Understanding Spanish in Noisy Bars

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.

Is Spanish NOT your first language and do you have the same trouble understanding people in noisy situations?

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