Beyond Mañana

Real Expat Life in Spain

Winners and Losers in the Languages of Life


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?

  • grahunt

    I give you my take on it and I think you are on the right track definitely but people who are within the boundaries of their own language will not be able to see it I am sure

    • BeyondManana

      Good post, I clearly hadn’t factored in the impact of the religious absolution get-out clause on top of everything. That really is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card if you’re ever seen to truly make something happen

    • Casslar

      I had forgotten the brilliant ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card that is confession and absolution! That makes it even easier not to take responsibility…

  • paddy waller

    This reminds me of an endless argument I used to have with ex workmates about whether English or Spanish has more vocablulary(English does but tell that to a Spanish person!) .Language without doubt is a true reflection of a culture

  • Lindsay InSpain

    Hit the nail on the head again! It can be a huge challenge to make allowances for the Spanish way of saying something, especially when translated back by a small child over lunch with very “proper” family members who expect fine English manners with lots of P´s & Q´s, and are instead presented with a short, blunt “give me water” ! 🙂

    • Casslar

      Yes, or “I don’t want to eat this because it doesn’t taste nice”, by way of polite explanation. Then I am sure our Spanish friends can’t help chuckling at our liberal sprinklings lf perdonnes and graciases…

  • Debbie Green

    I love the Spanish “Se me ha hecho tarde”. No responsability there whatsoever for being punctual! Great article!

  • Matthew Hirtes

    Some of your observations do relate to linguistic differences. But the Vodafone shop worker was probably being honest. Not sure if they bothered to release The Invention of Lying over here. Because the Spanish are so darn blunt. I recall when we had some Canadians over for dinner when we lived in London. My Canarian wife turned to the husband and said, “Pass the salt”. He replied, “What happened to the Could you and please?”. The wife, quick as a flash, came back with: “We don’t use those words where I come from”.

    • Casslar

      I think Vodafone bloke was just being an unhelpful arse actually! But I am sure your wife taught your guests a great deal about real Spanish manners and hospitality that goes so far beyond the words, to the actions and behaviour that actually matters…

  • Maureen Dolan

    How have I managed to miss this my whole life? The sky opens. I understand! Wonderful, brilliant observations. Thanks!

  • Flo

    Nice one Maya .. I observe the same sort of things between the English and French language on a daily basis as well ( the use of the different tenses for example is sooo different and so hard for French people to understand as we are used to having strict rules !)
    By the way in French like in Spanish: gagner = win and earn … I had never actually really noticed that until you pointed it out but definitely understand how confusing it must be for people using 2 different words !!

    • Casslar

      I hadn’t thought of that Flo, of course its the same in French. But is the French work and productivity ethic different from the Spanish? Perhaps it’s more Catalan? Or shall I not kick that hornet’s nest, at least not this week…

  • Steve Hall

    Always love the nuances of languages. My current obsession is the nuances between tú and usted and even more so the different uses of the past tenses of estar. Whatever! I used to have a life. I do miss is to sometimes.

    Bucket list? M.A. in Linguistics. Doctorate on the language/dialect/local usage spoken on the Swedish/Norwegian border. How sad is that? (Arsenal season ticket holders can’t comment!)

  • John Wolfendale

    Interesting observations and psychologists, philosphers and linguists have been asking the question “do concepts exist in the brains of certain linguistic groups that dont exist in the brains of others” for a while. The interesting thing is that bilingual people cant tell you because they have always been bilingual and people who have learned a language cant tell you because they have never been bilingual. Monolingual people also cant tell you because you dont know what you dont know.

    I wouldnt worry about ganar – earn/win. Its common for two concepts to have one word. Your child will handle it.

    Esperar is a really interesting one. It also means to expect so thats wait, hope and expect in one word.

    Normally its English that has one word for several concepts and the meaning is drawn from the context although its still true that misunderstandings occur all the time in all languages and we never know – we just assume there has been full understanding and move on.

    The relationship between language and personal responsibility is a very interesting one. A good subject for some pyschology research. I’d love to design the tests that allow you to prove one way or another that there is a connection.

    • Casslar

      Brilliant John, love the summation that “The interesting thing is that bilingual people cant tell you because they have always been bilingual and people who have learned a language cant tell you because they have never been bilingual. Monolingual people also cant tell you because you dont know what you dont know.” Fundamental uncertainty principle – the truth is unobservable, for to observe it is to alter it (by altering your relationship to it). I agree the subject of personal responsibility needs a lot more research, but we would have to get together a great team of multilingual psychologists to come up with a sufficiently robust design!

  • Stephen Barton

    I am not an expert in this area, and from what I have read it is a big and controversial subject, but I believe the latest thinking is that the answer to your question is ‘yes’ – language does affect the way you think. See eg

    The whole article is very interesting, but the following paragraphs are directly relevant:

    “In addition to space and time, languages also shape how we understand causality. For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.” Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.”


    “One of the key advances in recent years has been the demonstration of precisely this causal link. It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too.”

    • Casslar

      So if ever on trial against largely circumstantial evidence, a Spanish or Japanese jury is probably your best bet… and giving our children the gift of bilinguality is DEFINITELY the best bet 🙂

  • Sascha Bay

    An argument I will make with the same kind of observation: English speakers are socially inept. Why? Because they only have a single word for “know” used both for fields of knowledge and for people, whereas languages like Spanish or German have two (saber/conocer, wissen/kennen).

    • BeyondManana

      I totally agree, in many cases Spanish is far more richly descriptive – we only have single verbs in English to express complex ideas about being, knowing, etc