Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Quixotic Spanish

Alex Rawlings can speak eleven languages. He is 20 years old and winner of a competition set by the Collins dictionary publishers to find the most multi-lingual student in the UK. Such proficiency in languages might suggest that Alex is a precocious swot who should get out more, but going by the video that the BBC has presented of him on its website, Alex appears a personable and well-rounded young man who just so happens to be blessed with a skill for learning languages.

It helps to have grown up in a bi-lingual family, his mother is half Greek, but this only explains how he came to acquire two languages, and bi-lingual families are hardly that unusual. There has also been some family mobility, such as to the Netherlands, which can help to explain his acquisition of Dutch and Afrikaans, but what about all the others - German, Hebrew, Russian, French, Italian, Spanish and Catalan?

In the BBC video*, Alex makes a highly pertinent point about languages and their personalities. It is pertinent in revealing that, far from being a grammar bore slavishly repeating exercises in the linguistic sweatshop of a language laboratory, he discovers joy and fascination in the ways that languages reflect cultures and societies. It is also pertinent in suggesting that, rather than a mechanistic and essentially rule-based approach to language learning, this learning should be more contextual. Alex himself, when speaking Spanish, says that he finds that lyrics of a song are more memorable than words written in a list.

Each to their own in a sense, as not everyone has the same learning style, but context and personality are important. To give one example, I don't know how well Alan Hutton's acquisition of Spanish is progressing, but I would guess that it is influenced by the context of Real Mallorca and the personality of the training ground and dressing room. I feel sure he knows by now the Spanish for threatened with relegation.

Alex's reference to languages and their personalities is intriguing. Of those he can speak, there is a huge difference. He describes Dutch, for example, as being rather formal. He could say the same for German. Both languages are reflections of their cultures and societies, even if these are cultures and societies less of the present and more of the past. What can be abrupt and direct in German can be attributed to national traits of efficiency and pragmatism and perhaps also to heavy historical doses of militarism.

Spanish, while it has a formality in its sets of grammatical rules (which are therefore no different to any other language), is stylistically far less formal. Miquel Ferrà i Martorell, in his historical perspective column in the "Bulletin" on Sunday, made a most telling point about Spanish "quixotism", one that he described as having been negative. This quixotism had come to characterise Spanish life from the time of Cervantes; the term's origins lie with "Don Quixote" and it means lofty and romantic ideals or highly chivalrous action.

Alex describes Spanish as "lively". I tend to think of it more as "comedy". Like Italian, Spanish is a comedy language. There is something inherently not serious about it. Spanish is a language of flourish, of late-mediaeval to eighteenth century nobility and chivalry, a language of courtiers. It is flowery, romantic and redolent of Cervantes and quixotism. Further definitions of quixotism can embrace naïveté, lack of practicality, the non-attainability of ideals. Is it too much to suggest, therefore, that in the personality of the Spanish language there is a clue to an overarching national characteristic? One that is inherently impractical. The contrast with the reserved or direct Dutch and Germans and their highly practical characteristics is great.

Then there is Catalan. Alex didn't compare Spanish and Catalan, but he did compare Dutch and Afrikaans, describing the latter as more poetic and expressive. It is probably fair to say that Spanish is more expressive and poetic than Catalan, though there is plenty of Catalan poetry which would suggest that the two languages are equally expressive. The distinction between the two can't be made along the same lines as that between Dutch and Afrikaans. For a kick off, there is geographical proximity, but this very proximity is what raises the conundrum as to why the differences between Spanish and Catalan are as they are. While there are similarities, there are very distinct personalities. Catalan does not have the twirls of Spanish flourish. It is more earthy, more grounded. It does not have the Spanish quixotism and it, unlike Afrikaans, which developed out of Dutch, had its own genesis. 

Languages have personalities, and so therefore do nations or would-be nations.

* http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17107435

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

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