Love Learning a Second Language
The Italian film director Federico Fellini said, “A different language is a different vision of life”. It was with this motive that I decided, on New Year’s Day 2015, that my personal goal was learning a second language that year. The best way to do so was to live in a country speaking that language and immerse myself in the day-to-day lingo. Always one to relish expressing myself via the spoken and written word at any opportunity, I was suddenly captivated by the idea of being able to not only communicate in another language but to view the world through a whole new lens and see what that would open up to me.
When I saw that the job market for high school teachers in British schools in Spain was thriving, my mind was made up. A few months later, I made the move. I was adamant that I would learn the language and achieve fluency. However, I was at square one in Spanish, and only knew holiday basics: hola, adios, gracias, por favor, playa, and discoteca.
I moved to Córdoba in southern Spain, which at the time did not have a vast population of English speakers, so it was a case of sink or swim. I didn’t just want to speak the language, it was entirely essential for living.
What constitutes ‘fluency’, or even ‘bilingualism’, is wide open for debate, as it could range from being able to speak fluidly with a broad lexicon all the way to securely wielding a native-like mastery. Now, after three years, I consider myself fluent in Spanish in the sense that outside of work, my life is conducted primarily in that language without too much difficulty. However, there is always, even for native speakers, another level of finesse that can be achieved with time and study.
So, how does one best go about acquiring the vocabulary and grammatical structures for successful interaction? There is no set model, although the internet is a goldmine for ideas and inspiration on the days when you feel like butting your head against a wall (like, how many possible ways can I pronounce the words vino tinto to the waiter before I can make myself understood?) A multilingual woman I met shortly before departing for Spain advised me: “Make sure you learn in some form every single day.” The following are the daily methods that worked for me.
I started out by downloading the free app, Duolingo, and taking those first few tentative steps into the basics. I still remember the first word in the first exercise, manzana, which immediately threw me as it was so different to the English translation (apple). However, Duolingo is fun and positively addictive, so daily practice comes quite easily. As of March 2018, Duolingo offers 25 foreign languages for English speakers to learn.
Web browser-based language learning software
Ready to get to grips with grammar, I signed up to a Spanish-specific learning service called Fluencia, which offers a 15-lesson free trial costing around 15 USD per month. It is user-friendly, with a lovely interface and thousands of audio files.
I learnt a lot from this, but be aware that it teaches Latin American Spanish so I had to later relearn a lot of Spain-specific vocabulary. For other languages, friends of mine really rate Babbel, which is world renowned and works in a similar unit-by-unit way.
Getting out there and giving it a go!
In Spain they speak about having verguënza (shame or embarrassment), which mentally blocks people from finding the words to speak to a native. I have met many foreign people who want to chat with me in English but are too nervous and think I will judge them. But of course I wouldn’t when I am in the same position as them! I recall the days of rehearsing the lines I needed before entering the doctor’s surgery or a shop with a specific request in mind. The most comfortable setting for practicing your new language is in a social situation. I got talking to many people whilst out and about in the bars and festivals here. Being able to laugh at mutual errors certainly alleviates the pressure.
Language exchange events
These are really helpful for meeting new people and being able to practice your target language and in turn, helping others with your mother tongue. They are usually set in bars to lend an informal and relaxed feeling, and some organisers put on quizzes or games to add a bit of variety. These interchange evenings are not for everybody as they have somewhat of a reputation for being like speed dating, and there are only so many times you can go through the whole “Where are you from? What is your favourite film? Do you prefer beer or wine?” conversations. Some are more successful than others. Check out Facebook groups and the Meetup community app.
Songs, films, TV series, books, newspapers, and websites
Many bilingual or multilingual people I have discussed this with truly believe that the above media are unbeatable ways of embedding the target language into the brain. The brain responds to sound waves by storing that particular frequency, rhythm and beat for faster recognition next time. Listening to the words as if they are musical instruments allows you to let go of fretting over the meaning and instead familiarising yourself with the melody and the sound. You will soon realise you understand a phrase when you have heard it said several times!
TV and film are great for picking up vernacular and a more natural way of speaking over rigid, unrealistic textbook talk. Songs are catchy anyway, so look up the lyrics and sing along and you won’t forget them! Change the language of your social media sites, your laptop, tablet, mobile phone, and choose to read the news in your new language for immersion.
I recall my French teacher at school telling us there comes a point when you start to think in your non-native language(s), which at the time I found incredible. However, it happens much earlier on than you think. With the passing of time and the more words you store up in your mental database, you will find they start to slip into your thoughts, dreams and random utterances, sometimes with people who don’t even understand that language!
What about the fear of making a mistake? Embrace them. My boyfriend often merrily reminds me of the time I referred to jeans as ‘vaquerones’ a strange non-existent portmanteau of the actual translation, vaqueros, and boquerones– a type of anchovy. I also once declared my favourite fruit to be moros (Moorish people) rather than moras (berries). There was also the horrid time when a hairdresser put a purple tint on the ends of my hair despite me requesting blonde and stressing that I wanted NO red tones in my hair (this resulted in tears, awkwardness and a total re-colouring of my hair). They will happen. Frequently. You have to dust yourself off, allow yourself to cringe for a moment then laugh and remember that you will likely not make that mistake again!