Let’s Talk Galego (which ISN’T Spanish, people!)

Each week on the Let’s Talk series, I’ll be featuring a language learner who will share their heroic process of mastering a foreign tongue. Next up, Trevor talks Galician.

Trevor Huxham: Let's Talk Galician

Xoubas “SHOW-vahs” /ˈʃow.βas/ n. Language: Galician. Meaning: What tiny sardines are called in the Rías Baixas or western Atlantic coastline. Galician cooking is famous for its seafood, and empanada de xoubas is but one example from the delicious cornucopia they have to offer here. 

My name is Trevor Huxham and I’ll be entering my third year as a language assistant in Spain this coming fall. Two years ago I worked at an elementary school in rural Andalucía (Jaén province), but last year I moved to northwestern Spain, settling in the capital of the Galicia region: Santiago de Compostela. The local Galician language seemed like an interesting curiosity at first, but after being immersed in a Galician-speaking environment at my school, I can now understand the language at the same level I can with Spanish. This summer I’ve been studying a proper grammar so I hope to practice speaking it in the fall!

Galician is spoken by about 2.3 million people, primarily in Galicia, an autonomous region in the northwest corner of Spain. Despite its high intelligibility with both Spanish and Portuguese, it is NOT a dialect of either; rather, it is considered its own language. 

Numbers for Words

1. How many years have you studied it? I’ve studied Galician for almost a year now, from casually browsing the (English!) Wikipedia article on the language in the beginning to accidentally replying to my preschool students in Galician at the end of the school year.

2. How would you describe your fluency? 1–10 (0, a houseplant speaks this language better than me. 5, I’m just barely fluent; 11, I could write the dictionary.) 4. Though it’s hard to say, as my listening comprehension is 90-95%, but I struggle to say even complete phrases—perhaps because I’m shy but also because I don’t know the imperfect and past forms of all those irregular verbs.

3. Rate difficulty in learning this language on a scale of 1-5 for each of the following categories: If Spanish and Dutch are 1s on a scale of language learning difficulty, with Chinese and Arabic on the 5 end of things, then I would place Galician as a solid 2 overall.

     a. Pragmatics/communicational competence. (Appropriate use of language in context.) Apart from the standard T-V distinction you find in many European languages (e.g., ti vs. vostede, or tú vs. usted in Spanish), there’s nothing too crazy you have to be aware of.

     b. Grammar 2. As a Romance language, Galician comes with all of the Latinate baggage you’d expect—grammatical gender, lots of verb conjugations, etc.—but because articles and object pronouns are only one letter long (o and a instead of él/lo and la in Spanish), contractions run rampant in this language. And because object pronouns can come after the verb (unlike in Spanish, where they come before), you can have phrases like xa díxencho (“I already told you it”), which comes from xa “now” + dixen “I said” + che “to you” + o “it.” Yeah. Confusing.

Trevor Huxham: Let's Talk Galicain

In Lugo, a city in Galicia

     c. Pronunciation 1. Galician has basically the same sound system as Spanish with the “sh” sound /ʃ/ thrown in along with two lax vowels: “eh” /ɛ/ and “oh” /ɔ/. The swinging diphthongs EI and OU take some time to get used to, but overall Galician is very easy to pronounce, especially since it lost all those nasalized vowels its sister, Portuguese, still has!

     d) Vocabulary 2. Galician is a Romance language like French or Italian, so English’s huge collection of Latin-based words will help you out just as it would in Spanish; e.g., can means “dog” (think canine). Some words are exactly the same in Spanish—paz vs. paz (“peace”)—some are different but follow regular rules—galiña vs. gallina (“hen”), xente vs. gente (“people”), terra vs. tierra (“earth”)—but then there are some that are similar enough but you would never expect them to be different unless you knew the word already—garavanzos vs. garbanzos (“chickpeas”), tartaruga vs. tortuga (“turtle”), so that can be frustrating.

     e) Spelling 1. Galician follows Spanish orthography, so if you know how to spell in Spanish, you already know how to write and read Galician. Thankfully written Spanish is very phonetic already, so What You See Is What You Get. The letter X represents the “sh” sound /ʃ/ and the digraph NH represents the “ng” sound /ŋ/ (not as in Portuguese, where it makes the “ny” sound /ɲ/). Sometimes you’ll see people write Galician as if it was Portuguese (e.g., umas folhas em Galiza instead of unhas follas en Galicia “some leaves in Galicia”), but the official norm is derived from Castilian.

Language Meets Culture

1. Reinforce for me in ONE way or ONE example, from your own experience, the idea that language and culture are inseparable. This question is very open-ended, and it’s meant to be ;) 

In general, Spaniards are known for being very direct, straightforward, and even blunt. People answer the phone with a brusque, “¡Dime!” which literally means “tell me!” but is simply their way of starting a phone conversation: tell me why you’re calling, don’t beat around the bush, let’s get down to business.

