When people ask me why I moved to Spain, I tell them because I wanted to learn Spanish. But this doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. Thanks to the internet, you can learn just about any language anywhere, and, indeed, I already spoke some Spanish before executing my move to Toledo a year ago.
My interest in Spanish goes back to my teens, though I’m not quite sure why, I’d never even been to Spain, and felt no particular affinity with Spanish or Latin American culture – I just loved the sound of the language. I didn’t even speak English back then, and decided to tackle that first. While I was busy with this, the desire to learn Spanish never really went away. Over the next fifteen or so years, I intermittently took evening classes, got a bunch of certificates, used a bit of Spanish in a couple of jobs, but I never achieved fluency.
My underlying frustration about this finally came to a head in January 2010, when I visited an American friend of mine who’d settled in Costa Rica, and found that I could simply not communicate with her local friends and neighbours. At this point, I hadn’t been using any Spanish at all in about eight years, and so the little knowledge I once possessed had atrophied.
On my return home, I subscribed to some good podcast services, and found myself a native Spanish speaking teacher in North London for 1-2-1 conversation lessons in preparation for my move to Spain. The only way, from my own experience, of becoming truly fluent in a language was to live in a country where it was spoken. So that’s what had to be done, and a year and a half later, in September 2011, I made it happen.
Why all this effort, you may ask. Well, turning myself into a (German/English) bilingual was – and continues to be – one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences of my life, and so I have the deep desire to do it again.
What does it mean to be bilingual? To me, it’s like having another CPU hardwired onto your brain. It allows for dual information processing, and permits you to develop different viewpoints, by not only filtering through language, but also through culture. In short, acquiring another language at native-speaker level is as close as you can get to fitting yourself with a second brain. It creates a kind of synergy that just can’t be grasped in all of its dimensions by monolingual people.
Being bilingual is a bit like having a superpower. But it takes a bloody long time and a lot of effort to develop. Someone who may have spoken one language as a young child, e.g. by communicating with a grandmother in her native tongue, but then switched to using another language exclusively, and who may still be able to carry on a basic communication in the former language during a family reunion, is miles away from fully functional adult bilingualism. The same goes for the average university graduate who has spent five or six years studying a language in an academic environment, plus the obligatory year abroad.
Well, after some prior study and one full year in Spain, I can safely say that I, too, am a very long shot from being trilingual. So far, the chip isn’t working. It’s like a constant nagging pain in my neural cortex. It sits there, like a parasite, compromising rather than enhancing my ability to communicate. There’s no seamless sliding into the language, my consciousness afloat on its warm waters, with my thoughts pouring out of me, eloquently packaged into fully formed sentences. None of that. Whenever I crank up my Spanish, it’s like a stuttering blast from an ice water hose.
But I’m sticking with it, and that’s that.