If At First They Don’t Understand, Say It Louder

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

Written by Andre van Niekerk (English and Afrikaans facilitator)

My brother and I once took a trip to Spain. When we arrived, we discovered that almost everybody in the country speaks Spanish. (Where we came from, most people spoke English.) I think this certainly proves the old saying that travel broadens the mind.

I had been curious to go to Barcelona, which is where we started off. It’s the city of Miró, Picasso (in his early years), Dalí, Gaudí, and Casals. It was also the most revolutionary city during the Spanish civil war, and I knew that George Orwell had been based there during his brief involvement in that struggle, though, foolishly, I hadn’t yet read his account of that time in “Homage to Catalonia”. Orwell had tried to learn Spanish, though described the result as “villainous Spanish”.

Barcelona is in Catalonia, and certainly in Orwell’s time many of the people he fought with spoke Catalan, not Spanish. (So you see, I wasn’t that far off the mark – not everyone in Spain speaks Spanish as a first language.) He therefore had the double problem of speaking very inadequate Spanish and no Catalan. Yet, as he says, in “Homage to Catalonia” that I did later get around to reading:

All this time I was having the usual struggles with the Spanish language. ... The only way I could get along was to carry everywhere a small dictionary which I whipped out of my pocket in moments of crisis. But I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than in most countries. How easy it is to make friends in Spain! Within a day or two there was a score of militiamen who called me by my Christian name, showed me the ropes and overwhelmed me with hospitality. ... I defy anyone to be thrown as I was among the Spanish working class – I ought perhaps to say the Catalan working class ... and not be struck by their essential decency; above all, their straightforwardness and generosity.

It seems, though, that Orwell didn’t try another very popular method of making oneself understood, which I witnessed a few days after arriving in the city. We – my brother Jannie and I – had decided to take a train to Málaga down in the south, which, as it happens, was the birthplace of Picasso. Just after we had joined a queue at a ticket window at the station, a young Australian backpacker in the queue next to us reached her ticket window and began, in perfectly grammatical English, to explain what she wanted. In spite of the excellent grammar, the woman behind the window couldn’t understand a word. Perhaps she would have preferred Catalan? So the backpacker explained again – just this time, a little louder, in case the ticket-woman hadn’t understood properly.

Unfortunately, she again didn’t understand. So the backpacker tried again, even louder. Still no result. This went on a few times, getting louder and firmer each time. It did strike me that it might be a good idea to say the same thing in a different way, maybe even in simpler English (albeit using less perfect grammar), but no, the preferred strategy was “if at first they don’t understand, say it louder”.

At this point we found ourselves at the front of our queue, so I never discovered the outcome of that little language tussle. I was determined not to repeat the error, so resorted to sign language and various bodily contortions to try and enquire about leg room on the train. I did this, according to later accounts, by hopping around on one leg and stretching the other one out at right angles to my body, though this met with equally little success. I did nevertheless manage to get our tickets purchased, only to discover that Jannie had disappeared, apparently in acute embarrassment at what he considered my ridiculous antics. I thought this not very kind of him, considering that I’m six foot and he – my supposed little brother – is a good ten centimetres taller than that. He ought, even more than me, to have been very concerned about such things.

As it turned out, leg room was the least of our concerns. We had plenty of it. There were two other far bigger problems. One was that it was an overnight train and Spanish trains don’t have sleeper compartments, so you have to try and sleep sitting bolt upright. The other even bigger problem was that in the compartment next door to us was a large group of Spanish women who conducted a conversation with each other throughout the night – though calling it a conversation would be stretching it a bit. For the entire night they yelled at each other at the tops of their voices – and they weren’t doing it in anger.

That’s when I realised that perhaps the Australian woman had been right – that in Spain, that’s how you make yourself understood, Spanish or no Spanish. You just say it loud enough so that no one can mistake your meaning. She was just taking time to get to the right level of loudness.

As I’ve said, Orwell may have erred in this regard. Instead of lugging his dictionary around everywhere, he should just have said it louder. And then the differences between English, Spanish, and Catalan would have stepped smartly aside like the matador before the bull.

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