Languages and Dialects on the Camino de Santiago

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kanewai
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Languages and Dialects on the Camino de Santiago

Postby kanewai » Fri Apr 20, 2018 1:57 am

Last summer and fall I walked a couple sections of the Camino de Santiago - 1700 km over 80 days through southern France and northern Spain. It was a phenomenal experience, both on a personal level and on a language-learning level.

I've been meaning to post my experiences for awhile, but if I try to cover everything this will turn into a Tolstoi-level epic. Instead, here are some random, more-or-less linear language experiences.

Lyon. Arrival. I ask for wine in a restaurant. Je voudrais un verre de vin rouge. The waiter asks me what language I'm speaking, and if I speak French or English. I am not off to a good start. Five years of study, and it comes to this. Have I been deluding myself all this time?

Montbonnet. Haute-Loire. Second day on the trail, and I'm staying in a farmhouse with two French families walking with their kids. The hosts join us at the table. It's five children, six adults, and me. For about an hour I can keep up, and even joke with the kids. For another hour I can follow the conversation. And then my brain turns off completely. I wanted immersion, and I'm happy that I got immersion, but I forgot how hard it was.

Saugues. Another farmhouse, and our hostess is speaking loud and fast. Pardon, I apologize. Je ne parle qu'un peu le français. Nonsense, she tells me (in French). I understand just fine. It sounds like an order. One of the families arrives, and I confess that I can't understand our hostess. They laugh, and tell me that they can barely understand her either.

This was my first encounter with regional French accents. I had no idea how diverse the country was. We hear about north / south, but it's far more complex than that. We walk through a different 'France' every couple days, with a new accent, new food, new architecture, and, of course, new cheese. I think I was hearing the Auvergne dialect in Saugues. There was another woman I crossed paths with a lot over the weeks, and even after I settled into speaking French all the time I couldn't understand her, and she could never understand me.

Conques. Averyron. Occitanie. I've been on the trail about ten days now, and the other walkers are from all over the Francophone world. I've only met two other Americans, and a few Germans. Every once in awhile I'll meet someone with a strong southern accent, and I'll ask if it's langue d'oc, or occitan. It's never occitan. One night, at dinner, someone says that he grew up speaking it, and recites some for us. And wow ... it's different! I always thought it might be a variant of French, but this sounded much more like Catalan, or even an Italian-influenced language.

Vallée du Célé. Lot. We've entered duck country. Confit du canard was on the menu three times one week. This might be paradise. A lot of the country people are surprised to meet an American who speaks French. We heard they exist, one woman tells me, but didn't believe it. That might be the best compliment I've ever had.

Eauze. Gers (Gascogne). It's been four weeks, and I think that the Gascon accent is my favorite yet. Of course, it could be that the farms here make their own armagnac, and I loved sitting around the table after dinner warming our cups in our hands and sharing stories.

Near here an old guy on a bicycle stops to talk to me. He's rolling his r's hard, but otherwise I can understand him. It's still French, but not a French like I've ever heard.

Pays Basque. Week five. I was hoping to hear some Basque, but no luck. A lot of the French I talked to say that Basque is a dialect of French (it's not), or at least an older Romance language (it's not). It's a good lesson for to remember: the locals are not always the best experts!

Navarre. Spain. Week six. The trail has become a lot more international, and a lot more crowded, and now the default language is English. In the French countryside no one - absolutely no one - would speak English. Now it's the opposite: no one has any patience for my haltering Spanish. I think the problem is that tens of thousands walk this section every year, and the locals don't have the time to wait for us to find the right words.

The Spanish is different here, too. It sounds like they drop the endings off a lot of their words, so it's harder to follow.

La Rioja. Week seven. I order a beer, and the bartender asks what part of Italy I'm from. I'm American, I tell him. Then why did you order in Italian? he asks me. Aye. I wanted Spanish immersion. Instead I'm getting Italian immersion.

There's a good reason for this. I'll stop for an occasional espresso & cigarette during the day. So do the Italians. This horrifies the anglophones. In the morning, I'll sleep in until the last possible minute. So do the Italians. The anglophones, meanwhile, have already gotten up & have hit the road before the sun is even up. And so my comrades the past couple weeks have been mostly Italians, Brazilians, and other people from Latin countries.

At least I'm not speaking English!

Castilly y León. The Spanish here is easier for me to understand. It sounds more like what you hear on Spanish podcasts and language tapes. And, suddenly, the locals will speak Spanish with me rather than switching automatically to English.

Galicia. I hear more Gallego than Spanish in the cafes and on the streets, though everyone switches to Spanish when they talk to visitors. I've read that Gallego is, more or less, a version of Portuguese. I mention this to someone from Portugal, and she is horrified. I mention this to some Brazilians, and they think I'm joking.

Shockingly, I meet a lot of Americans who have not noticed that people here are speaking an entirely different language. It doesn't sound anything like Spanish. I can't comprehend how they didn't notice. Even the ones who claim to speak Spanish didn't notice.

I'm also surprised how few American polyglots I met. I figured if I would meet them anywhere, it would be here. A lot of people were multilingual - but they were all from Latin countries. Everyone else was their native language + English.

