I used to think learning a language was a doddle. All you had to do was to go and live in the country and by magic, you would find yourself so immersed in the language that you would acquire it by some sort of osmosis – no effort needed. That’s what I used to think.
And Now? Now I think learning a language is like living in the dark ages when it takes a month of Sundays for you to even recognize a single word, never alone use it.
Umpteen years ago when I met this rather gorgeous looking electrician in my newly purchased flat in Spain I realized I just had to learn Spanish. As I stumbled into the spanking new flat he and I smiled at each other and then waved our hands about furiously trying to communicate. He was speaking Spanish and I was speaking English and neither of us understood each other. It was only by his actions that I knew he was putting the final touches to the electricity.
So, how was I going to master this wonderful language? I know me, lazy to the nth degree. Well, being a learnaholic (is there such a word?) I might as well study myself trying to learn Spanish – then I would have to learn something at least!
So, I borrowed all these antiquated courses from the library and set to work, keeping a diary as I went. Being a musician of sorts, of course I will pick it up by ear. Rubbish! Listening to the first CD I dived for the dictionary, anything so that I could see what was being said.
With a few words under my belt I stepped out of the flat to explore and practise speaking. I was met by a bevy of Spaniards who were terribly excited about something. A group of ladies, obviously the gossips of the building, rushed forward to share the news. I didn’t understand much at all – something about machete and young girl and was it death I heard? ‘er Donde?’ I asked – hoping I hadn’t guessed right and someone hadn’t died – but if they had, where? They pointed to the flat in front of us, in our building! Did that mean there was a murderer on the loose? Was I safe? It took me years to find out that the man who lived in that flat had knifed his lover in the bar at the end of the road. He’s obviously languishing in prison because the flat has been taken over by a conglomerate or something.
So, if the language learning wasn’t progressing well, maybe the study was. I had piles of notes for my diary. I decided I needed to record a conversation to prove that I could make myself understood. I needed a key to the roof, for some reason they had forgotten to give me one. I found the location of the president of the community and knocked on his door. The door swung open and he handed me a glass of bubbly. Well, I wasn’t going to turn that down was I? I held my voice recorder in front of me to check it was all right for me to record us. He nodded and proceeded to talk at me ten to the dozen. When he finally took a breath I asked for a key to the roof please? He said yes! He understood me! Success! Then he went on about something else, I had no idea what. I would look up some of the words when I get home. Several glasses later I waved goodbye and left. Back in my own flat, I sat down to transcribe our conversation. I could not understand a single word he said. I listened again. Surely I would understand him when he gave me the key – I would hear the word for key. Then it dawned on me. It was not his Spanish that I did not understand – the man was drunk and slurring his words so badly that nobody could ever hope to understand what he was saying no matter which language he was using! So, learning a language is no doddle, of that I am firmly convinced – no matter how you go about it. It’s hard slog all the way!
More like this can be found in Rosemary Westwell’s book ‘Out of a Learner’s Mouth’ available from the author