Sunday, 22 January 2017

My Five Favourite Language Learning Milestones

The road to fluency is long and lined with potholes, into which we want to crawl and never come out of again. The threat of failure stalks us every step of the way, especially in the intermediate stages, and we'd never make it, if there weren't for those splendid little successes that crop up, sometimes when we least expect them. And they have nothing whatsoever to do with passing exams or getting certificates. Here we go:

1. You can identify "your" language(s). You can tell instantly that that book page with Cyrillic text someone's shared on Facebook is, in fact, Ukrainian and not Russian. Or even though you haven't the foggiest idea of what those tourists walking in front of you in the street are yakking on about, you know for certain that it's German and not Dutch, Danish or Swedish. And then you turn the corner really quickly, because it would be soooo embarrassing if they actually tried to ask you anything right now...

2. You've had your first successful communication with a native speaker. It was only half a mangled sentence, but, by golly, you've managed to order yourself a coffee! WHOOP! And the waiter came back... with a coffee! Double-WHOOP! Suddenly, all those hours spent poring over grammar exercises and combing through flashcards seem worthwhile. This experience is so intoxicating that it instantly turns you into a junkie, constantly on the lookout for the next fix. In fact, you're going to ask the waiter RIGHT NOW for the way to the toilet. Even though you can see the door with a big "WC" sign on it from where you're sitting.

3. Remember our tourists from #1? You've now arrived at the point where you can give them directions. (Except if you're me - I'm incapable of giving directions in any language. Must be something congenital. A few months ago, a French couple asked me the way to the cathedral. My response was to raise my right arm and point it in the approximate direction, accompanied by a couple of encouraging grunts - a bit like a gorilla attempting a Nazi salute. Not sure I helped those guys find the cathedral, but it did make them chuckle...)

4. You've understood a joke in your target language. It was trite, banal, barely half a notch above slapstick. But you laughed and laughed till you nearly peed your pants. Because you "got" it. Oh, you were so impressed with yourself that you shared that little gem of teenage humour with all those friends of yours who are native speakers of that language. The next morning, mysteriously, your friend count is down by a dozen.

5. You can follow and engage in a conversation in a noisy bar. This really is the acid test. Until you are in the situation of trying to communicate in another language in a busy place stuffed to the rafters with people and music blaring, you'll probably never have realised just how much work your brain is having to do, which you're mostly unconscious of. Usually, even if you can only hear every third word or so, as long as it's your native language, your brain fills in the blanks for you. It's like when you're engrossed in a book and you're not actually reading the words, but "recognising" them, and when you turn the page, you already know what the next word will be before you see it. If you're still grappling with a language somewhere at intermediate level, your grey cells won't, can't perform this task. You actually need to hear/see every single word in order to understand what's going on - especially since you're still struggling with so much unknown vocab. But once the switch finally flicks and you've mastered the heaving bar scenario, you know you have truly arrived!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Socialising Dilemmas: Which Language?!

Multilingual life can throw up some curious problems in social situations. Even if the people who get together have several languages in common, things can still get unexpectedly awkward.

A few months ago, my Portuguese teacher's son, Jaime, invited me and his mother for lunch in Madrid. Jaime lives and works in Switzerland, and since his German is a bit on the wobbly side, I'd been helping him with his CVs, interview preparation, emails, etc. for the past year and a half. He was briefly in Spain for a wedding, and this would be the first time we'd meet face-to-face.

Teresa was already there when I got to the restaurant, and we chatted in Portuguese while waiting for her son to turn up. When Jaime arrived, we first had to settle on which language to speak. (I usually speak Spanish with him, and some German.) In theory, we share three languages in common: Spanish, Portuguese and English. We decided on Spanish, based on the rationale that my Spanish is significantly better than my Portuguese and that this way, nobody would be left struggling with the conversation. Or so we thought.

After ordering our food, Jaime and I launched right into catching up, since we'd not spoken to each other in a few weeks. At some point, I turned to Teresa to ask her something. She looked at me blankly. Then she said, "Sorry, I'm not actually listening to the conversation... in my head, I'm correcting everything you're saying into Portuguese!"


