¿Quiere’ fre’co?

¿Quiere’ fre’co?”

¿Como?”

¿Quiere’ fre’co?” she repeated.

“Sí” – I think that’s what I want.

The friendly Cuban woman was confirming my order of a ‘refresco’, or soft drink. Except now I wasn’t sure what I’d just ordered.

This was my first prolonged exposure to Cuban Spanish. It was at a busy street stall amid honking traffic and other thirsty customers, and the vendor had no time to coddle this foreigner through his language learning journey. I was a bit worried because I’d planned to stay in the country for a month, and already I was struggling just to buy a soft drink.

I was actually quite confident of my Spanish as I’d flown directly from Mexico where I’d been living for the past 12 months.

I eventually got what I asked for and walked off into the sultry streets of La Habana with a welcome sugar hit. It wasn’t Coca Cola of course, because products and imports from the United States are strictly forbidden in Castro’s communist utopia. I wasn’t bothered, the sugar hit was what I craved.

Cuban Spanish was to challenge me for the rest of my trip. Despite having already travelled through South America, Central America and Mexico, I was having some trouble adjusting to the broad accent. I found that Cubans chop off various sounds and syllables, pepper their language with slang, and run many of their words together.

Have Cubans done to Spanish what Australians have done to English?

Even a word as simple as ‘vamos’ sounds more like ‘wamo’ in Cuba.

The Cuban dialect was very different to the Spanish I’d used in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, and my only previous interaction with Caribbean Spanish was through Calle 13, Daddy Yankee and fellow Reggaetón stars.

I eventually trained my ear to the local dialect by staying with local families in Casas Particulares. Cubans rented out rooms in their houses to travellers and were happy to chat over a meal or a cup of coffee. Few of the families that I stayed with spoke English, so it forced me to adapt to the local lingo.

Cuban Spanish was more difficult to understand than the language I’d been using in Colima, Mexico. Colimenses dispensed with many of the more complicated grammatical features of standard Spanish, such as ‘vos’ and ‘vosotros’ and had a flowing, almost musical accent. Chilangos, or residents of Mexico City, spoke more quickly and with their own parochial slang, and the young Chilangos in particular finished their sentences with sharp inclination. This habit alone signalled their origins, and was a source of great amusement for every other Mexican.

Ironically, I encountered more linguistic challenges in Cuba than in Peru and Bolivia, where I first started using Spanish. I arrived into Peru with nothing more than ‘hola’, ‘gracias’, and a translation dictionary, but was soon able to negotiate traveller’s fundamentals like food, accommodation and transport. Travellers hypothesise that Andean Spanish is easier to understand for a foreigner because it simplified and stripped down by people from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, who speak it as a second or third language.

In contrast, Chileans speak it rapidly and proudly as their first language. Santiago was fast-paced and sharp, and demanded powers of concentration. Costa Rica, meanwhile, was a language of two halves. The language of the centre and the capital was distinct from the Spanish of the Caribeños on the Atlantic coast.

How is my Spanish now?

It’s fading. I don’t use it much, especially after moving to Asia after finishing my time in Mexico.

Maybe it’s time to return to Cuba.

Wamo’!

It’s Australia, so speak English.

You’ve heard this phrase before. You might even agree with it. But before you admonish someone in Australia for speaking a language other than English, consider this – English is not the official language of Australia.

That’s right. Australia has no official language, despite the fact that English has been the language of government, education and communication in the country since colonisation about 250 years ago.

This might surprise a lot of people – including Australians. It might also disappoint a lot of Australians, especially the bigots. Intolerant Australians love to remind migrants, international students, tourists and anyone else speaking a language other than English that everyone must speak English – or leave.

These people launch into verbal, or even physical, attacks on public transport when they overhear someone speaking a language other than English. They flood social media and internet forums with posts demanding the use of English to the exclusion of any other language. They even get elected to parliament. They forget, however, that they themselves have failed to master the Queen’s English.

We could remind them that English is only the lingua franca – but lingua franca is a ‘foreign’ phrase. We could remind them that English is the de facto language, but de facto is also a ‘foreign’ phrase.

Please explain…

We could explain why English is not the official language. In most part because one of the 200 or so indigenous languages would also have to be installed as an official language, and that is far too many to choose from. Aussie racists wouldn’t stand for an Aboriginal language being an official language, because their racism is directed most vehemently at Aboriginal people.

Ironically, English is also not the official language of the United Kingdom, which includes England. Thus, English is not the official language in the land of its birth. It does not hold this status because Welsh is the official language of Wales, which is part of the UK. How would Brits feel about Welsh being installed as the official language of the UK?

Furthermore, English is not the official language of the United States. If one country does bigotry well, it’s the US of A. They elected a serial racist to the White House because he promised to build a wall to keep out Spanish speakers and to ban Muslims from entering the country. How would they react if they knew that English is not their official language? How would they grapple with terms like lingua franca and de facto?

Staunch nationalists from Australia, as well as their counterparts in the USA and the UK, might also frown at the news that English itself is a mongrel language, which blends Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Germanic, Latin, Gaelic and Scandinavian influences into one lingua franca.

Image: http://www.worldatlas.com