Learning to survive in both Catalan and Castillian is no mean feat. Firstly, we have the difference between the two languages. Catalan is a rich and complex language, one that I am struggling to understand properly – partly due to the fact I understand French quite well, but mostly due to the fact I am struggling to separate Catalan from your regular day to day Spanish. For instance, take the word ‘cheese’. In Spanish, this translates to ‘queso’, but in Catalan, it’s ‘formatge’, a word that looks altogether too familiar in the guise of ‘fromage’ (French). Most publications are written in Catalan: forms and official documents, and road signs. Schools teach only in Catalan except for their English and Spanish lessons, during which the main language always returned to is – you guessed it, Catalan. The family I am staying with speak solely Catalan at home. The teachers around the table at lunch speak in Catalan, but can switch to Spanish with the drop of a hat. Prick your ears and you might just hear the difference. The weather man on the Catalan news speaks so rapidly I’m worried he’s going to take off. So is it any surprise I am picking up only snippets of Spanish, and becoming used to the Catalan phrases? Every day, I bid colleagues ‘adéu’ rather than ‘adios’. I tell the children ‘molt bé’ rather than ‘muy bien’. I’m speaking in a mix of four languages: English, French, which pops into my head first as it’s the only other language I have a basic grasp of, then Catalan and Castillian finally pipe up, usually in the wrong format/a useless order. I start making words up that don’t exist, simply because I believe they sound like they fit.
It’s difficult to express how hard it can sometimes be here. I do love the experience, and teaching the children is fabulous – they are so inquisitive, and it’s sweet how much pleasure they get from asking questions that seem so inconsequential to us (‘Do you like funfairs?’). But how can I express, when sat round the dinner table, the fact that I miss my own language, my own idioms, the fact that if I talk about wanting to go to the chippy, someone will understand me. The greenery of England, rolling hills, driving on the correct side of the road. One thing that strikes me, is that in the Barcelona metro, people very rarely stand on the right – an offence that in London would most likely have its citizens reacting like a lynch mob, shooting daggers and shouting at the idiot who dares come to a standstill on the left of the escalator. The Underground in London on the daily commute is crammed to the brim with people not engaging in eye contact, expressionless faces focussed on their iPad, Kindle, or newspaper. Here, people don’t seem to care about that sort of technological gimmickry. The one man I saw with an iPad turned out to be English in the end (or, at least, it looked like he was – he was reading an English article on stated gadget, and, well, you can just tell, can’t you?).
Another difference I am finding, is that the discipline in English schools – if you can believe it – actually pips Spanish discipline to the post, from experience of a primary school here. Today, at school, the children in the equivalent of our year four watched a video about an English school. My, they were impressed. We always called our teachers Miss/Mrs/Mr/Sir, or Ms, for the really obstinate feminists/divorcees/unlovable women/cat ladies. At the beginning of the school day, you answer ‘Here, Miss …’, awaiting your turn to speak up in silence. Ties are commonplace in English schools. In many schools, when the teacher enters, you stand up, or tactics such as ‘hands on head’, ‘fingers on lips’ are used frequently. The children were so impressed that kids their age were wearing a tie. Gasps of ‘Mira! Les noies estan usant corbates!’ (‘Look! The girls are wearing ties’) were heard around the room, among comments that my, didn’t the English girls and boys look smart. I wish they could have seen my tie when I was at high school – the fashion being then that you would make it appear as small as possible, tied as loosely as you could get away with, for fear of someone yanking down on the end and strangling you with full force. I’m not so sure they would have been quite so impressed with that.
Polo shirt is the standard option here for uniform, and teachers are most certainly not addressed as ‘Miss’, or ‘Sir’. The children use the teacher’s first name, something that to me seems so ridiculously informal, I still can’t get used to it. Assembly, the only time I saw it (they don’t have it every week, like we do), was such chaos I think my ears are still ringing from the excitement. I won’t sweet-coat the experience and say every moment is a pleasure when taking groups of children out the class into another area to start conversation practice, but it’s very rewarding, and most of the children, you can see are interested and excited to learn or speak English. They ask you questions, ones I haven’t been asked for years, so often that it feels like I’m on a first date with the entire school: I’ve changed my mind about my favourite colour several times, just so I don’t have to keep repeating the word ‘pink’ on a daily basis. I do love how excited they are when they find out you have something in common – that we both like tigers, or we listen to Lady GaGa.
Getting used to the names is a big struggle for me: what seems unusual to me is common over here, and instead of your Johns, James’, Emmas and Sarahs, you have ‘Pol’, ‘Pau’, ‘Irene’ (say ‘Eerayni’), ‘Oriol’, and ‘Xavier’ (the Catalan version of ‘Javier’, but you say ‘Shavie’, ‘X’ being a ‘ch’ sound, which I’m getting used to, in words such as ‘Xocolate’, and the more unusual name ‘Txema’, said like Gemma, but actually a boy’s name).
Another word I want to express my sheer delight at is the word ‘guapo/a’. This word seems to have neverending usage here. It can be used to describe polite, well-behaved children: for instance, when Maria clears the table ‘guapa, Maria’. It can also be used for when the children are told to be calm and quiet (mostly in the 3-5 age group), laying their heads down on the table in their arms to the utterance, ‘muy guapos, nens’. It can be used to describe a handsome man (Johnny Depp es muy guapo) a cute looking child, or, in my case, shouted out a car window on the street – ‘CHICA, GUAPA!’ Makes a change from ‘Hola, Primadonna’…