You see, Teresa and I never speak in Spanish to each other. Except for when I can't think of how to say something in Portuguese, then she helps me out. I also tend to mess up my Portuguese by mixing in Spanish words and expressions (this drives her mad), and in her capacity as my teacher, it's always been her job to correct me relentlessly. It's a deeply ingrained protocol which has served me (and my Portuguese) very well, but in this lunch situation, not so much...

Friday, 6 January 2017

Writing is Just So Damn Hard!

My Portuguese teacher despairs of me. "So, have you written anything this week...?" I look at my fingernails and shake my head. Nope. BUT, as I'm trying to point out to  her, I have done some 'homework' - I've been reading a novel, I've completed various exercises in my grammar & vocab book, I've listened to a couple of podcasts, I've been watching cartoons in Portuguese while having my lunch. I do realise that one lesson a week is not enough to advance my language skills and that I need to work at it a little bit every day. But... I just don't like writing.

"How can you NOT like writing? You write for a living!" She glares at me in stupefaction. I shift uncomfortably in my chair.

Yes, it's a paradox, I realise. In fact, I love writing. As long as I know what I'm doing. I don't like patching together a Frankenessay of words that just don't collocate, sloshing about in a sea of mutilated grammar. I don't like making mistakes, and what I like even less is having a written record of them. It's like being fat in your wedding photo.

I didn't really start writing in English until I was almost in my mid-twenties, when I had to compose my first ever academic essay. At that point, I'd already spent several years in an English-speaking country, in total immersion, reading, listening and speaking, and so I virtually no trouble producing a coherent piece of writing, more or less indistinguishable from something concocted by a native speaker. I'd had so much language input that, when it finally came to producing output, it all came completely naturally. I'd built up sufficient muscle over the years without even noticing or making a conscious effort.

A little while ago, I read In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American writer of Indian heritage (the fact that she's bilingual and bicultural adds an intriguing twist, but I won't go into that right now). Lahiri is already an acclaimed writer (in English) when she moves from the US to Italy and starts writing in Italian, a language she's deeply passionate about. She's been studying Italian on and off for many years, but without ever becoming fluent. She's determined to finally conquer this language and she's doing a lot more than "just" living in Italy and keeping her diary in Italian - she's actually writing In Other Words entirely in Italian - a book destined for publication. So, she's fiddling about with dictionaries, she's having to write in the simplest of sentences, she's totally out of her depth. It's an excruciating process for her, like writing a letter blindfolded, with a pencil wedged between frost bitten toes. And of course, she needs to have everything proofread over and over again by native Italian writers.

She succeeds, evidently, overcoming her fears, limitations, frustrations and incompetence. And she does become fluent in Italian. Kudos to her.

Lahiri is not the only successful author to write in a non-native language, but I'm guessing that not many have attempted such a feat while their command of the language was still rather on the patchy side.

Do I feel at all inspired to follow her example? If only...

Monday, 2 January 2017

My New Year's Language Resolutions

I have a confession to make: I ain't got any. What I do have instead is a loose plan... or maybe it's more of a project. I want to give my Portuguese a kick up the butt. It feels like I've been hovering at the threshold between upper intermediate and advanced forever and ever and what it needs now is a concerted push. I love that language.

To this end, I'll be spending virtually the entire month of March in Lisbon. I've booked myself into a language school to do an "extensive" course. Extensive as opposed to intensive - this means an hour and a half of classes two to three times a week. I'll be staying with someone who works at the school, so I should be able to get some conversation practice in a domestic setting, which is hard to come by in a classroom or when reading books.

I do have another agenda for this trip: I really like Lisbon and I'm considering re-locating there. So, this is going to be a bit of a recon mission, if you will. I've been to Lisbon only twice, and for very short durations. I have a couple of acquaintances there, but no "friends", no network. Nor do I know much about the "language scene" there. I've done a few web searches which haven't come up with anything useful, like book clubs or groups of people who meet up to practice languages. I'm thinking, though, that these must surely exist in a capital city. So, I'll have my research cut out when I get to Lisbon!

