Tag Archives: multilingualism

Polywhat…?

“Let me think about it,” was the response from my Toledo friends when I nudged them to come along to Madrid with me on Sunday for a Polyglot Meet-up. As if I couldn’t see their eyes glaze over with the red **NERD-ALERT** warning lights flashing behind…

So I went on my own.

I’d never been to such an event before. Social gatherings – hrrumpfh. But I quite fancied this one, not least because I would finally get to meet Alex Rawlings in person. I came across this personable polyglot a couple of years ago, when the BBC featured him in this video showing off his language skills. I started following his blog and we exchanged a handful of messages. Then, a few weeks ago, I was delighted to read that he was organising a meeting for language enthusiasts in Madrid.

Atocha Station, Madrid

Beautiful Atocha Train Station, Madrid, taken Sunday night

I’d had no trouble finding the venue, although the restaurant seems kinda deserted when I walk in. I eventually find a member of staff fiddling with a table cloth.

Excuse me, I’m here for the polyglot meeting.

The polywhat…? What is that?!

I decide to take a different approach.

Some people have booked a room for an event here this afternoon. Has anyone arrived yet?

Well… there’s some people downstairs…

He points me in the direction.

I recognise Alex straight away. Unexpectedly, he also recognises me as “Lady Of The Cakes”. I’m not quite sure how or why… it’s been almost a couple of years since we exchanged those two or three messages on the blogs. He’s been hopping from country to country and must have met thousands of new people. I guess having a superhuman memory and being a polyglot go hand-in-hand. That would also explain why I’m not one.

The organisers have prepared tables with language flags and ice breaker games. But there is no ice to be broken: People arrive and they immediately start chatting to the next-best complete stranger. I notice that most arrive unaccompanied… evidently, I wasn’t the only one cruelly abandoned by their so-called friends…

Me, Johanna (one of the organisers), Mr Circus and Alex Rawlings

Me, Johanna (one of the organisers), Bar (aka Mr Circus) and Alex Rawlings

Pretty much everyone seems to speak Spanish and English, the rest is potluck. I meet a Spaniard who has the best German accent I have ever heard. (From a Spaniard.) I chat to a young Israeli student, switching between English, Spanish and Portuguese. I ask him what he’s studying. Circus studies, he tells me. I blink. I confirm that I understood correctly. It’s like someone telling you they’re an accountant and you’re stuck for a response, but for the exact opposite reason. My brain is whirring with questions. Turns out his specialism is juggling, not lion taming.

My worst fear – that someone accosts me in French (this is my kryptonite right now!) – does not materialise. Instead, I get myself caught up in a maelstrom of Hebrew, until the speaker realises from my deer-in-the-headlights-stare that I’m not getting any of this. I point them towards Mr Circus.

Three hours go by in a flash. I only manage to nab a fraction of the people who I would have liked to interrogate have a chat with. I fix a lunch date for Tuesday with a lovely couple visiting from Vermont who had already been planning to come to Toledo.

On my way back to Atocha station, I’m thinking… I wouldn’t mind doing this again… and it didn’t even involve cake! I must be coming down with something…

And one more...

And one more…

Post Script: It has just transpired that the next Polyglot Meetup Madrid event will be held on 17 January 2016. Just in case anyone wants to “think about it”… ahem.

[Find Alex Rawlings’s language blog here: www.rawlangs.com]

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Language Learning: You’ve Got To LIVE IT!

Every language I’ve ever tried to absorb just from books, classes, and, in recent years, the internet, I’ve forgotten. Sure, there may still be some linguistic remnants floating about in the murky Everglades of my brain – rotting limbs of Russian, Japanese and Chinese trapped in the undergrowth – never to be re-assembled again in a futile attempt of making conversation.

It comes down to this: If you want to speak a language, and I mean REALLY speak it, it’s not enough to allot it a fenced-off little corner of your consciousness and shine a torch on it every once in a while. Language is the most sophisticated communication tool ever devised by the human mind; it is designed to allow people to share complex thoughts, infectious ideas and a laugh, to convey their feelings, to empathise with each other. Language needs to be taken out to play, it needs a human connection to really thrive.

