Trying to master a foreign language

Antonio Muñoz Molina

Every day, I look for speeches in Spanish online so I can practice understanding and interpreting. I have started to listen for accents. What does someone from La Havana sound like, compared to, say, someone from Buenos Aires, or, in the case of Antonio Muñoz Molina, from Úbeda?


A couple weeks ago, I found this interview of Antonio Muñoz Molina on YouTube. I first learned about Antonio Muñoz Molina last summer. I was looking for seminars that I could attend in Spain. One looked especially promising. it was in Santander and it was called “Antonio Muñoz Molina: Itinerario de un aprendizaje”. A Spanish author was going to tell us all about the people and experiences that had influenced his writing.

I knew nothing about Muñoz Molina, so I looked him up. I also looked up the books on the reading list. It was a long list, but, fortunately, many were classics that I had read years ago, like the Aspern Papers by Henry James, or Absalom, Absalom by Faulkner. There were also many books by the author himself. I knew I could never get through them all (I read slowly in Spanish), so I picked three. El Robinson Urbano and Beltenebros, because they were short, and Ventanas de Manhattan, because the guy at the bookstore in Santander personally recommended it, and also because I thought it would be interesting to read about a foreigner discovering a city I knew fairly well, in a foreign language, that I myself was discovering. That seemed to be the right mix of familiarity and strangeness.

A few weeks ago, I came upon the above link. Back in Santander, six months ago, I could understand what people were saying, more or less, provided they didn’t talk too fast or all at once. Spaniards are what Deborah Tannen calls high-involvement speakers. Nobody wants to wait for the previous speaker to be finished before jumping in. It makes for animated conversation, but it’s an added difficulty if you are still struggling to understand. I don’t find it particularly disturbing that people would want to talk all at once–French people do it too. I suspect it’s a trait of Mediterranean culture. My grandmother and mother did it. I do it in French all the time–but I try to refrain from it in English.

I could certainly follow the seminar, and I took copious notes. With hindsight, however, I realize that I wasn’t hearing everything there was to hear. At the time, I was only dimly aware of accents, for instance. I could recognize a Porteño accent–you would have to be deaf not to hear the Italian-sounding lilt and and all the “sh” sounds where you would normally expect “y” sounds. To me, Spanish people just sounded really fast.

When I came upon the link to the interview with Muñoz Molina, I immediately recognized his voice, which has a very characteristic timbre. I also realized I was distinguishing something more. In the interview, in an answer to a question about the Spanish Civil War, he says:

“….estar peleandonos por lo que occurió hace tres cuartos de siglo, cuando el presente y el porvenir son tan difíciles y nos presentan problemas…”

But it comes out sounding like:

“…etar peleandono por lo que occurió hace tres cuarto de siglo, cuando el presente y el porvenir son tan difícile y no presentan problema….”

Wait a second, where did all the “s” go? “Is this an accent?” I wondered. I listened to the evening news on TVE, just to check. Sure enough, the Spanish newscasters all sound like human machine guns, but they do pronounce “s”.

Why am I only hearing this now? I guess that the awakening of my ears is a new stage in my own apprenticeship.


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