Gender, culture and language

Last weekend I went to the beach with friends” – there is nothing extraordinary about this sentence, to an English speaker…

But say the same sentence to a Spanish speaker and they have many doubts…Were your friends all female or all male or a mixture of males and females? Were any of them couples or your boyfriend/girlfriend?

Does it really matter? To a Latin American, definitely!!!

Teaching English and learning Spanish in Chile over the last 16 months or so has taught me many things about the subtleties and ambiguities of language. To us English speakers, the concept of gender does not exist, apart from the obvious words like man, woman, girl, boy that refer to a specific gender. We never have to contemplate whether the chair or mountain or knee is masculine or feminine. It is simply the chair, the mountain, the knee etc…In Spanish, not only do you have to differentiate according to gender in terms of the articles la or el (the), but you also have to make sure that any adjectives you are using also agree with the noun according to the gender…

So “the beautiful mountain” in English translates to “la montaña hermosa” in Spanish. Sounds simple? Put yourself in my shoes as someone trying to learn this language…to say these three simple words I have to first think of whether the mountain is male or female (and go figure why said mountain is female in the first place and not male…), then I have to choose the feminine article la and finally I have to remember to use the correct ending of the adjective (a/o) to ensure noun/adjective agreement…

Many times I think I have managed to say some complex sentence using all the correct pronouns in the correct places (not easy and a subject for another post) and have felt rather proud of myself, only to be corrected by whoever I am talking to because I used a masculine adjective when it should have been feminine….hermoso instead of hermosa…AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!

But enough of Spanish grammar 101, let’s go back to my original sentence of going to the beach with friends…the discussion I had about this concept with one of my English students got me thinking of the link between culture and language…and why the use of amigos (males) or amigas (females) is so important…

Chileans (and probably Latinos in general), are extremely curious, almost to the point of being really nosy. A classic example that has happened to me countless times since coming to South America is the typical question of “do you have a boyfriend?” That may not seem like such an offensive question, except that it is often asked within about 5 seconds of meeting someone…and that someone does not necessarily have to be a new acquaintance at a party or something…it could be the taxi driver, cashier at the local corner shop or a new English student. At first this question would annoy me intensely, but I have become so used to it nowadays. People actually mean no harm in asking… it is just the way they do things on this continent.

I think part of it also comes down to the rather chauvinistic culture in Latin America…it is mostly men asking if you have a boyfriend, which to me insinuates that they find it hard to understand how a female can be independent and travel to another country on her own without it having to be with a guy or for a guy…

So through language, I am realising just how different my predominantly anglo-saxon culture is to the latino culture…and that is exactly why I love travelling, experiencing and absorbing other cultures, countries, languages and customs…

There is definitely never a dull moment in my life here as I slowly come to terms with “the Chilean way…”

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