Is Learning Three Romance Languages At The Same Time A Route To Insanity?

I ask myself that question every day. And whether an overdose of irregular verbs can make one go blind. I think the only reason why my grey matter hasn’t liquified yet and made a gushing exit through my left nostril is that I’m at different stages with my languages, so the learning activities I engage in are quite varied. Every time terms like “partitive carbuncles” or whatever give me the urge to go and drown myself in the toilet, I remember that, in the end, it’s all about wrangling a bunch of words into the right order, and that if a four-year-old can do it, so can I.

Spanish – Airily Advanced

The frustration-fun balance has decidedly shifted in favour of the latter. But it sure took a lot of blood sweat and tears to get there. Those of you you’ve been with me from the beginning will probably remember my whiny rants and tantrums. I’ve been living in Spain for nearly four years now, although I don’t have what you’d call “full immersion”. I work from home in English all day. Hence, my progress was a lot slower than I had initially expected.

It’s been a very different experience from the one I had with English when I moved to the UK 25 years ago. I had a job in a local company and was sharing a house with British people, and so I was forced to communicate in English all day long. It was tough in the beginning, but I made progress at lightning speed. My situation here in Spain is very different, and so I’ve had to learn to moderate my expectations without feeling like a total failure. I’ve come to accept – gnashing my teeth an’ all – that it will take a good while longer until I get to squirt the icing on the cake and achieve the level of competence I strive for.

Nevertheless, I can read proper books and watch films without struggling. I can have in-depth conversations about complex topics. I can hold my own in groups.

I still very much consider myself a learner: I look up words every day, I google expressions, I bug my long-suffering friends with questions, I ask them to correct my grammar. Besides the odd clarification, though, I no longer need “special consideration” from the people around me.

Of course, my Spanish nothing like my German or my English. I’d say I’m about 70% there. I’m even starting to “sound like myself” on occasions. Being able to communicate, even if you’re fairly proficient, is a completely different kettle of fish from sounding like your true self. I have tackled the subject in this post, for those of you who are interested:

Language Matters: Do You Sound Like Yourself?

Blue Flowers

Portuguese – Interminably Intermediate

This has been tricky. It’s virtually impossible to find any good quality intermediate-level teaching materials in European Portuguese. It’s all smooth, melodious Brazilian, when what I want is the bushy, impenetrable Peninsular version replete with shshtshshtshshhh sounds, dog-chewed vowels and pronoun arrangements that make ikebana seem like kindergarten foolery, because, when I travel abroad, it tends to be to nearby Portugal – I love it there.

So, I had to take special measures. I have a Portuguese teacher (from Lisbon) whom I see once a week for 1-2-1 lessons. I watch children’s cartoons, which is something that I’d never even considered before, but if you’re stuck for resources, you have to take what you can get. I’m also chatting to a bunch of nice Portuguese people over Skype two or three times a week (I found them on

And yet, It’s my Portuguese, which I’m struggling with most right now. The intermediate stage can be disheartening, and it drags on forever. It’s also extremely dangerous territory: If you stop, even just for a few months,  you risk losing everything, while, at the same time, you gaze with trepidation at the vast expanse of treacherous linguistic swamp you’ve got to wade through before you get any good.

It’s not like being a beginner, when you’re swept up in the initial thrill of new discovery, or when you’re an advanced learner having fun filling in the gaps. I’ve written about this vexatious stretch of language-learning hell here:

The Messy Morass of the Intermediate Language Learner.

French – Bare Bones Beginner

I’m now in my third month of French (see here how and why that started) and still very much in the honeymoon phase where everything is new and exciting. I’m determined to stretch it out to the max. Please do not tell me about how crazy the sentence structures are going to get later on, I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW! Thanks.

Unlike hapless learners European Portuguese, budding Francophones are spoilt with a wealth of free online resources, which means that I can cover the same topics by watching six or seven different YouTube videos without getting bored.

There is also an unexpected benefit to being a beginner in French: Portuguese is no longer my worst language! I feel stupidly happy about this :)

So, to sum up, I don’t think that learning several languages at once is necessarily a recipe for disaster. Having said that, I did bang my head against the wall more than a few times when I first started learning Portuguese two years ago, because my Spanish was still quite wobbly back then, see here:

Project Multilingual: Two timing troubles.

Next up: The Italian challenge!

…OK, I am not that crazy…

Scratching A 30-Year Itch

Learn French? Moi? Nevah in a million years! That is SO NOT part of my linguistic plan for world domination… I’ve got enough on my plate with Spanish and Portuguese.

