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Thursday, January 24, 2008

There's No Place Like Babel

There’s No Place Like Babel

If Spain is becoming a country of immigrants then my barrio is the epicenter of this phenomena. Ruzafa is home to a dizzying array of languages and cultures. Pakistanis, Rumanians, Russians, Chinese, Sub-Saharan Africans, Arabs, and at least one American all call this little corner of Valencia our home—not to mention the Spanish-speaking Latin American immigrants. The semi-official language of Ruzafa seems to be heavily-accented Spanish. You know things are a bit out of hand when people hear me speak Spanish and think I’m a native. You can file that under “the blind leading the blind.”

There is a café that I frequent in my neighborhood that is run by a Chinese family. The father speaks barely a word of Spanish while the mother knows enough to take orders from the patrons. They have a teenage son who speaks great Spanish although he seems to prefer Chinese movies and music from what he has on his laptop computer. The customers come from everywhere and it isn’t uncommon to hear at least three different languages being spoken besides pidgin Spanish. To add to this cultural hodge-podge, the television is often tuned to Canal Nou, the local station in Valenciano. I wonder if the parents can even tell the difference between Spanish and Valenciano.

If you have ever studied a non Indo-European language you may have some idea of the difficulties Chinese people have trying to learn Spanish. Imagine having absolutely no cognates, not to mention a different writing system. Now imagine that your new home has two official languages and that where you live is full to the rafters with trash like me who speak broken Spanish and little to no Valenciano. This is something to think about the next time anyone criticizes immigrants for not learning the language of the host country.

The English-speaking island in the immigrant sea of Ruzafa is very small indeed. In fact, it consists of only a few barstools in the English pub called Sinpy Jo’s. The pub is owned by two brothers from London by way of Scotland. The name of the pub is an Anglicized twist on the Spanish Sin Pijos, or something without affectations or airs. I would say that this place is extremely convivial except that I’m afraid that I’d get beat up for saying the word “convivial.” Hell, I'd beat me up for saying it. Even in this Gibraltar I end up speaking Spanish most of the time. I try to avoid speaking English at all costs otherwise I just get confused when I return to Spanish. I am also making a very half-hearted attempt at learning Valenciano. Perhaps when I feel a bit more erudite in Spanish I can conscientiously put more effort into the local lingo.

I can’t speak for any of the other immigrants in my neighborhood but my goal is to assimilate as quickly as possible. Learning the language is the arduous and most time-consuming aspect of integration. Adopting the Spanish lifestyle is something that most of the immigrants in my neighborhood seem to have picked up on fairly quickly. That's the really easy part.

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