you can’t learn the language
– Someone else’s curriculum won’t necessary provide you what you need most

I suggested she make her learning self paced and self directed. That has been my approach so far and I have found that to be much more useful and rewarding.

The only trouble is this approach requires a bit more effort in searching out what you want to learn. It is too easy for most just to put themselves in the way of teaching rather than seek out the learning.

Sadly that is the route most will take because that is how our education system has functioned. Of course, it must work because with most people having taken at least 3-5 years of a foreign language as part of the secondary eduction system then there must be millions of bi-lingual people in the UK….

I rest my case.


  • Sylvia marlow

    Feb 7 2018

    Hola! from my USA keyboard without accents…
    A little introduction. We are English, I graduated in French and Spanish way back in 1966, taught French in England, moved to France in 1975, taught English in France, moved to the USA in 1996. We always kept a home in France and since retirement in 1999 have split our time between Florida and Brittany.
    Recently we sold our boat and decided to travel more, both to Spain and South America, so have been learning Spanish. My long-ago Spanish is slowly coming back after 50 years but Guy is starting from zero and finding that French is getting in the way a little.
    We are following the excellent Gordon and Cynthis, plus a more traditional set of classes and other on-line systems for variety.
    I just read your account of the classes at your hotel and it made me wince and laugh at the same time. Having been a language teacher, I’ve seen my fair share of hopeless cases, but also had some delightful ones.
    Carry on your posts! Me gustan mucho. Vamos en Espana en verano et espero que nuestro nivel de espanol sera adecuado para permitirnos de hablar con la gente espanola. Puedo seguir sin demasiado dificultad ‘Los Diarios de Gordon’ et vamos comprar su libro.
    Gracias por tu relato humoristico!

  • Michael

    Mar 13 2018

    Hi Sylvia,

    Great to hear from you. I am mucho envious of you travelling in Spain and South America. I’ve just come back from a trip to Barcelona myself.

    Gordon and Cynthia are doing great things with Spanish and their book is excellent. He’s a great guy and really helpful too when we spoke.

    Keep in touch



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