As for the languages you can use on the camino, if any of you walk it one day:

In France: German was the most common language after French. There were very few English speakers.
In Spain: English was the default language on the trail. There were a lot of Italians, Portuguese, and Brazilians. I also heard a fair amount of German and Korean.

For myself, this definitely pushed my French up a level. I feel like I can speak it more naturally. Hopefully I can maintain this. It also helped my Italian a lot, and my Spanish somewhat.

Also, I want to go back.
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Re: Languages and Dialects on the Camino de Santiago

Postby Lawyer&Mom » Fri Apr 20, 2018 3:39 am

This was incredible. Please post more!
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Re: Languages and Dialects on the Camino de Santiago

Postby PeterMollenburg » Fri Apr 20, 2018 4:06 am

Lawyer&Mom wrote:This was incredible. Please post more!


I agree, I very much enjoyed reading this! More please!
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Re: Languages and Dialects on the Camino de Santiago

Postby renaissancemedici » Fri Apr 20, 2018 5:37 am

Yes, I'd like to read more as well.

Why did you decide to walk the camino in the first place? Apparently it's one of the last remaining pilgrimages. What a time travel it must be! Although I doubt the old pilgrims had confit du canard :D
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Re: Languages and Dialects on the Camino de Santiago

Postby MamaPata » Fri Apr 20, 2018 7:17 am

kanewai wrote:Near here an old guy on a bicycle stops to talk to me. He's rolling his r's hard, but otherwise I can understand him. It's still French, but not a French like I've ever heard.


Could have been my dad. :lol: (He is not French but he definitely rolls his r's hard when he speaks French, and he was doing it on his bike around this time.)

I second the others! This was really interesting - it's always cool to see how people use their languages travelling, especially where there's so much regional change. I ended up getting bits from Dad - at one point he had to phone me to help sort something to do with his bike when he was in Spain - but it's interesting to see the different experiences.
Last edited by MamaPata on Sat Apr 21, 2018 1:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Languages and Dialects on the Camino de Santiago

Postby Saim » Fri Apr 20, 2018 9:15 am

kanewai wrote:I've read that Gallego is, more or less, a version of Portuguese.


It's called Galician in English (or "galego" if you want to say the local name), and since both Galician and Portuguese descended from Medieval Galician, if anything it's Portuguese that's a version of Galician.
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Re: Languages and Dialects on the Camino de Santiago

Postby kanewai » Fri Apr 20, 2018 10:06 pm

MamaPata wrote:
kanewai wrote:Near here an old guy on a bicycle stops to talk to me. He's rolling his r's hard, but otherwise I can understand him. It's still French, but not a French like I've ever heard.


Could have been my dad. :lol: (He is not French but he definitely rolls his r's hard when he speaks French, and he was doing it on his bike around this time.)


I wish I had taken a picture! This guy was on an older bike ... it didn't look like it was made for distance. On the off chance, though: does your dad like to tell stories from when he was a sailor in the Pacific?

renaissancemedici wrote:Yes, I'd like to read more as well.

Why did you decide to walk the camino in the first place? Apparently it's one of the last remaining pilgrimages. What a time travel it must be! Although I doubt the old pilgrims had confit du canard :D
.

I actually originally wanted to take a year off and back pack around the world when I turned 50. I didn't get a chance to when I was younger - I was jealous of all those European kids and their gap years! But the closer I got, the more I thought that I wanted something more meaningful than just bumming around. That, and I couldn't afford to take off for a whole year.

As for history, in France it really felt like we were back in a medieval land. You'd walk though the hills and farmland, turn the corner, and their'd be these stunning old towns tucked away in the woods. A lot dated from the '12th Century Renaissance' - a long period of (relative) peace in Europe. Thousands walked the Camino, and all these cathedral towns were founded. That ended with the plague, and then the religious civil wars, and the war between England and France. This area was depopulated and mostly forgotten, but all the stone work survived. It was an amazing landscape to walk through, and mostly non-touristed. We saw more cars and urban areas in northern Spain, but there were still long stretches of countryside and small towns.
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Re: Languages and Dialects on the Camino de Santiago

Postby Axon » Sat Apr 21, 2018 9:56 am

Fantastic post! I loved every word.

There's a wonderful book called Walking the Woods and the Water that details the author's seven month trip from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul by foot. I've read it at least three times. Your post reminds me of it, but this time it's about languages too! How great!
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Re: Languages and Dialects on the Camino de Santiago

Postby garyb » Mon Apr 23, 2018 2:49 pm

Great post! I'd like to do the Camino sometime in my life. Interesting to hear about how it takes you through more rural areas that still have their different accents, dialects or languages, and food. In my travels I've often felt like everything's become more unified, but that's probably because I've tended to visit the more obvious spots and bigger towns.
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Re: Languages and Dialects on the Camino de Santiago

Postby Stelle » Mon Apr 23, 2018 4:41 pm

Lovely post! I walked from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago in March 2014. It’s actually what made me start studying Spanish. When we were walking, there weren’t that many North Americans walking. Lots of Germans, French, Spaniards, Italians and various Scandinavians. It was an amazing experience!

I would love to read more!
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