Beyond Mañana

Real Expat Life in Spain

Winners and Losers in the Languages of Life

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Last year our eldest daughter’s class were allowed to fundraise for their end of year trip by bringing in food and snacks to sell to the rest of the school on Fridays – surprisingly enterprising, I thought, for Spanish school.  They missed the opportunity for a broader lesson about profit margins and return on investment, so we did the spreadsheet at home to work out that it was more worthwhile buying crisps than making cakes (Spanish kids seemed to go crazy for English crisps from Iceland!)  I was pleased though that at least it was encouraging them to think in the right way, not least because our girl was evidently cleaning up.

After one particularly profitable day (couple of big multipacks of Iceland crisps that had been reduced for quick sale), she was counting her stack of coins out after school, and I asked how she had got on that day.  “Brilliant!” she said triumphantly, “I won more than €30!”

Won?  Was it a bet, or was their some kind of lottery involved, I wondered?  Had I misunderstood the entire nature of the activity (not impossible, when it comes to dealing with unfamiliar school matters).  Before realising that for our bilingual daughter it was simply an incorrect back-translation of an internalised word… One that indicated a potentally fundamental linguistic obstacle to business competitiveness in Spain: the verb ‘ganar’ means either ‘to win’ or ‘to earn’.  There is no separate concept, at least in her vocabulary, for the idea of gain in direct proportion to effort put in personally as opposed to by chance – success might as well be regarded as luck rather than hard work.

I have no proof of this but can’t help thinking this kind of structural impediment to thinking of the concepts as different from one another, must affect enterprise more generally.  What is cause and what effect, has the language arisen as a result of cultural outlook, or is it the other way around?  As the two evolve constantly and simultaneously it scarcely matters I suppose.  They are inextricably entwined, and can only really be observed from the outside.

How about the fact that the verbs ‘to hope’ and ‘to wait’ are also the same word? Esperar does for both, as though if something hasn’t happened yet it simply isn’t a done deal, like no one expects anything to actually work out as planned.  Doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence, from the simplest social arrangements to business contracts…  In fact most conversations about the future take place in the subjunctive voice, such is the degree of uncertainty.  It might happen mañana, even mañana por la mañana, but for heaven´s sake let’s not commit ourselves here, as quite possibly it won’t happen at all.

What impact does this have on personal effectiveness, commitment, follow through, getting things done… character traits and values I regard as fundamental to success both in personal life and business?  When the language that people grow up and think in creates such uncertainty, as well as lack of accountability, this must have an impact.  The way that sentences work in Spanish places such little emphasis on any kind of individual responsibility, the lack of personal pronouns…  Subjects disappear into the verb, lacking significance.  Sentences don’t require an agent to make sense, better to generalise… ‘Hay que…’  Everyone has an opinion, but you don’t have to attribute it or back it up.

Everything is reflexive and passive – things create themselves, break themselves, get done or not bothered with, people don’t make them happen.  Even the gendering of everyday objects seems to personify them in a way that seems strangely distancing and absolves the subject of the sentence from any kind of involvement or accountability.   Do crisps sell themselves, does homework do itself, and may or may not win a good mark as a result?

For me it explains a lot about getting things done, or the opposite, in Spain.  The funcionario behind the desk who stonewalls your attempt to sort out some small administrative matter is not personally to blame for your frustrations, nor do they feel a shred of responsibility for sorting it out and making you happy.  It isn’t malicious or some kind of power trip, (at least not every time), it’s just an absence of involvement.  If you want to shoot or strangle the messenger it just meets with bafflement.  ‘Computer says no!’ could have been invented in Spain.  I once spent over an hour in the local Vodafone shop trying to sort out a persistent problem the day before departing for a business trip without a functional handset, to be told without a hint or irony,  ‘No you are right I do not care about your business, I am just here to sell phones’.

Now before publishing this I must point out that I am NOT in any way bilingual, my Spanish level is very far from that, which means I am observing it completely from the outside.  A proper linguist could probably rip apart my grammatical observations above – but, I contest, without undermining the general observation  Unlike my daughters, I will always think in English first and then need to work out how to translate into Spanish what I want to express, and it seems to be that that often means taking out or diminishing the role of the actor/agent in the sentence.  Yes, a generalisation, but I cannot help wondering what the implications are for culture, productivity and change more generally.

What do you think?


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