Accepting Regional Variations in Language Learning

Living in Spain, Living in Madrid, Retiro park

When I was living in Spain, I used to go running in the Retiro park, right past this pond and statue. Good times.

One of the realities about learning any language is that you’re going to learn a certain accent. This is not a reality to be sad about: You also speak just one variety of your native language (at least most people do). I’m not talking about dialects: a dialect is generally something that is so different from the ‘standard’ version of the language that’s its not mutually intelligible. But there is plenty of variation even within a language that remains completely understandable by speakers from around the world.

If you learned Spanish in Spain and are speaking with a Spanish person, this is not an issue you have to worry about at all. But it becomes a bit trickier if you’re speaking with a Mexican, Argentine or someone from elsewhere in Latin America. Differences in language sometimes go beyond certain vocabulary words, the speed people speak at and slightly different pronunciation – some pretty basic grammar structures can also be different as well.

It’s also cultural. I remember speaking with my mother-in-law – who is from Nicaragua – some time after living in Spain, and I said something about “mañana,” as in morning. “Tarde,” she corrected me, saying that I should have said ‘afternoon’ not morning.’ My mother-in-law is basically always right when she is correcting my Spanish. But in this particular instance, I’m pretty sure a Spaniard would have also used the word ‘morning’ – I think it’s a bit strange, but in Spain it is ‘morning’ until you eat lunch, which is generally sometime between 2 and 4 pm.

If I actually were Spanish, I doubt anyone would have corrected me – they would have just thought – oh, how strange, in Spain the afternoon doesn’t start until early evening! But if you’re not a native speaker, the interaction is totally different.

For example, if a non-native English speaker said, “Good on you” to me, I would probably correct him or her, because that sounds very, very strange to me. What if an Australian said the same thing to me? My assumption would be that it’s something that Australians say, even though I think it sounds weird. (I’m choosing this example because good on you is a common expression in Australia that means something like ‘kudos to you,” but which I continue to think sounds strange). So if a non-native English speaker had spent time in Australia and then had the misfortune of speaking with me, I would be correcting him or her for something that was actually entirely correct.

I’ve been thinking about this issue lately because I’m working on a article related to Nicaragua and I’ve been interviewing several people in Nicaragua. There are quite a few differences between Spanish in Spain and Spanish in Nicaragua, some of which I know about and many which I don’t.

The most glaring difference, other than speed, perhaps, is pronouns. In Nicaragua, as in Argentina, there is no “tu.” They say “vos,” and in fact the second-person singular verb conjugations are different. I know this, but I have never used ‘vos’ myself. Then there is the politeness question: In Spain, there is ‘tu’ and ‘Usted,‘ which is the more formal way to address someone. Many English-speakers can’t wrap their heads around the different-pronouns-for-formal-situations thing, but considering that I’d already figured in out in German, Russian and French, I get the concept. The thing is, in Spain it seems like vanishingly few circumstances were formal enough for ‘Usted,‘ and I never understood, culturally, when I should use it.

When speaking to someone in Nicaragua, do I address them as ‘Usted,’ since it’s someone I don’t know, and that’s the level of politeness that would be normal in the other languages I speak that have a pronoun for formal situations? Do I say ‘vos’ because I know that’s the correct second-person singular pronoun? Or do I just go with ‘tu,’ because that’s the only second-person singular pronoun I’m really comfortable using in Spanish?

I actually pondered this for a little while. In the end, I decided that I was not going to fuck with ‘vos’ under any circumstances. I’ll stick with ‘tu.’ I’m not going to pass for a native Spanish speaker no matter what I do, at least not in an hour-long interview about a fairly technical subject, so I thought I’d make things easier on myself and kept to a pronoun (and accompanying verb conjugations) that I feel comfortable with.

As a general rule, that’s what I recommend to anyone else with a similar dilemma: Stick with the regional version of the language you are most comfortable with. I would not change my language (much) to speak with a Brit or Australian. Learning a new language is like getting a new identity, and right now, my identity as a Spanish-speaker is someone who lived in Spain.