About a decade ago, the house I grew up in was to be torn down and my parents had to move. Although they are not hoarders, their possessions had accumulated over space of three decades, and my mother, daunted by the enormity of the task, said to me, “Imagine… I will have to handle each and every single item contained in this place at least twice, once packing it up and then unpacking it again.”
Much later, it struck me that there was an obvious parallel with regards to language learning. If you want to be truly proficient in a language, you’ve got to tackle all the contents of every wardrobe, cupboard and shelf, working your way with a fine-toothed comb through all the rooms of the “linguistic house”, including the dingy basement and the dust-ridden attic. And wouldn’t it be nice if you could remember vocab, phrases, verb forms and expressions by coming across them merely twice? As if…!
Like my mother at the point of moving house, I often feel totally overwhelmed by my self-imposed task to learn Spanish “properly”. It seems to me that I’ve lost a couple of toes to frostbite already, toiling up the frozen slopes of Mount Everest in air so thin I can barely breathe, only to find that I’ve dragged myself no further than Base Camp. After two and a half years in Spain, I’m reminded every day that I’ve still got such a long way to go.
During my first year in Spain, I was in perpetual linguistic panic mode. Despite having studied Spanish off and on for years, I understood precious little of what was being said to me. The prospect of having to make a simple phone call, where there was no body language to go on, was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat.
To fix the comprehension problem, I bought a radio and lugged it around the flat with me like Linus his blanket, so I could listen to it while performing mundane tasks like hanging out the washing. Every morning, with my eyelids still stuck together and before I even remembered who I was, I would flick on the little black box and let my eardrums be bombarded with the country’s economic woes (no end in sight), last weekend’s traffic accident death toll (shocking) and today’s weather forecast (mostly sunny).
This way, making the most of every spare minute, I racked up between three and five hours of listening time a day, and, within the space of four months, my comprehension improved sufficiently so I’d no longer have gremlins wrestling in my stomach before every appointment with my accountant.
The language learner’s number one enemy, in my opinion, is complacency. Once the red alarm light stops flashing, once you can sort of function in daily life, it’s very tempting to just settle in your comfort zone. A lot of people stop pushing themselves at this point, it’s all they strive for.
My own objectives, however, were set a couple of notches higher from the very outset, but this doesn’t mean that I’m immune to laziness. As communicating became more manageable, I gradually let my daily radio routine slip, preferring soothing silence over the constant witterings about corruption scandals, royal hunting accidents and La Merkel’s cracking of the fiscal whip.
Trouble is, when learning a language, input is absolute key. Good comprehension is one thing, but building a sizeable active vocabulary and verbal eloquence quite another. We’ve all heard people say things like, “Oh, I understand [X-Language] just fine, but I can’t really speak it all that well”. Well, I’m sorry, but this is no good to me. No good at all.
To be able to produce language in a natural manner, to synthesise its components into fluent and flawless speech, without the need to translate or awkwardly dodging your way around tricky constructions, you need A HELL OF A LOT of input.
Language is, first and foremost, a copy cat endeavour. You need to hear the same words and phrases being said over and over again, in different contexts, to be certain of how to use them appropriately. Even being “original” requires that you know the rules before you start mucking about with them. Listening to the radio is an excellent way of receiving input, so I re-committed to this strategy four weeks ago, and I’m going to stick with it.
Whenever I get too bogged down with the seemingly unfathomable Spanish subjunctive, the tricky conditional and the pesky prepositions, I remind myself that, instead of letting these persistent trouble spots wrench all the joy out of my learning, I just have to “trust the process”. Instead of kicking the skirting boards, I need to let it seep in naturally and allow my clogged-up brain to assimilate the information in its own time. It will happen, eventually, I firmly believe in this (because I’ve done it before), even it it takes a lot longer than I had originally anticipated. For someone as impatient as I, accepting this is half the battle.