Sunday, 8 January 2017

Socialising Dilemmas: Which Language?!

Multilingual life can throw up some curious problems in social situations. Even if the people who get together have several languages in common, things can still get unexpectedly awkward.

A few months ago, my Portuguese teacher's son, Jaime, invited me and his mother for lunch in Madrid. Jaime lives and works in Switzerland, and since his German is a bit on the wobbly side, I'd been helping him with his CVs, interview preparation, emails, etc. for the past year and a half. He was briefly in Spain for a wedding, and this would be the first time we'd meet face-to-face.

Teresa was already there when I got to the restaurant, and we chatted in Portuguese while waiting for her son to turn up. When Jaime arrived, we first had to settle on which language to speak. (I usually speak Spanish with him, and some German.) In theory, we share three languages in common: Spanish, Portuguese and English. We decided on Spanish, based on the rationale that my Spanish is significantly better than my Portuguese and that this way, nobody would be left struggling with the conversation. Or so we thought.

After ordering our food, Jaime and I launched right into catching up, since we'd not spoken to each other in a few weeks. At some point, I turned to Teresa to ask her something. She looked at me blankly. Then she said, "Sorry, I'm not actually listening to the conversation... in my head, I'm correcting everything you're saying into Portuguese!"


You see, Teresa and I never speak in Spanish to each other. Except for when I can't think of how to say something in Portuguese, then she helps me out. I also tend to mess up my Portuguese by mixing in Spanish words and expressions (this drives her mad), and in her capacity as my teacher, it's always been her job to correct me relentlessly. It's a deeply ingrained protocol which has served me (and my Portuguese) very well, but in this lunch situation, not so much...


  1. I think Teresa was suffering from what the Italians call "deformazione professionale" haha

    1. I guess that's an occupational hazard ;-) Aw, she's done such a great job... when I first started with her, I didn't understand much of what she was saying to me, and I certainly couldn't string a sentence together. Now I can have a conversation - it's a miracle!