Thursday, 3 May 2018

Friends with (linguistic) benefits

"What's happening to your Portuguese?!?" she said, ...and it wasn't a mere enquiry. In fact, it was the opposite of a compliment.

When I still lived in Spain, Teresa, my Portuguese teacher and friend, and I used to see each other every week. Since my move back to Germany nine months ago, we've been catching up on the phone once or twice a month. And, of late, she was clearly less than impressed with the deterioration of my fluency.

Something had to be done. I'd put in too much effort (and money!) to let it all go to waste. I love, love, love Portuguese! Plus, I wanted to maintain my friendship with Teresa without having to switch to Spanish or English when it came to expressing more complex issues.

So, I posted a message in a facebook group called "Portugueses em Munique," offering German and/or English in exchange for Portuguese. I made it clear that I was looking for someone who lived close to me, either in my town or an adjacent one.

I had quite a few responses, mostly from people who actually lived in Munich, which to be honest, is a bit far to meet up for a coffee on a regular basis. I just don't have the time for a 4-hour round trip twice a week. I very nearly agreed to get together with one woman who lived in an inconvenient-to-get-to part of Munich...until she revealed that she had a 12-month-old baby. No way(!) am I schlepping all the way out there and back to listen to a bawling baby and endure monologus interruptus about the trials and tribulations of motherhood in a foreign country. Meh...!

I also had a response from a guy who lived very close by, but who then turned out to be a young teenager. Sorry, sweetie, I was actually looking for people with friend potential... although I could probably have done with someone who could drill me on smartphone shortcuts.

And then there was Ana. Who - I could hardly believe my luck! - lived just around the corner from me! Actually, Ana had been the first one to respond, but we didn't pick up the conversation until the next day.

We met in a restaurant down the street a couple of days later, and we clicked right away. Ana told me that she worked as a secretary at a local engineering firm that was owned by a Portuguese company. She had only been in Germany for a couple of months and wasn't fluent in German yet. Although she had studied German at university a decade ago, she hadn't really been using the language and had forgotten most of it.

For just over a month now, we've been meeting up about twice a week, exploring the nearby towns and villages and indulging in far too much ice cream. We are both delighted to finally have made a local friend.

And I am also delighted to report that my last conversation with Teresa was something resembling A PROPER CONVERSATION :)


Friday, 9 February 2018

At The Precipice of Change

A quick update, since I'm in the middle of packing... and still pootling about in my PJs after midday. Scandalous! I'm off to Spain tomorrow for two weeks and a bit, catching up with my friends and having a social life again - HURRAAAAH! -  punctuated by boring things like closing my bank accounts and working.

I'll be staying with three different friends which, so I hope, will give my domestic Spanish a bit of a boost. Knowing a language well, I feel, is very much about competently navigating as many different registers as possible, and since I've never actually shared my day-to-day life and living space with any Spanish speakers, I still have some considerable gaps.

The other piece of news is that, a day and a half after I get back from Spain, I'll be starting my CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) course. After an involved application process, I was accepted onto the course, and for me it will be the start of a new era.

Frankly, I'm anxious about how I'm going to manage it all, keeping up with my work commitments (I've got a brand new corporate client to please on top of servicing the existing ones) AND taking two days out of every week to attend the course, write lesson plans, complete assignments, do the reading and other prep work. But there's no point fretting... I've made the decision and now I've got to follow through. And as daunting as it seems right now, I'm actually very excited about learning new things, meeting new people and expanding my skills base.

But as for now... that suitcase won't fill itself, I fear...!

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Time For A New Direction?

I'm not 100% sure yet that I really want to do this. It'll be a lot of money and a lot of work. Not to mention having to get up early. There's still time to change my mind. But I had to kick off the process - there are deadlines involved.

For years now, I've been thinking about turning my obsession with languages from a hobby into a "proper" profession. There are two obvious routes: translation and teaching. Translation would mean more hours glued to the screen, poring over minutiae, and frankly, I already get enough of this with my current work. What I need is more people interaction, to get away from the computer. Therefore, teaching is the obvious answer.

Teach what? German? It's my native language, and with the current refugee crisis, demand for German teachers seems to be outstripping supply. But no. German grammar reduces grown men to tears, and I'm convinced that modal particles made Mark Twain chew the carpet at least a couple of times during his illustrious lifetime. Also, when I briefly checked out what it would take to become a German teacher, it seemed to be a 2-year process, and that really is beyond the pale for me.

Spanish? I would love to. People go to Spanish classes because they want to, not because they have to, and they're just the kind of people I would want to spend my time with. However, I feel my Spanish simply doesn't cut the mustard.

English it is then. I researched courses a while back, and it seems that the CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is the most widely recognised, and there is a course provider in Munich. Trouble is, they only run one part-time course a year, from March to July, and they only take 12 students. (Full-time is not my preferred option, since I don't want to tell my clients that I won't be doing any work for them at all for over a month.)

