A Canadian Abroad
Updated: May 21, 2020
25 April 2018. We finally landed in Madrid. But the horrendous journey was not yet over. There was still the fight to get off of the plane and out of the airport. My almost-three-year-old had proven to be a treacherous traveller, and I had had more than my hands full. He had fallen asleep in my arms before we even embarked in Amsterdam, and now on the tarmac in Madrid, he couldn’t understand why we were already disembarking. To my surprise and overwhelming relief, as soon as we left the secured area in Madrid-Barajas and found my son's grandparents, Andy took his grandfather’s hand as if he’d spent every day with him since birth.
My Spanish improved in leaps during that two month stint in Spain. It wasn't just a matter of learning more vocabulary or finally feeling at peace with the subjunctive. Customs, norms, traditions, and even the themes within life itself differ between communities and thus affect language usage. As such, words are not the only difference in a foreign language. The real challenge is the message, the expression, and the feelings—those allowed and expressed versus those denied and supressed—therein lie the real differences. And as a foreigner, expressing the correct feeling in the correct manner at the correct time is the essential cultural-linguistic lesson.
There are many things that can’t be translated; moreover, there are many things that shouldn’t be translated. For example, “sorry,” a word commonly used by Canadians, can’t be translated because of the Canadian-Spanish cultural factor. The Spanish simply don’t say “sorry,” nor do they ask for things in what we would consider a polite manner. Instead, you will hear dame un café (“give me a coffee”) or ponme una tapa (“give me a tapa”). During my Spanish grammar class in Salamanca, a Chinese student tried to translate “I would like” to politely request something in a bar or restaurant. The professor reacted violently to this, exclaiming that “you just don’t say it that way in Spanish.” It took a long time for me to harden my Canadian sentiments to these facts. In these situations, I have often been left feeling offended, awkward, misunderstood — feelings I don’t know how to translate. As I listened to my Chinese classmate struggle to be understood, I finally got it. It's just a different way of communicating.
My newfound understanding came in handy when a fellow North American had a difficult experience in a Spanish hotel during our month-long course in Salamanca. She’d been left feeling utterly awkward, offended, and jaded. It’s not an unusual story. In fact, just that day I’d had an unpleasant encounter with a bookshop clerk when I tried to make a Canadian excuse for a Spanish situation. That trip was a top-notch anthropological study of the Spanish culture and thus of the Spanish language. Some things just do not translate, and it’s all part of the pleasure of learning a new language and culture.