Last night I went along with a good Spanish friend to meet a group of her friends – all Spanish too. We met at 9:30pm and went to the La Latina neighborhood in Madrid, an area very well known for its bars and active nightlife. This being August, I imagine there were fewer people in the streets – or maybe it was just too early to see them.
We went to a Basque bar, one of the typical long, narrow bars in Old Madrid, where the bar’s on one side and a space of maybe 1 meter separates it from the far wall. It’s in this 1 meter space where everyone stands. If you have to go to the bathroom in the back you literally have to swim through the beer-glass-holding mass, trying to make your presence known without spilling their drinks.
Upon arrival I did pretty well as the bar was still only about half-full and the music wasn’t yet too loud. I did okay understanding people’s Spanish in our little circle of maybe 7 or 8 people. But as the minutes ticked by the bar became fuller, the music got louder, and I could understand less and less of the conversation. I could barely understand the person standing right next to me when she turned her head towards me.
Instead of sticking my ear in front of each face as they spoke, I stood back in my space in the circle and just nodded and smiled politely, watching people’s expressions, smiles, and laughs, but the Spanish words coming from their mouths got washed out in the environment. I was lost.
Time went on and I discretely looked at my watch, knowing my last bus home left at 11:30pm and was about 15-20 minutes walk away from this bar. And since the metro stations near my house are closed for renovation, I would’ve had to get a taxi and pay the 10-12 Euros price.
Fortunately for me, by 10:30pm we went into the back part of the bar where there was more space and a little quieter and I could finally understand just a little more of the conversation. Really, I felt like a fish out of water. Surely the Spaniards were wondering why I wasn’t talking, maybe they just assumed I didn’t speak Spanish and took pity on me by not asking me any questions. My Spanish friend turned to me from time to time to ask me if I understood what was just said but, as the honest person I am, could only say that no, I couldn’t hear anything.
By 11:00pm a friend of the group, a guy from New York State arrived and I could finally speak with someone in a language I could understand. He was nice enough but since I had to leave in 15 minutes I didn’t get to know him very well. At 11:15pm I said my goodbyes and the growing group of Spaniards wished me well and they were pleased to meet me, etcetera. Some gave me looks like, “You’re going already? It’s EARLY!” but I explained I needed to catch my last bus.
It was a small shame I did leave so early because just 10 minutes before 7 additions to the group arrived, 3 or 4 of which were very attractive, young Spanish women. Oh well. It doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t have been able to talk to them any better than I could with the rest of the group. Sure, they would’ve understood me and my Spanish, but I never would’ve heard them and it gets annoying to constantly asking for a repeat of what was just said – a repeat directly in my ear.
Speaking in a like language, in your language in these noisy situations is easy, or easier. Try to do so in a language which is not your own, trying to hear EVERY word so that you can string together a sentence and get some meaning from the statement, is very very difficult to do. If only we could’ve been seated outside at a terrace bar I’m sure it would’ve been quieter and, at the very least, I could’ve spoken to the person directly to my left or right and I could’ve, probably, heard and understood them.
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I have the same problem, I’m fine in small groups and in every day work situations, but once a large group gets together and there’s music i am totally lost, I can’t distinguish any of the words – I guess when we can then we will know that we are truly bilingual. Even sometimes if there’s not music but everyone is all talking at once and the noise level is high i still get lost! It depends on how tired i am too.
When visiting friends in Málaga we often go on an escorted tour for about 5 days. My friends do not speak English and usually nobody on the bus tour speaks English. While I am able to hold a conversation with people one on one, my biggest problem is when the group is eating lunch or dinner and there are large tables of 10 or 12 people. I try to sit at the end of a table that is not in the center of the room. The noise level is so high that I can’t follow the conversations and if I miss a word or two I am totally lost. By the time that I figure out what people are talking about they then change the subject. Just like you I smile and nod a lot but I am sure they can tell that I am totally lost. It helps if I am able to initiate a subject so I at least know what everyone is talking about.
Great input, Arturo. So you know EXACTLY how I/we feel. Initiating topics is always a good way to participate in the group dynamic while giving you pre-set discussion ideas before people speak.
Before the bar gathering, we met outside of a bar on the street and we all chatted among the 3 of us before the rest of the crowd arrived. There, I did well, understood and spoke well for myself. But inside the bar I’m sure those same two original people were asking themselves, “Gee, I really thought that person spoke Spanish but here he hasn’t said a word.”
Funny, people who don’t speak another language have trouble understanding the WHY’s about this. Sometimes my bilingual Spanish friends defend me when the unilingual Spaniards ask why I don’t participate and I go into the whole thing about IF I don’t hear ALL of the words I can’t put the sentences together. The unilingual Spaniards find it difficult to grasp why. But it’s not just Spaniards, it’s like this in any language in any country, I’m sure.