That’s what I would have told you four months ago.

I guess it may have been another classic case of the Lady Of The Cakes doth protest too much.

Deep down, not knowing a word of French (besides “merci”, which is a German chocolate brand and “bonjour”, which was plastered in glittery letters all over a T-shirt I owned in the 80’s) has always bugged me. Maybe French had been on my subconscious agenda for long time…after all, living first in Germany, then in the UK and now in Spain, I’ve been circling La France like a hyaena an unsuspecting antelope.

I started not learning French thirty years ago. The first missed opportunity presented itself at school in the form of elective classes. We had four options to choose from to supplement the standard curriculum. One of them was French and another one was EDP (Electronic Data Processing). I was torn. Heart vs. head. My Dad said that computers were the future. Since when did I ever do what Daddy told me to? Never. Except this time.

It was a terrible decision. IT class in the 80’s was a black screen with angry dark green letters on it. You had to type in stuff like C:\DOS\>path of despair<\ and wait for something mindnumbingly mundane to happen. Except that it didn’t, because you had forgotten a colon or your slash had leanings to the right instead of the left. That’s if you got to type anything at all, because one computer was shared between four people – the school could only afford eight machines, because its entire tech budget had gone on installing a state-of-the-art language lab that we were ushered into once a year, made to stand in awe of for thirty minutes, but not allowed to actually use.

But I digress… back to my Computersaurus Studies … does anyone remember punch cards…? This is how data was saved, as holes in bits of cardboard, before floppy disks, before diskettes, before USB sticks, before humans even knew what to do with their opposable thumbs.

Source: SAS und Chiffrierdienst

Ever glimpsed one of these?! Extracted by Computerpalaentologists from a bed of fossilised Betamax deposits, dating from the days when The Cloud was but a wet fart on the horizon…. (Source: SAS und Chiffrierdienst)

I abandoned ship after one torturous year. By then, unfortunately, it was too late to join the French group, and I missed out on three years of French. I still remember the teacher, a doe-eyed woman with short brown hair, whose upper jaw never moved when she spoke. How did she manage to produce any sounds at all, never mind French ones? I never got to find out :(

In the ensuing decades, not knowing any French has been, if not an outright impediment, then at least a niggly, twisty, and slightly shameful thorn in my side. Two years ago, for example, I discovered Stefan Zweig (a long-dead Austrian author), who had the annoying habit of slipping smatterings of untranslated French into is prose. Also, people around me tend to make the assumption that I know French, like you’d just expect The Queen always to be wearing knickers, and pharmacies to carry Alka-Seltzer, anything else would be unnatural. A few months back, when a friend responded with “chez nous” to my question of where we were meeting that day, I had to feed these two words into the Obliterator Of Linguistic Common Sense, aka Google Translate, just to be sure.

And so, two months ago, I finally decided to bite the baguette. I’ve not yet uttered a single word of French to any living soul, but I’m listening to grammar and vocab podcasts daily in tandem with other online teaching resources. Luckily, there is a wealth of free material of excellent quality out there, especially at beginner’s level.

A girl needs a goal to keep herself motivated. To this end, I’m going to join a French conversation group in September, although it is making knees rattle just a bit when I think about it. Two of the guys from my German book club go regularly. They meet every week in a bar across the square from my building. It couldn’t be any more convenient. However, I have no illusions about my upcoming performance. I’m painfully aware that my conversational “level”, if you can even call it that, dangles somewhere south of zero while the other attendees are all fluent. I know from experience that my having a basic-but-coherent conversation in French is still a year away, possibly two. Only one paltry month and a half stands between me and total humiliation. But at least, that’s the one thing I’m getting pretty good at, as those of you who read my last post will know.

I shall need plenty of this to keep up my energies...

I shall need daily helpings of these to keep up my concentration…

Asking for Cock in a Portuguese Supermarket

There are some linguistic faux pas that are mildly amusing, and then there are those that you’ll be reliving for the rest of your life with your innards squirming like a bucket of maggots under a floodlight. And, oh boy, has there ever been a more worthy candidate to top the latter category! It will probably stay right up there in #1 position until the day I draw my last breath.

But let’s first set the scene. Last week, my friend Noelia and I embarked on a drive across the searingly hot Spanish Peninsula, all the way down to the Algarve in Portugal. My Portuguese teacher kindly let us use her sea view apartment in the little town of Alvor for a week – an offer two gals obsessed with Portuguese food could not possibly refuse.