As enjoyable as it is to be totally hooked on a book or engrossed in an epic film, language acquires a whole other dimension through person-to-person interaction. When you’re using your verbal and your listening skills to build a relationship with another human being – whatever the nature of that relationship may be – that’s when language really comes alive.

With one’s native language, this happens naturally, but, as most of us will have experienced, when we try to learn a foreign language in an environment where real-life exposure is limited, our enthusiasm usually peters out way before anything resembling fluency is achieved.

Going to class once a week, reading the occasional newspaper article, spending a holiday once every while in a country where the target language is spoken, although useful parts of the learning process, these sporadic activities are not going to push anyone beyond tourist-level competency.

If you want to get more out of it, you need to put more into it, and I’m not just talking more of your precious time. You need to let the language mesh with the fabric of your life, to entice its little tendrils to find their way from your head into your heart.

In practice, this means creating firm links with the country where the language is spoken and/or building and maintaining mutually enriching friendships with native speakers. In this way, you create an emotional dimension rather than limiting yourself solely to the intellectual domain. The former is much more permanent than the latter, it stays with you for life, it doesn’t just slip from your memory banks like a dried-up verb table.

A new language - a door to a whole new life

A new language – a door to a whole new life

As I’ve already lamented, a number of languages I had spent some time learning in the past never made it beyond the launch pad, because I failed to integrate them into my life in a meaningful way. My three main languages, German, English and Spanish, on the other hand, are firmly rooted in my psyche. They are not just something I “do” twenty minutes or so each day. They are part of who I am. If one of them were taken from me, it would be like losing an arm.

German is my native language, and although I left Germany back in 1991, I still have family and friends there. As for English, I lived in the UK for over two decades, virtually all of my adult life, and so I maintain a rash of personal and professional connections with this country, which, incidentally, I still consider to be my home. Also, my day-to-day work life takes place in English. English is, if you will, my main operating language.

And Spanish… well, Spain is where I live right now, so my attachment to this country is growing deeper by the day, as I’m slowly crawling towards greater proficiency in the language. I guess I should point out that my primary reason for moving to Spain was, in fact, to get to grips with Spanish, a desire I’ve been harbouring ever since I was a teenager.

Besides tinkering with my Spanish, I’ve embarked on another linguistic challenge, which is Portuguese. I started learning just a bit over a year ago, and I guess it’s time to start thinking about how I’m going to weave those loose strands of Portuguese into my world. Moving to Portugal is not an option right now, that would be too much of an upheaval too soon, and my level of Spanish still leaves much to be desired.

The good thing about being in Spain is that Portugal is right next door, and that flights are pretty affordable. Before I packed my bags to come to Spain almost three years ago, I signed up for a couple of week-long stints with a language school here. They arranged accommodation for me with a local couple who I’m still friends with, and I made my first few contacts from that base. Seeing as that strategy had already served me so well, I was thinking of taking the same approach with Project Portuguese.

When I started thinking about this a bit more in detail, however, I had a realisation: I don’t actually want the language school bit. The truth is that I don’t enjoy spending hours and hours in a classroom. I’m often left so worn out, that all I want to do afterwards is lie flat on a bed with a wet flannel over my eyes. Plus, I do have a great Portuguese teacher who I see every week, so I’ve got the teaching part covered. The whole point of being in Portugal is to get some practice, to interact with Portuguese people, not have a forced conversation with a Dutch classmate.

Well, I thought, why not try and find someone in Portugal prepared to rent out a spare room to me for a week or so? That would give me the chance to talk about everyday domestic stuff, exchange a few opinions over breakfast, and maybe do some grocery shopping together. After all, I don’t need a 24/7 babysitter nor a full-time tour guide, I can entertain myself and, as a roving freelancer, I shall bring my laptop and my work with me.  I can also offer a language exchange, if they wanted to practice their English or their German.

So, this is going to be my new project 🙂

A friend of mine has already passed me a potential contact, which I still need to follow up. If anyone out there has any useful suggestions or knows someone in Portugal who may be interested, please get in touch.

*    *    *    *

[What does it take until you finally “sound like yourself” in another language? Here is a post I wrote on this topic.]

