This language learning malarkey is a bumpy old ride. One minute, you’re shouting perfectly coutured phrases from the rooftops; the next minute, the roof gives in and you’re on the cold concrete floor, spreadeagled, coughing up blood and dust.
I was on a total roll with my Portuguese in early summer. After two years of slogging away at it, I felt that I’d had some kind of breakthrough: I was chattering away to a bunch Portuguese people over Skype several times a week. Sometimes I even understood what they were saying to me and vice versa. A trip to Portugal in the first week of July saw me handling all the touristy stuff in Portuguese without breaking into a sweat (except when I accidentally asked for cock in a supermarket, see here for that story).
All was well until I took a one-month break from Portuguese in August while visiting my family in Germany. But on my return home to Spain, I found to my horror that I was suddenly “back to the mistakes of the beginning”, as my Portuguese teacher put it when I resumed my lessons with her in September. My Skype chats also dried up that month after a couple of fruitless conversations.
I have no idea how a mere four weeks of taking your eyes off the ball can cause such a mother of a setback. All I know is that I’m mighty peeved.
Well, no point throwing in the towel. I’ve invested too much. And I really really like Portuguese. It sounds cool and it has hilarious expressions.
And then, this Monday morning, a tiny ray of light… finally! The previous week, my teacher had suggested I’d join one of her other students for a conversation class. We’d already had a couple of attempts at this a year and a half ago, but said student was quite advanced, while I could barely string a sentence together at that point, and so we gave up on the idea pretty quickly.
Anyway, this week’s little Monday threesome turned out to be a very gratifying experience all round. We hopped across a plethora of topics, from fish feed to Portuguese rugs to the pitfalls of teaching Spanish in China. We wilfully mutilated the grammar, but conversation flowed and we laughed like drains. My classmate, who kindly gave me a lift home afterwards, remarked how much more fluent I was compared to last time we did this.
I guess that’s the thing with language learning. It’s like building a mountain out of gravel. Sometimes, when you pour another bucketful on top, it just slides down the sides taking the tip with it and all you can see at that moment is that your pile has lost height. Only by stepping back you realise that you’ve actually broadened the base, allowing you to construct a more expansive, bigger mountain in the long term. All you have to do is to keep heaping onto it. Bit by bit. Steadily and relentlessly. And remind yourself that, to fully appreciate how far you’ve come, you need to take the long-term perspective.