Wireliz Soto-González recently completed her master’s in art history at the University of Barcelona. Jorge Fernández de Jesús received a master’s in biology at the University of Navarra at Pamplona and is a teacher of English with the Council on International Educational Exchange. Both graduated from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez.
What was it like studying at a Spanish university?
Soto-González: The matriculation process went smoothly and classes were not as demanding as I expected. The professors are not strict with attendance or class participation. Sadly, the courses were given with a slightly Eurocentric perspective. Aside from the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba, they knew very little, especially on themes relating to art. The difference between my Spanish peers and Latin-American/Asian peers was noticeable with respect to grades, interactions with professors, and overall treatment: Xenophobia can still be a serious institutional problem.
Fernández de Jesús: At the beginning it was challenging. It took time to get used to the teaching style, since it is different from Puerto Rico, and at the same time I was adapting to a new country. After those early difficulties, things got easier, and overall the experience was satisfying.
How did professors and students respond to Puerto Rican Spanish?
Soto-González: Often I had to explain the political relations between Puerto Rico and the U.S. for people to understand my constant use of Spanglish -- and how I could change from one language to another in the same sentence without any problem. My peers loved it, and actually asked for help with their English. On the other hand, professors didn’t like it, and instead asked that every international student take a Catalan-language course (because we were in Catalonia, not Spain) and improve our Castilian.
Fernández de Jesús: Students and professors seemed confused by my accent, since Puerto Rican Spanish is not very common there. Puerto Rican immigrants are rare in Spain, and not many Spaniards have traveled to Puerto Rico. I was asked if I were Canarian, Andalusian, Cuban, or Dominican, and every so often Colombian or Venezuelan. Many people said my accent was funny in a positive way.
Did you experience any confusion because of the variances in Spanish between Spain and Puerto Rico?
Soto-González: I experienced many difficulties adapting to the language, even though it’s my native tongue. Even simple words were sometimes complicated. I expected “¡oye tío!” and lots of swearing but was surprised at the constant use of Catalan in Spanish — catañol. So it was not only a question of regionalisms and different words, there was another language mixed in the matter.
I had peers from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Mexico, and for the first six months almost every conversation involved the “weirdness” of Castilian and the difficulties of the Catalan. But once we adapted, we started learning and using new words in our vocabulary.
Some professors didn’t know how to say some things or communicate a thought in full Castilian Spanish. In written assignments, they had to ask us individually what we meant because they didn’t understand us and we didn’t understand them. That was a fundamental factor in the learning and grading process; some faculty opted for ignoring more than half of the class and did not read their assignments.
There were also variances in Spanglish. It was surprising that Spaniards use many words from English that we don’t use in Puerto Rico. Like “bol” instead of “envase,” referring to a bowl, and “footing” in Spain means “jogging” rather than what it means in English. They also modify the spelling of some English words to make them more pronounceable in Spanish, like “cúter” for “cutter”.
Fernández de Jesús: The variance was confusing at the beginning, yes, but only with a few people, mainly the elderly. It was mostly related to pronunciation. The common struggle I had was that people asked me to repeat and to speak slower because it was hard for them to understand my accent. But I did not interpret this as people trying to correct me; it was just a normal issue when people with different dialects of a language interact.
My Spanish went through some changes, especially in vocabulary. There are many words in Puerto Rican Spanish that have other meanings or are different in Spain’s Spanish. I incorporated some Spanish phrases and words as a substitution for their Puerto Rican equivalents. I still even use some of them. My syntax changed in past and future conjugations: Spaniards tend to use the compound past (present perfect) for recent events and the simple future, in contrast to the simple past (preterit) and the occasional phrasal future tense of Puerto Ricans (estarán llegando instead of the Spanish llegarán). My accent and pronunciation changed slightly.
I had Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Argentinian, Chilean, and Dominican friends and classmates. They suffered fewer changes in their way of speaking Spanish, basically because they had other people of their respective countries to talk to in the area, while I did not.
Did you ever have to change a word or phrase to reduce the influence of English in your Spanish?
Soto-González: There’s no doubt that Spanglish is a way of life. I came to reason with myself, and became very cautious about my expression depending on with whom I spoke. At the beginning I tried speaking only full-on Spanish; it didn’t work. The occasional “so…” and “anyway…” and “OK ...” were constantly present. When I forced it, I couldn’t even translate them to Spanish. But in the end my Spanglish was more useful than anything: All of my peers said they envied it. Even with my faulty Spanglish-to-Spanish translations, my Castilian with these nuances seemed more complex, more eloquent, and sometimes more expressive than that of my Spanish peers and professors.
I realized in Spain that my English was excellent, and that sometimes it was easier to communicate in that language instead of Spanish.
Fernández de Jesús: Yes, this happened often. Otherwise they would not understand what I was meaning. I even learned the Spanish equivalent of some words and phrases which I did not know, since I always used them in Spanglish. On the other hand, I was surprised by the fact that some words that we mostly use in Spanish in Puerto Rico, in Spain they used them in Spanglish, like “stop” instead of “pare” for the traffic sign, “marketing” instead of “mercadeo,” “flipar” (“flip out”) instead of “caerse para atrás” or “entusiasmarse,” among other examples.
It was a great linguistic experience. My vocabulary and perceptiveness developed, and I can also say that now I can speak two varieties of Spanish.
Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera is an associate professor in the department of humanities at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. His books include After American Studies (Routledge, 2018), In Paris or Paname: Hemingway’s Expatriate Nationalism, and, as editor, Paris in American Literatures.