 

What Does Your Language Suck At?

Last month, Linda of expateyeonlatvia wrote an impassioned piece about a number of vexatious statements put forth by her students, which had made her blood boil. One of her hapless tutees opined, for instance, that “English wasn’t a rich language”. [Click here if you want to see the post].

I commented on Linda’s post that a Spanish friend of mine had once said something very similar. The general consensus in expateye’s comments section was that if you didn’t speak a language very well, then, of course, you wouldn’t be able to express yourself eloquently. A vocab of a paltry 3,000 words may be enough to communicate your basic wants and needs and let you spout a few fusty opinions about the latest Matt Damon flick, but, well, it doesn’t compare to what a fairly well-educated native speaker can expound on with their 60,000 words. And then there is a wealth of expressions, colloquialisms and cultural references, which even an advanced learner, who’s never lived in the country of their target language, hasn’t got a cat in hell’s chance of mastering, no matter how many episodes of How I Met Your Mother he submits himself to.

All good and well… but then… after ruminating over this for several weeks, I’ve now come to a seemingly contrary conclusion: The “you just don’t know enough” rebuff is far too simplistic. In fact, I concede that you may not be able to express all of your sentiments in another language, no matter how proficient you are. And herein lies the crux of the gripe voiced by these pesky students, prompting them to vent infuriating pronouncements at their long suffering teachers about the woeful inadequacy of whatever language they happen to be grappling with.

Let me give you an example. Spanish (and this is also true for other romance languages) makes a huge great big deal of diminutives, and the opposite, namely augmentatives, are equally as important. Spanish diminutives are achieved by adding -ito, -cito or -illo suffixes to a noun, and the augmentative is formed by tacking on -azo, -ato or -orro, for instance. To illustrate: “Beso” means kiss, besito is a little kiss, and besazo a great big smacker.

English doesn’t really do diminutives (nor augmentatives). Instead, you’d have to opt for an entirely different word, employ an adjective like “little”, or turn “dog” into “doggy”. And that’s just not a good style. Ahem… 😉

German, on the other hand, does have proper diminutives, constructed by furnishing its nouns with -chen and -lein endings. However, these should be used very sparingly. They have the (intended) effect of infantilising the language, and overuse will make you sound like you’re talking to Forrest Gump.

Spanish, though, slots diminutives and augmentatives into sentences left, right and centre. And they don’t just work with nouns, you can even tag them onto adjectives, which is outright impossible in English or German.

Therefore, it is entirely understandable that a native Spanish speaker will feel somewhat bereft to find that a whole linguistic dimension of how he expresses himself on a day-to-day basis, how imbues his statements with humour, warmth, ridicule and exaggeration, amongst other nuances, is pretty much a no-go zone in English and German.

I suppose that each and every language has seams of glittering richness as well as areas that are a bit more on the threadbare side. English, for one, sports an inordinate amount of synonyms, which, more often than not, differ ever so slightly in their connotations. English also lets you have great fun with homonyms (words that sound the same, but differ in spelling and/or meaning), which introduces an entire universe of humour inconceivable in Spanish or German.

While both English and Spanish lend themselves fairly well to creating portmanteaus, in German, you can really go to town when it comes to fabricating entirely new words by merging any number of nouns into fancy compounds. You can make them stretch all the way to Mars and back, if you’re so inclined.

Compound noun mania does not only afflict German speakers with a sense of linguistic hilarity. A machine designed for producing a certain type of liquorice sweet is called a Lakritzschneckenaufrollmaschine (four nouns fused, not at all uncommon), and a (now defunct) law dealing with the supervision of beef labelling is termed Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (seven nouns joined in holy matrimony!).

Lakritzschnecken (= liquorice snails)

Lakritzschnecken (= liquorice snails)

Returning to my original point, the upshot is this: Every language learner will, at some stage, make a frustrated attempt at using their target language in the very same way as their native language. If it can’t be done, then of course they end up feeling like they are being censored, and that the language is, therefore, “deficient”.

Chances are, when learners hit a language’s inherent limits, and then rail on about how “unexpressive” it is, they will not yet have discovered its richness.