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Sliding Deeper and Deeper Into Russian

Oh, how the worm has turned. Those of you who've been reading this blog over the past month will have followed the story of how I slithered from being determined to focus on my French to ditching it and taking up Russian instead - a language I'd not touched in thirty years and never thought I'd return to. Ever. I so did not see this coming. Why not just stick with French - conversational fluency and reading novels was just around the corner, while reaching that level in Russian is likely to take the best part of a decade! What a ludicrous undertaking... it makes no sense at all - I can't say that I feel any special affinity for Russia or its culture. It's like some shrivelled-up spores of Russian had been lying in wait deep inside my brain for decades and something somehow made them sprout tentacles. The whole thing is totally beyond my control. And it's got a lot worse since my last post.

Thursday last week I told my French teacher I'd that it was over. I would not be returning for any more classes. She looked at me, crestfallen. "No," I tried to assure her, "it's not you, it's me..." Then she got the grammar book out and beat me round the head with it for the entire last session.

That very same evening, I found myself googling local Russian teachers. Just to kill some time before bed, you understand. Just before midnight, my first Russian class was booked for Monday morning. With Yelena, a native Russian speaker from Ukraine, who, coincidentally, lives right across the street from my Portuguese teacher. She turned out to be a warm, smiley person about my age and an experienced teacher to boot. Her teaching approach is structured but not rigid - perfect for where I'm at. My first class went fairly well. We refreshed my reading and writing skills; we talked noun genders; I attempted to produce the many unfathomable versions of "shshshsh" and we had eloquent conversations like "Is this a cat?" "No, this is not a cat. It is a bag." It was all quite riveting, I assure you.

People say that your brain plays tricks on you by editing your memories to make past experiences seem less traumatic than they were at the time. Well, my mind has done a sterling job at smoothing out my first encounter with Russian (which I studied at school for two years). For example, I remember Russian to be more or less phonetic. But it so isn't! You need to know how to pronounce each word, you cannot just guess how to say it correctly from seeing it written down. And there are, of course, no rules. Sigh. But then again, English is like that...

I realise it's a bit rich for a German to be complaining about another language's words being... erm.. too long, but monstrosities like "достопримечательностями" are a bit hard to swallow for a Born Again Beginner like me. No, it's not some specialist term referring to a ceremonial method of roasting monkeys practiced by a tribe in New Guinea. достопримечательностями is basic tourist vocabulary, meaning "attractions" or "sights". Oh well. I guess I'll be practising that one in my next lesson coming up on Wednesday.

Monday, 31 October 2016

When A Language Is Not A Love Match

French and I have fallen out again. I fear it may be terminal. This is somewhat embarrassing, since less than a month ago (on 8th October, to be exact), not only did I splash out a hundred and sixty bucks on a one-year-subscription to, but blogged excitedly about my fresh surge of enthusiasm for the language (see here). It didn't last. In fact, I've never been closer to ditching French altogether.

French, it seems, brings out the worst of my fickleness. The reason I started this tête-à-tête in the first place a year and a half ago was due to a sense of long-held, insidious embarrassment. Most people I know have at least a basic knowledge of French, because they were made to study it at school for a couple of years. Some took it further. Most didn't, but smattering of it stuck, and, in my observation, it serves them well.

Every time I delve into classic literature, I find it littered with French words and phrases. This makes sense from an historical perspective: In the 19th century, novels and other works were largely written by middle class authors for a middle class readership, and the middle (and upper) class(es) spoke French. Even today, these French fragments remain firmly on the pages of classic works, largely untranslated, and thereby inaccessible to me. (Or rather, inaccessible to the "Pre-May-2015-Me", which is when I started engaging with the French language for the first time in my life.) My primary motivation was to finally plug this gap in my education, and I assumed that love would slowly blossom, with a view towards making myself another linguistic home in the francophone sphere.

Unfortunately, it ain't happening. For all my willing it, I have not managed to turn, what was clearly a head decision, to resonate with me on an emotional level. The positive feedback loop I had been expecting to carry me forward through the sticky bits is gasping its last desperate puffs, like fish in a shallow pool of tepid water, ready to go belly up at any moment.

French and I just don't connect. It's a bit like growing weary of a house guest, who was exciting and fun at first, but who's now driving you round the bend with his idiosyncrasies and domestic ineptitudes. He ignores the dirty dishes in the sink, leaves the cap off the toothpaste, and never puts the toilet seat back down. AND he expects special treatment.

