It didn´t take many weeks of unanswered applications and curt rejection letters last year before I decided to abandon any hopes of securing a career in London and leave the country: a logical solution when faced with the unappealing reality of unemployment in one of the world´s most expensive cities. However, on reflection, choosing Madrid as the destination seems anything but a logical choice: not only does it have one of the highest rates of unemployment in Europe, I hadn´t so much as glanced at anything Spanish since my last A level exam in 2006.
Even so, however irrational my decision at the time, I – touchwood – seem to have landed on my feet: job, flat, interesting people and lovely weather. Granted, dreams of becoming bilingual within three months were somewhat optimistic: I have been here for just over four months, and only have a basic level of fluency in Spanish - comprehension can still be hazardous and sentences are short, stacatto and restricted by a limited range of vocabulary. However, coping with a modest command of spanish has opened doors to an imaginative range of communication outside of speech: scribbling drawings on napkins, using random props from the street, facial expressions, extravagant gestures, over-the-top intonation... It seems that anyone willing and armed with a smile can converse, be it a dialogue of Italian and Spanish or double dutch and gobbledygook
Luckily, I am surrounded by patient spaniards keen to jot down phrases in my notebook, which is now full of spiky doodles and illustrative diagrams. I have realised that however long spent studying connectors, conditionals and the subjunctive in the classroom, easy fluency will only come after theatrical conversations and frequent misunderstandings, and will more than likely remain elusive until I have been living here for several years or more. Even then, I imagine that keeping track of the forever-changing multitude of expressions will be a challenge. Even as my confidence grows, using these native colloquialisms remains a potential minefield for any non-native speaker. There are phrases that become nonsensical if you miss out a seemingly inconsequential pronoun, words with opposite meanings in different contexts, a surplus of idioms - some vulgar, some cheesy, some snobbish, the confusion of double meanings. On top of that, there´s regional accents, local dialects, slang that means one thing in one city and something different somewhere else... I have visions of proudly delivering a recently-learnt phrase to my boss only to find out it´s actually the spanish equivalent of abusive cockney slang. You never can be too sure what your friends are teaching you after a few beers!
As much as I hate to refer to my A level English text Translations, the quote ´you can learn the language of the tribe, but the password will always allude you´ seems relevant, if a little dramatic: although shaking off clumsy literal translations from English to Spanish is simply a matter of time, learning the subtleties of the language is something else altogether.