Learning to express oneself in a new language, which features alien cultural and linguistic concepts as well as uncharted facets of expression that do not exist in one’s native tongue, requires a high degree of competency. You actually have to be able to “think” in the new language, rather than just translate from one to the other. It’s like going fishing in a new lake: By the time you realise that your familiar fish don’t live there, you’re still a very long way from discovering the oysters at the bottom, never mind getting at their pearls.

Language. Levels. Layers. Depth. Perspective. New Horizons. [Pic taken last week at Algeciras seafront]

Language. Levels. Layers. Depth. Perspective. New Horizons.
[Pic taken last week at Algeciras seafront]

Now, I’m very curious to hear from those of you who are competent in more than one language… which features do you really enjoy in one of your languages that are tricky to convey in another? Any thoughts, whether from a learner’s or a teacher’s perspective, are very welcome 🙂

[For a short post on German compound noun craziness, click here.]

How Did I Get On With My Portuguese In Portugal?

My trip to Lisbon over Christmas was only my second time in a Portuguese speaking country. I spent a couple of weeks in Madeira about seven years ago, but I didn’t know a word of Portuguese back then, and my knowledge of Spanish, at that point, was pitiful. In short, I understood sod all and was 100% reliant on English.

This time, though, it was a different story. My Portuguese is still pretty basic where speaking and listening comprehension are concerned, but advanced in terms of reading comprehension, because I’m fluent in Spanish by now.

Surprisingly, it felt like there was no real language barrier at all, at least not for the purpose of touristy pursuits. My Portuguese stretches far enough to ask for directions, opening hours, prices, to order food, communicate with bus and taxi drivers etc.

For any more complex issues, the good people of Lisbon (at least those I encountered) understood Spanish perfectly well, and they had no qualms about replying to me in Spanish. I was quite amazed by this. In Spain, hardly anyone speaks Portuguese, despite so much shared history and Portugal being a neighbouring country. The Portuguese do not dub foreign films, which may be one of the reasons why  English is also widely spoken. However, as I was in the company of a Spanish friend, I hardly used any English at all during that week.

...and they totally did :)

…and they totally did 🙂

Portuguese and Spanish vocabulary overlap to a significant extent, and so, if you speak Spanish, it will get you quite far when it comes to deciphering written information. However, Portuguese has a habit of contracting articles and prepositions, which is a great cause of confusion to the uninitiated, even if they do happen to speak another closely-related Romance language like Spanish or Italian. But once you’ve cracked the contractions, reading Portuguese is (almost) plain sailing.

To briefly illustrate: the ubiquitous Portuguese word “no” does not mean “no” as it does in Spanish (and in English), but it is a contraction of the preposition “em” (in/on/at) and the masculine definite article “o”. The word “pelo”, which means “hair” in Spanish 😉 is a contraction of the preposition “por” (by/through/for) and “o”. So, knowing how Portuguese contractions work – and you will find these peppered throughout every sentence – instantly unlocks a whole new dimension of comprehension.

The language aspect of my trip was certainly very satisfying. I was assimilating new vocabulary quite effortlessly just by reading the signs and advertising around me, and at no point did I feel uncomfortable or panicky when the need to communicate arose. (I do get a bit anxious about these things… silly, I know, but that’s how it is).

Listening to people’s conversations in the street and on public transport was much more tricky, though. Spoken Portuguese (and especially that of Portugal) is difficult to understand, as pronunciation differs markedly from what you see in writing. Thanks to my patient Portuguese teacher back home, who is from Lisbon, I was able to catch bits, entire sentences on occasions, but I can’t say that I was able to follow in detail what folk were chattering on about. Not that I expected to, at this stage. I was reminded that I had the very same problem with my Spanish a couple of years ago, and it made me realise how far I’ve come since then.

Spanish and Portuguese may be lexically very similar, but there are plenty of "false friends: "Borrachas", which means rubber/eraser in English, are "drunk women" to a Spanish speaker ;-)

Spanish and Portuguese may be lexically very similar, but there are plenty of “false friends: “Borrachas”, which means rubber/eraser in English, are “drunk women” to a Spanish speaker 😉