Endless lists of exceptions in grammar, vocab and pronunciation, which (on a good day) I find so endearing in Portuguese and which, to my mind, give a language its "character", irritate the hell out of me in French. There's a saying that goes something like this: "If you're fond of someone, you don't mind if they drop their dinner into your lap, but with someone you dislike, it bothers you how they hold their spoon". It feels like French is putting up barriers on purpose, just to annoy the learner. And me, in particular. It shouldn't be all that difficult - I'm already fluent in Spanish, my Portuguese is coming along just fine, and so a third Romance language ought to be a piece of cake on a silver platter! Yes, the whole thing is totally irrational, but whether someone takes to a language or not is rarely rooted in logic. Above all, you need chemistry, and that's what's missing between French and moi.

Despite this conclusion and all my whining, I don't consider my having invested effort into learning French a waste of time, not in the least. In fact, it has enriched my life, since I've pretty much reached my goal and can now immerse myself in the tomes of yesteryear without choking on turgid chunks of Français. I've even decided to spend a wee bit more time on it, at least until my command over this enfant terrible is on the same level as everyone else's "Bad French".

My long-term goal is to speak five languages "really well", and the only thing that has changed is that I now no longer think that French is going to be one of them.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Is Russian Worth Another Go?

I'm rekindling an old romance. I don't think it's serious... I'm just toying with him... but you never know. His name is Russian. We parted thirty years ago, after going steady for two whole years. I left him for English. Who was a lot less complicated.

Russian was so not my idea. We ended up together because of a school friend of mine. Actually, it was her mother's fault. She was a beautiful woman, my friends's mother, whose manfriends changed at regular intervals. My friend was forever competing for her attention, and the latest beau spoke Russian. So, as soon as she got wind that the neighbouring school was putting on extracurricular Russian classes and was looking for more students to make up numbers, my friend had to go for it. But not alone.
So, you want us to walk all the way across town to learn... Russian?! 
Yeah, it's gonna be such fun! 
On a Friday afternoon? You think I've nothing better to do?!?

And so, off to Russian we went. There were only seven of us. One of them was the teacher's long-suffering son, another one had long blue hair. As for the rest, I do not remember. We were taught by a flame-haired Hungarian woman who was all but four feet tall, but made up for it by sheer force of energy, killer heels and lashings of green eye shadow.

Every week, she made us take turns reading aloud from the textbook and I was terrified before each lesson because of that. I hate reading aloud. In any language. To this day. But I loved writing, and so I started writing my teenage diaries in Cyrillic script. I still have them, and I'm glad I do, because I can remind myself of how to write cursive Cyrillic. (Just in case it gets serious again.) It seems I was quite creative back then, using half a Cyrillic "х" (as in the word хорошо) to represent the letter "h", which doesn't exist in Russian. My invented cursive version looks like a back-to-front Roman "c".

My sweaty-browed weekly stammerings culminated in a glorious reward: five days in Moscow, during a time when the iron curtain was still firmly drawn shut. We ate blinchiki topped with sour cream and red caviar for breakfast every morning. My friend managed seven in one sitting. I was in awe. She was severely bulimic, which I didn't know at the time. It did, however, get her mother's attention.

We queued up in a bakery for half an hour and came out with two carrier bags full of mini-bagel shaped things that tasted of nothing and had the texture of recycled cardboard.

You asked for 2000g instead of 200g, didn't you? 
Next time, YOU do the talking!

Russian and I are on cautious terms. So far, our dates have been limited to a daily ten-minute frisson on Duolingo - four days and counting.

I have a confession to make: I ditched Italian for Russian. Poor Italian didn't see it coming. We had a two-day fling back in early October. Yes, you could say I led him on. But it's just not gonna work out for us right now. I've already got plenty on my plate with his rambunctious brothers, Spanish, Portuguese and French. There's waaaay to much Romance in my life! It's their verbs that get to me the most: there's fifty different versions for each and every one of them; different tenses, different moods - I cannot cope with another helping of this nonsense, I just can't.

Russian, on the other hand, bypasses superfluous verbiage altogether. "She my mother." "Where Park?" "Your father here." "This not bus. This taxi". Nothing could be more attractive to me right now. Darn it, Russian is roping me right in with his seductive straight talk!