So, I completed their 3-page application form, scanned in educational certificates going back to the first trimester of my mother's pregnancy, wrote a cheery essay and just about scraped the January 7th submission deadline.

They responded on Monday (8th). At least they don't hang about! They sent me a 9-page English language awareness test, which foxed the hell out of me. Here's a couple of sample questions to give you an idea:


Look at the sentences below. In each set, which is the odd one out? Give a reason for your answer.

a. An avalanche has engulfed a small Swiss village.
b. The Prime Minister has announced his retirement from politics.
c. She has lived here all her life.
d.The Dow Jones has fallen twenty points in the last half hour.


Which of the items in each group is different from the others and in what way?
 Cottage, house, flat, farm

I completed it and returned it to them, red-eyed, at 2:30am.

I'm booked in for an interview & selection workshop this coming Tuesday morning. They will be running these all week, so I guess the odds of actually being accepted for the course are pretty small. Let's see what comes of it. I'm kind of looking forward to the event.


Thursday, 28 December 2017

I'll Always Have Lisbon...

I've been keeping secrets from you. OK, maybe it's not a secret as such, but I'm like a million years late in telling you about a major linguistic event in my life: I spent last March in Lisbon for a mega dose of Portuguese immersion.

I didn't blog about this while it was happening because there was a lot of other stuff taking up all my spare headspace at the time, like discussing my return to Germany with my family.

A few months before my trip, I picked a language school* purely on the basis that its lesson timetable suited me: Grammar torture sessions lasting an hour and a half three times a week, alternating with conversation classes on the other days - perfect for a digital nomad like me who ought to be reachable for their clients during office hours.

And I got lucky. The classes were small, between 2-5 students, lead by really motivated, experienced teachers who enjoyed what they were doing. I even did my homework every day... including extra grammar exercises, and that's totally unheard of. I learnt a ton - and I so wanted to stay on for another couple of months (or forever!) to keep filling those gaps. The school also laid on a series of free guided tours in Portuguese once or twice a week during the afternoons.

So, the school part was excellent, no qualms about that. A minor sticking point for me was the accommodation. I had opted for a home-stay with one of the school's staff members (a techie, not a teacher). That way, I had hoped, I was going to get some daily conversation in a domestic setting. My Portuguese was pretty OK at this point, so I wasn't "hard work" like communicating with a beginner would be.

The reality didn't quite turn out that way. Although the guy I was staying with was perfectly nice, polite, helpful and always responded warmly when I was in need of some info, he clearly preferred to keep himself to himself. And since I'm not one for forcing myself onto people, I was careful to respect his space. Also, it was unseasonably cold for March, and there was no heating in the flat, which is normal for Lisbon, but still bloody uncomfortable. And then I came down with a stonking cold. And a cough. And conjunctivitis. Those daily trips to the pharmacy worked wonders for my Portuguese, though.

I also managed to get together with a local chap I met a couple of years ago on conversationexchange.com. Lucky for me (but not so much for him), he was off work with a broken arm and so had plenty of time to waste on me. We went on long walks through his home city, switching between several languages every few minutes.

I'm really suffering from those dreary winter months in Germany right now; they make me think back often to this trip and I dream of doing something like this again, if not in Lisbon then maybe in Porto. I even have a local school recommendation from one of my classmates! Unfortunately, next year is not looking very likely...


*   *   *   *   *

* The Language school I attended is called Português Et Cetera and the link is here https://www.portuguesetcetera.comThey also have a facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/portuguesetcetera/ 














Tuesday, 26 December 2017

My Spanish is far from flawless. Have I failed?

Six months ago, I left Spain without ever reaching the level of linguistic perfection that I set out to achieve when I moved there.

There are many reasons for this, which I will go into at some point. In this post, though, I want to sum up briefly what these six years in Spain have actually done for my Spanish.

I'd been studying Spanish on and off since I was a teenager, and despite a couple of flashy certificates, including several from the London Chamber of Commerce which I clinched sometime back in the nineties, I could never really hold any more than the most basic of conversations. I don't think we ever even touched on the subjunctive, which seems like a bad joke, considering that I was certified to dominate the language to an "Advanced Level."

Little did I know then that it would take another 20 years for my skills to actually warrant this kind of certification. My time in Spain has made all the difference. In a nutshell:


