Spanish language diversity and its unavoidable consequences

I’m currently in Uruguay, visiting relatives. I’m not here doing language tourism (as my mother tongue is Spanish), but it’s felt rather like that in the last few days. If Spanish is Spanish here and in Mars, the obvious conclusion to that little piece of logic is that if you speak Spanish to anybody in a Spanish speaking country, they should be able to understand you easily, right?

Not quite.

When I started teaching languages (particularly Japanese to non-native learners, and Spanish to Japanese learners), by both contact with foreigners and shere contrast, I realized how blessed I was in terms of having learned Spanish as my native language. I never paid much attention in Spanish class in school, so I actually really learned the inner workings of this language when I started training to teach it to foreigners; it was only when I saw this language’s guts that I realized how much of a mess of conditional, non-perfect, interrupted actions and qualificatives Spanish is. I mean, the language is so darned complex that not even its native speakers speak it well; add to this that very few Spanish speaking countries utilize the language in the same manner, and it’s pretty much a linguistic bomb waiting to blow up in anybody’s face.

I was raised in Mexico, in a household where a mixture of Mexican and La Plata (Argentine-Uruguayan) Spanish was spoken. However, not once in my life did I think of it as mixed Spanish, so I just talked the way I was talked to–the result was that in Mexico, I would use words such as quilombo (mess) or bancar (to tolerate) which belong to the La Plata lexicon, while in Uruguay, I would say fresa instead of frutilla (strawberry), piña instead of ananá (pineapple–piña in LPS actually means “a beating”, so it got me raised eyebrows more than once), and chambear instead of laburar (to work).

I don’t particularly mind making these kind of mistakes. Every time somebody corrects me, I learn something new and incorporate it into my own vocabulary, and on a more personal level, these mistakes are a pretty decent ice-breaker (unless your counterpart is a language snob–in that case, run in the opposite direction). However, besides the vastly different lexicons, there’s also the problem of differing pronunciations and talking speeds; the first few times I came down to South America, I remember being at a complete loss because I couldn’t understand much of what was being spoken, both due to a conversational pace much hastier than what I was used to, and to sounds that I wasn’t used to hearing, much less saying.

I can only imagine how it must feel for a non-native to dip their toes into the vast ocean that is Spanish. True, even in Spanish there’s a base of vocabulary that is more or less universal, but you’ll be hard pressed to blend in with the natives if you never get past that language base.

The only piece of advice I can give to anybody trying to learn Spanish is to focus on the dialect of Spanish that is closer to your target country (if your aim is to travel) or audience (if your aim is to talk with natives of that language), and then expand your language base from that dialect on to others. Truth be told, there actually aren’t that many textbooks or courses that teach a Spanish completely devoid of a country’s influence, but even if there were, learning ‘plain’ Spanish means you’d be a step behind anybody learning any ‘national’ Spanish, for one usually learns the ‘plain’ definition of a word along with its ‘national’ counterpart. Don’t learn ‘plain’ Spanish expecting to be understood universally: you’d be missing out on the (disastrously) wonderful diversity of this language.