All was perfect with the abode, except for the minor matter of a remote control battery having gone flat, which meant that we could not access our allocated parking space. The next morning,  we made our way to the local supermarket to buy a replacement battery as well as several cart loads of delicious Portuguese cheese.

Now, the Portuguese language is rather tricky to pronounce, and, as in all languages, small deviations can make a huge difference to the meaning of words. Even though Noelia and I both speak fairly passable tourist-level Portuguese and we thought we knew the word for “battery” (pilha), our attempts at locating one in the store was met by quite a few pairs of quizzically raised eyebrows.

Our remote control required an N-size battery, which is even tinier than AAA, and so “We need a really small one, like this” were among the words that accompanied our fateful mispronunciation and the (to our minds innocent) hand gestures involving tumb and index finger indicating the size of the desired object. Eventually, it dawned on the beleaguered members of staff what it was we were looking for, and they ushered us to the appropriate shelf, but, in the end, the store did not sell this particular kind.

While waiting in line to pay for our mountains of cheese, we were discussing, with obvious frustration, how hard it could possibly be to get hold of a silly little battery. At this point, the guy behind us in the queue, a man in his sixties who could not help earwigging our (Spanish) conversation, cracked up laughing. Once he had managed to recover sufficient breath (but not a straight face), he told us what we had, in fact, been asking for. Suddenly the staff’s perturbed facial expressions made sense… The helpful bystander to our phonetic phallacy also reliably informed us that, in Portugal, they did not, in fact, have small ones.

It subsequently transpired that Noelia, despite being blessed with a rather forgiving Mediterranean complexion, does not carry off the shade of beetroot very well. As for myself, I can’t say, as I had cringed into a tiny little ball ready to be swallowed by the Earth that was surely about to open up its merciful maws.

Salt cod (bacalhau) on offer at the supermarket we can never ever go back to

Salt cod (bacalhau) on offer at the supermarket that we can never ever ever go back to

Alvor beach, which we DID return to. Frequently.

Alvor beach, which we DID return to. Frequently.

Alvor Beach - rocks

Alvor Harbour

Me trying to choose a cake in a blur...

Me, in a blur, engaged in the task of choosing a cake

...and the result: An enormous marshmallow-inspired slab of a cake!

…and the happy end result: A crockery-busting squishy slab of a cake!

This wasn't the only cake occasion. Here is a delicious three-layered composition with figs and almonds

Needless to say, there were plenty more cake occasions. Here is a delicious three-layered composition of figs and almonds

Portuguese custard tart. Absolutely mandatory.

Portuguese custard tart. Absolutely mandatory.

It wasn't all cake, of course. We stuffed ourselves with seafood :)

We also stuffed ourselves with seafood :) This cataplana (a traditional seafood stew) was meant to serve two, but would probably have fed six strapping sailors.

Not so sure about the entertainment...

Some questionable local entertainment… would a visitor from northern Europe really take their kid to watch a terrified animal having spears rammed into its back?

At least the dogs know to take it easy in this town!

…but the dogs sure know to take it easy in this town!

Three Countries in Five Days

After nearly three months of nothing but Toledo (except for the delightful little day trip to Cuenca) I was starting to go a bit stir crazy. The only thing that kept sane was an upcoming trip, which my friend Noelia had organised: Three nights at her friend’s place in Badajoz, Extremadura, just a handful of miles from the Portuguese border. From there, we would invade the neighbouring country and stuff ourselves silly with all the glorious Portuguese food we could cram down our gullets. Then, it was onwards, across the entire country and down to Andalucía for a couple of days, following a kind invitation from one of Noelia’s workmates, who had bequeathed us a lovely flat overlooking the beach.

All you all ready and comfortable? Let’s get started :)

Badajoz has some lovely public gardens

Badajoz has some picturesque public gardens…

...and glorious views.

…and glorious views. The town itself has a very southern Spanish flair, although it’s not much more south than Toledo. The Portuguese influence is keenly felt in the architecture, the colours and on restaurant menus. Salt cod and custard tarts galore!

Moving on to Portugal…

Évora's party piece: A Roman temple from the 1st century

Évora’s party piece: A Roman temple from the 1st century

Roman Temple and moi

Hidden gems

Lots of crumbling gems to discover… well as some modern art. Noelia (left), and our hosts Gracia (right) and Lua (centre).