  • I am now fluent in Spanish and can hold my own on any topic, even in a group in a noisy bar. I can listen, read and speak without having to translate in my head.
  • I'm able to read books at normal speed. Novels, biographies, anything. I wont lie - the first five nearly gave me a brain haemorrhage, but after that, things shifted to that very enjoyable place where you get sucked right into the story, rather than labouring over the lines and having to look up every fifth word. I've got tons of Spanish books on my Kindle and I read in Spanish every day. 
  • Besides books, I watch series for escapism, and there's tons of them freely accessible on RTVE (Radio Television Española). Best of all, they come with subtitles and transcripts! I don't need those to follow the plot, but I like having them turned on so that I can pick out the odd word or useful expression that's not yet part of my repertoire. Every time I watch an episode, I learn one or two things. But watching series is definitely a recreational activity and not "studying." 
  • Spanish is now firmly part of my hard drive. I will never forget it like some language learnt at school or in an evening class. Nobody can take it away from me - it's always available and ready to use for enjoyable activities. 
And I've just realised another thing: there are even advantages to my Spanish not being perfect: It could serve as a tool to expand my social circle, which can be hard to do when you suddenly find yourself being part of "the older generation." So, I've been looking at evening classes for next semester, and I found a couple that might make fertile ground for getting to know new people. They are both advanced level Spanish (C1), centred around conversation and discussing current affairs. Taking an English class to make new friends would be just plain silly, and as for signing up for classes in other languages, I've come to the conclusion that having to focus intently on the various in-class exercises sucks up all of my energy - I have none left for putting on a be-my-friend face. I get so frustrated wrestling with the language that I shut down instead of engaging openly with my classmates. I feel that in a Spanish class, I'd be much more relaxed. Well, that's the theory... I shall report on how it's working (or not) in practice. 



Thursday, 21 December 2017

Portuguese class isn't working for me, and I can't figure out why!

I went to my Portuguese class last night. Or rather, I dragged myself there. Signed up for it in October, it was advertised as an advanced conversation class, held in central Munich. It takes me about 30-40 minutes to get there. There was nothing closer to where I live at this level - all I could find was beginners' courses in Brazilian Portuguese (I want European).

I really enjoyed the first few classes, I guess it was a bit of a honeymoon period. The classes are centred around a book, O Viagem Do Elefante (The Elephant's Journey), by José Saramago.

I'm at a loss as to why this has become such a struggle. True, the level is high - C2! - but I can follow the book and the discussion in class just fine. I even contribute. Maybe not as much or as eloquently as I'd like to, but it's a small class (6-10 people), so there's room for everyone to chip in.

I like the teacher, she's warm and friendly and very knowledgeable - and from Lisbon, I think. My classmates are nice people as well as interesting - there's an American woman, a French woman, someone who spent his childhood years in Lisbon, a son of Portuguese immigrants, and a guy who has a house in Portugal and spends half the year over there. And I do love books. I'm really enjoying "The Elephant," it's clever and witty and am thinking of reading more by this Nobel-Prize-winning author.

So, what don't I like about this class?


  • Having to read out loud. In any language. It's a foible of mine... but I can do it, and everyone is really patient with me.
  • Schlepping into town on these cold, dark evenings is the pits.
  • Being the worst in class. My level of Portuguese is noticeably lower than everyone else's. But I expected that when I signed up - it's a C2, after all, and that's the highest level there is. I get frustrated with my incompetence and can't stop thinking that, if it were Spanish, I'd be sailing through this and contributing lots and lots.
  • For some reason, I'm not connecting with my classmates. I expected to be making friends, but it just isn't happening. The fault, I fear, lies with me, not them. I can feel myself shutting down, isolating myself. It feels like I've got some kind of wall around me while I'm there. Not sure why this is happening or how I can get over myself. I'm worried that, since I've now set up this unfortunate dynamic, it's going to be hard to change it.


The class runs till 24th January, and I've not yet signed up for the next semester. I wish there was something closer to where I live, but there just isn't. There's another class in town, a C1 conversation class. I might try that one for the coming semester. Oh, I just don't know...

I love Portuguese with a passion and not only do I want to keep up my level, but I want to improve! I feel I need a new strategy, and I'm currently ruminating over it.



Sunday, 17 December 2017

Coming Full Circle

If you had asked me five years ago if I would ever consider moving back to Germany, I'd have said, "NEVER in a million years!"

I guess you all know what's coming now.

Yup, I'm back in Germany. For good. I think. After 26 years!

I landed in Munich after my one-way flight from Madrid on the last day of June, provoked by a family situation. Since then, it's been kinda hellish - getting my flat ready took far longer than anticipated, and the family stuff has been harrowing. Now I have finally moved into my own place,  the dust is starting to settle, and I'm searching for "The New Normal."

I don't know yet how my new life is going to unfold, but I do know this: Despite a long break from blogging, my language journey remains central to my life. And I'm asking myself all sorts of angsty questions like:

  • Will English remain my dominant language or will German re-instate itself? If so, how long until that happens and do I even want that to  happen? I'm really torn on this... on the one hand, I hate having to search for German vocab for much longer than is considered decent for a native speaker, and on the other hand, I'm terrified of corrupting my English.
  • How will I maintain - and continue to improve! - my Spanish and my Portuguese? These languages are a treasured part of me and I can't stand the thought of losing them. The Portuguese is much more of a problem, since my links to that language (and its speakers) are much weaker than is the case for Spanish, which I still use every day.
  • What is going to happen to my Russian? It's suffered total neglect since I left Spain, abandoning my weekly lessons. 
So,  there's a lot to process and many adjustments to make. And I shall be writing about it...