November 21, 2008


Just returned from our first intercambio or language exchange. In theory, this is supposed to consist of a one-on-one pairing of students of Spanish and English at similar levels for a 15 minute period in one language followed by 15 minutes in the other before exchanging partners and repeating the process until everyone has had, to coin a phrase, equal face time. However, it didn’t work out today quite as smoothly as that for two reasons.

Firstly, there are always more Spaniards in Spain learning English than vice versa so our English-speaking contingent was greatly outnumbered even though it was boosted by numerous Scandinavians! (Whilst there are large communities of Swedes, Norwegians and Danes in Andalucia, there is commensurately no demand for their languages and so the only way they can participate in an event like this is under the anglophone banner.)

Since there were then more than twice as many Spaniards present as anglophones, this meant, in practice, one anglophone to two (sometimes three) Spaniards. And you can just imagine how many more questions two people can throw at you in the course of each 15 minute exchange...

Secondly, the different levels of proficiency in English shown by individual Spanish students from the same class was truly remarkable, ranging from basic to the ultra-fluency displayed by one particularly flamboyant married businessman, Alfonso.

A typical conversation of the first type would go as follows:
‘My name is Nora. What is yours?’
‘Casares.’ Interesting, but I didn’t actually ask for your address.
‘Er, I live in an apartment. Do you live in an apartment or a house?’
‘Arantxa Lopez Zurutuza.’ Well, at least I know who I’m talking to now.

And as for Alfonso, it was his flamboyance rather than his fluency that struck me from the start - when he insisted on kissing every woman entering the room. Eventually, he sat down next to me and a beautiful, married Spanish girl about ten years his junior. Although Pilar and I were already fully engaged in the English part of the exchange, he didn’t hesitate to take over the conduct of the conversation and answer questions on her behalf which she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, seemed to expect, even welcome it.

It wasn’t, however, until I noticed his hand skimming her leg under the desk that it became patently obvious it wasn’t just a conversation he was conducting but an affair too - far from the prying eyes of colleagues and family.

Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe intercambio does include wife swapping within its range of definitions after all…

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