Similarly, when ordering food, drinks, tickets, etc., Spaniards don’t use the polite quisiera or me gustaría that we learn in school: they get straight to the point and say dame un café con leche (“give me a coffee”) or dame la próxima para Salamanca (“give me the next [departure] for Salamanca”). The baristas or ticket agents don’t even bat an eye.

This has been a big struggle for me, coming from Anglo/American culture where we like to soften our requests so we don’t sound rude or to make them sound humbler or whatever—and on top of that I’m a very laid-back, introverted kind of guy so I feel really uncomfortable saying what, literally translated in English, means “GIVE IT!” But Spanish culture is just so much more direct that these basic command forms don’t carry the negative connotations they do in English.

2. Did language inspire you to travel? Or did travel inspire/force you to study language?

I’ve always wanted to see Spain, so becoming fluent in Spanish (and learning Galician!) has made traveling around this country extremely easy; I feel “at home” here in a way I don’t at all in Morocco or Portugal, for example. But I informally studied French in college and really enjoyed finally getting to speak it while in France, however simple my grasp of the language was. And my desire to check out Italy forced me to scramble as I was boarding the airplane to review Italian survival phrases, words, and key verb conjugations. By the end of the week I was able to ask my Italian seatmates on the plane if we were flying over of the island of Corsica.

Trevor Huxham: Let's Talk Galician

With the Compostela, or Pilgrim’s certificate, after completing part of the Camino de Santiago

3. Provide an example of how this language has helped you integrate yourself or become more invested in your travels or your life abroad. 

Learning the Galician language has been very helpful in getting integrated in my rural elementary school where nearly everybody speaks Galician as their mother tongue, unlike in the bigger cities where Spanish vies for popularity with Galician. All of the teachers have conversations in Galician—be they official meetings, chit-chat during recess, a post-lunch sobremesa, or gossip on the car ride home—and the preschoolers can barely distinguish between Galician and Spanish as it is. I was too shy to actually speak Galician instead of Spanish (which I am much more confident in), but this coming school year I am planning on trying to communicate mainly in Galician if possible.

4. You are this language’s lawyer. Build a case for it. Why should people study this language?

Man, it’s pretty hard to make the case for learning Galician, as it’s basically useless outside of the region of Galicia. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in picking up another language and you already know Spanish, beautiful, singsong Galician is probably its closest-related cousin and has tons of resources to help you learn. If you’re moving to Galicia for work or studies, picking up even a little galego will take you far and help you out a lot when trying to figure out what the heck the locals are saying. Large expat communities exist in New York and Buenos Aires, so even in the Americas you’re sure to find some galego-falantes (Galician speakers) somewhere.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: Let's Talk Galician

The famous cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia

Some Fun Stuff

1. Favorite word in the language. 

Cereixa “cherry,” because the way it’s pronounced (“thay-RAY-EE-shah” [θeˈɾej.ʃa]) sounds so delicate and sweet.

2. A word that doesn’t translate directly to English, and approximately what it means. 

Morriña, a very Galician form of homesickness. Because millions of Galicians have emigrated over the centuries, Galicia’s many sons and daughters abroad have always felt homesick: a longing nostalgia for their homeland, a melancholic disposition, and an ache to return.

3. Any insane differences that blew your mind as a native English speaker. 

Conjugated infinitives. I don’t even know how these work but it seems like a paradox since aren’t infinitives by definition the unconjugated form of a verb? Someone who’s been studying Galician for a few years now mentioned this in passing and now I’m really terrified!

4. A little somethin’ extra: 

If you’re curious, I’ve written two blog posts about some random musings and linguistic observations about the language.

Here are 22 fun facts about Galician.

And why stop there? 20 MORE fun facts here!

And in conclusion . . . .

Nas aldeas falan galego moito máis que nas grandes cidades da costa, pero o galego é a lingua oficial en toda a comunidade. “People speak Galician a lot more in the villages than in the big coastal cities, but Galician is the official language in the entire region.”

A huge thanks to Trevor! You can check out his wonderful blog, A Texan in Spain, which I started reading before I moved to Bilbao to teach English. To read more from heroic language learners in the Let’s Talk series, click here. And make sure to follow A Thing For Wor(l)ds on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

Are you a foreign language learner? Email me at athingforwords (at) gmail (dot) com to be part of the series!

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  • Pedro1312

    i would like to point out that Galician language is in fact a Spanish language together with Basque, Catalan or Castilian, for such languages are spoken within Spain, hence they are Spanish, just like Welsh Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic are British languages because they are spoken within Britain.

    it is better and more correct to say that Galician is not Castilian, for the word Spanish is vague and confusing.

    Castilian language: the main Spanish language in Spain.

    Spanish language: it can be used to describe what people speak in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador or in Spain, but lots of Spaniards refer as Castilian to what is spoken in Spain.

    so when Jenny said “let’s talk Gallego (which isn’t Spanish)” it should say Which isn’t Castilian :)