…as well as some modern art.
Noelia (left), and our hosts Gracia (right) and Lua (centre).

One of Évora's stunning residents turning his back on me

One of Évora’s most glamorous residents turning his back on me

The Almendres Cromlech, a few miles from Évora. A megalithic complex erected 8,000 years ago, and pretty well preserved. We just made it in time for sundown.

The Almendres Cromlech, a few miles from Évora city. A megalithic complex erected 8,000 years ago, and pretty well preserved. We just made it in time for sundown.

We're in Elvas now, another historic town settled since the year dot. Just don't ask me what that thing in the middle is...

We’re in Elvas now, another historic town settled since the year dot.
Just don’t ask me what that thing in the middle is supposed to signify…

Like any Portuguese town worth its salt, Elvas has a castle...

Like any Portuguese town worth its salt, Elvas has a castle…

...impossibly steep, cobbled streets...

…impossibly steep, cobbled streets…

...and plenty of tiles. Everywhere.

…and plenty of tiles. Everywhere.


And, of course, FOOD! Here we are, waiting for ours. The desserts at that place were to die for.

And, of course, FOOD! Here we are, waiting for ours. The desserts at that place were to die for.

For one last look at Portugal, how about this cork oak? The souvenir shops are full of cork products. You can even send postcards made of cork.

For one last look at Portugal, how about this majestic cork oak? The souvenir shops are full of cork products. You can even send postcards made of cork.

Cádiz Province, Andalucía, here we come!

Andalucía billboard



I was very taken with that umbrella ;.)

I was rather taken with that cheery parasol :-)

Andalucia Castellar

Did I mention the beach...?

Did I mention the beach…?

Noelia and our generous host and indefatigable tour guide, Paco

Noelia with our generous host and indefatigable tour guide, Paco

A cute frog fountain in Tarifa

A cute frog fountain in Tarifa

Soto Grande Boat


Gibraltar... that was the third "country" on our trip. We spent the morning there, I made a beeline to M&S, bought as many packs of hot cross buns as I could carry and several boxes of walnut whip. None of which survives.

Gibraltar, the third “country” visited on our trip. We spent a morning there, during which I made a beeline to M&S, heaping as many packs of hot cross buns as I could carry into my basket, as well as several boxes of walnut whip. None of which survives.

Now there’s just one thing missing, one VERY IMPORTANT thing:

Badajoz Cake


Cuenca, Cuenca On The Wall…

There seems to be a long-held rivalry over which city is the most beautiful, Toledo or Cuenca. I have learnt to stay well clear of these disputes, especially if my kindly chauffeur happens to be a born-and-bred Toledan, and there’s no humanely dignified way of getting back home to Toledo on public transport.

Instead, I just enjoy the view…

Cuenca's walls are a natural granite formation

Cuenca’s city walls are a natural granite formation

Cuenca View2


Cuenca View3

Cuenca View 4

Ewa posing for Maria. In the background, precariously perched on the left, are the famous "hanging houses", dating back to the 15th century.

Eva posing for Maria. Precariously perched in the background on the left are the famous “hanging houses”, dating back to the 15th century.

Cuenca View 5

Cuenca Casco


Cuenca Cathedral


Cuenca Churches

Cuenca House

Salt cod and roast garlic, all mashed up. (Mental note: Next time, cancel all subsequent social engagements...)

Salt cod and roast garlic, all mashed up. (Mental note: Next time, cancel all subsequent social engagements…)



Cheeeezzzz...cake :)

Cheeeezzzz…cake :)

Winterwonderland Didn’t Last…

The magic is gone. We’re back to drizzle, slush, treacherous black ice and pitiful corpses :(

Nothing but sad remnants remain...

Nothing but remnants remain…

If you want to admire the above snowman when he was still a strapping young lad in his full frosty glory, click here.

To comfort ourselves over the sad demise of the sparkly wintery snowscape, my friend Peggy laid on a festive afternoon coffee:

Note the AMERICAN chocolate chip cookies on the right-hand side, which are a real challenge to re-create in Germany, so I was told. Delicious :)

Note the AMERICAN chocolate chip cookies on the right-hand side, which are a real challenge to re-create in Germany, so I was told. Delicious :)

Here's a close-up, in case you've missed them ;-)

Here’s a close-up, in case you’re not drooling quite enough already ;-)

The snow may be gone, but I caught a nice sunset on my evening walk today:


If you’ve missed the Bavarian Winterwonderland pictures, you can see them here and here.