My chats over coffee in Mexico City taught me so much about the country. They also raised a question which had been well off my radar before I started learning Spanish and speaking it with real Mexicans in Mexico: which kind of Spanish – Castilian or Latin American – is the ‘proper’ one?
A Spanish woman with a job in Mexico was keen to stress that Spanish from Spain not only was the real deal, but was more sophisticated to boot, in effect implying that it is the unsullied original language, spoken long before the Americas were conquered by Spanish adventurers.
Meanwhile, ‘phsst’ and a dismissive hand motion was a Mexican’s reaction when I mentioned the accent of my Valencia-born companion.
The supposedly harsh sound of European Spanish causes Latin American ears no little pain, I gather.
Of course, Latin American Spanish is far from uniform: Argentinian speech in particular is very different to Mexican. And every region has its unique vocabulary, alongside words which signify something completely different in some other part of the Spanish-speaking world. ‘Car park’ can be ‘estacionamiento’ in Mexico but ‘parqueo’ in Guatemala, while a visitor to Spain might see a sign pointing to ‘aparcamiento’.
The crucial difference that divides Castilian from the other Spanish tongues is the pronunciation of ‘c’ and ‘z’ which, depending on the vowel which follows them, will typically have a ‘th’ sound in Spain that is absent over on the other side of the Atlantic.
In thinking about which Spanish language is the authentic one, or the better starting point for a learner with no bias towards travel in either region, it is useful to consider English. Which kind should the non-aligned learner learn? British or US English? Or, for that matter, Australian?
Although British born and bred, I don’t view the American use of the language as any way inferior. They may have borrowed our mother tongue from us, but they have enriched it in their own manner (helped in no small way by Yiddish, Italian and other immigrants). I’ll happily admit that a word such as ‘apartment’ is actually preferable to our term, ‘flat’.
Meanwhile, people in non-native English speaking countries who use English amongst themselves have developed their own variety. It works for them, and that’s what counts.
All this supports the argument that we should be teaching and learning a kind of neutral ‘Global English’, which does not presume that the learner is going to be using it in a particular English-speaking country.