I’ve just started teaching myself Spanish. Not with any real aim in mind: maybe an expedition to Bolivia, if I have the time, or a city break in Bilbao if I haven’t. But as small talk phrases like ¿cómo se llama? colonise my brain I worry that they are pushing out the French vocabulary I’ve been steadily collecting over the years.
Some time ago I singled out France as my casual research subject (and destination for wine-quaffing summer holidays). Maintaining a modest French language level, enough to look over Le Figaro stories, is my way of seeing the world through non-British lenses.
By turning my attentions to Spanish, I have a nagging sense that I’m betraying my imaginary French friends. When I saw coverage of the Tour de France this month, the scenery of La France profonde seemed to reach out of the TV and embrace me. What am I doing, I thought, turning my back on all this for the sake of asking someone for directions to the station during some one-off trip to Madrid?
The obvious compromise would be to keep up both languages. But I have to admit my French has gone about as far as I can take it without actually decamping to France full-time and immersing myself in the language; meanwhile, Spanish feels as fresh as a newly-pressed extra virgin olive oil and, being a novice, my scope for improvement is boundless.
I don’t think I could be one of those people who can converse in several languages. If I cannot have both Spanish and French, then I will regard the former as my mistress, accompanying me as I travel in the Spanish-speaking world, and the latter as my marital home.
After all, if my observations these past years have taught me anything, it’s that in France a little liaison on the side is quite acceptable and won’t end a longstanding relationship.