Alan Cuthbertson – Moving Abroad, A word in your Ear

A word in your ear.

Whilst walking around East Leeds I’m sure you are familiar with hearing people speaking English with a foreign accent. This means that they have probably made the effort to learn the language from scratch, and English is known to be one of the hardest to learn. The English in general seem to have a problem with learning a new language. When we go on holiday we can often be found waving our arms like a contestant on ‘Give us a clue’ or even worse shouting at people as though they are idiots. When we arrived in Spain, my wife and I agreed that we would make an effort to learn Spanish. The fact that we’d moved to a village in the middle of nowhere and none of the locals spoke a word of English didn’t give us much choice. It still amazes me that many Brits living on the coast have been there for over 20 years and can do no more than order a beer.

We had been to night school in Leeds to learn the basics of our new language, but it didn’t take long to realise we had wasted our time. The Spanish accent used in the mountains of Andalucia was quite different to what we had heard in the classroom. The nearest comparison I can make is someone coming to England and studying English in Oxford, then getting on a train to Glasgow.

We soon found that our new classroom was to be the local bar. Numbers were learnt by playing bingo and our vocabulary was expanded by crowding around a table with the locals and basically asking what things are called. There was as much sign language used in Andalucian Spanish as words. Stroking the throat meant something was free, licking you forefinger and running it down your cheek suggested someone was gay, sliding two fingers down either side of your nose meant you had no money…. The list went on. Then there was the slang, a chorizo isn’t a sausage…it’s a thief!

The younger lads just wanted to know the English for swear words and private parts of your body. This was going to take longer than we thought.

Heather’s sister came to visit and we went out for something to eat. She said she felt like a chicken sandwich. Using some of our newly found skill I explained that she needed to order a ‘Bocadilllo de pollo’. I added “Don’t ask for a bocadillo de polla with an ‘a’ on the end.” Heather laughed.
“Why?”Asked her sister.
“Because a ‘Polla’ is a man’s thingy”
She thought for a while. “Who the hell eats those?”
I looked at Heather and rolled my eyes. “I give up.”

11 years on and not a day goes by without a new word being added to our vocabulary. When it comes to understanding some of the older people in the village I still struggle to understand a word they say. The extreme combination of foreign accent, slang, swearing and mumbling leaves me waving the white flag.

Alan Cuthbertson is the author of Fiestas and Siestas Miles Apart, and Clover House.
He has lived in Spain for over ten years.
For more information please visit

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