Tag Archives: trilingual

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 ūüôā

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.

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


Prepositions – So Much Depends Of Them

Nine out of ten times, when a sentence just doesn’t make any flippin’ sense, even though you know all the words, it’s because of the evil workings of a preposition.

Compared to the masses of verbs, nouns and adjectives that exist in a language, the number of prepositions is miniscule.¬† European languages have, on average, what, maybe thirty…? And yet, using those pesky little words correctly takes longer to learn than anything else. It’s also the first thing that goes when you lose regular contact with a language.

English phrasal verbs (which are, essentially, verbs married to prepositions) are infamous for making students despair. Take the verb “to look” as a random example: Look at, look for, look out for, look about, look over, look after… the preposition completely changes the meaning every time. English has thousands of phrasal verbs, including colloquial and regional variations that don’t appear in any dictionary.

To make matters worse, many have several, often completely different meanings depending on context. “To make out” is a prime example. Adding the preposition “on” to the phrasal verb “to go down”, gives it a completely new dimension… ūüėČ

Other languages also have phrasal verbs, and plenty of them, Spanish being no exception. It took me ages to figure out, for example, that “dar con”, which literally translates as “to give with”, actually means “to find/encounter”. Makes no intuitive sense whatsoever!

SunsetWhen people are taught German as a foreign language, they are told that specific prepositions often correspond to specific cases, e.g. “mit” (with) always takes the dative. So, if you don’t know the correct preposition to start with, chances are you’ll get all the noun and adjective endings wrong as well, resulting in an irreparably screwed up sentence.

Even in fairly closely related languages like English and German, prepositions do not correspond. In German, you give “after”, not “in” and you depend “of” someone or something. Not all prepositions exist in every language, making translations cumbersome and learners tear their hair out.

It is generally drilled into students to learn prepositions in conjunction with a set of common verbs, e.g. “to concentrate on” and “to insist on” are a couple of classic examples, where only one preposition is viable, but in most cases, are just too many different possibilities for all of them to be learnt by rote.

In short, the only way to get your prepositions down to a pat is by knowing what sounds ‘right’ and what doesn’t. And this, as some of you will have found out, takes aeons of exposure. In fact, I’d say, that it’s impossible to achieve unless you’ve actually been living for years and years and years in a country where the language is spoken.

I Hate Verbs

Spanish is a verb-driven language, I remember reading that somewhere. No kidding. I’m looking at a verb table right now, and every Spanish verb has about 50 versions (not including the compound tenses). English has … what… like…three… or six…?

Basic stuff still has me stumped. In particular, the many baffling incarnations of very common irregular verbs. One quick example to illustrate: Take the verbs dar (to give) and decir (to say). They look very different in the infinitive, right? Apart from starting and ending with the same letter, they seem to have sod all in common, and you’d be unlikely to confuse them. But you wait…

If you want to say “tell me!”, decir suddenly morphs into “dime!” (imperative) or “digame!” (subjunctive), and when you want to say “I gave” and “we gave” then “dar” turns into “di”¬† and “dimos“, respectively. All over sudden, dar becomes decir‘s evil twin! This kind of thing happens all over the place, and even after over a year and a half in Spain, confusion abounds.

But I’m not alone. One of my longstanding language exchange partners mentioned a couple of days ago how her three-year-old son was getting most of the verbs wrong by tarring all of them indiscriminately with the regular-verb brush. That poor little blighter will soon enough have the last remaining shred of common sense corrected out of him.

And yes, those red flecks on the white cover are, in fact, blood.

And yes, those red flecks on the white cover are, in fact, blood.

Over the years, I’ve been poring for countless hours over gaps in textbooks demanding to be filled with the correct form of a verb. I’ve never enjoyed it, not even one little bit. It was a necessary evil. And despite all this effort, these endless permutations refuse to stick to my Teflon-plated brain.

I’ve about 90+% comprehension at this point, and I can discuss complex topics, but I still grind to a halt regularly while struggling to produce the right flippin’ version of a verb.

I had not foreseen this. A couple of years ago, when I decided to move to Spain, I thought that by now, it would just be a matter of accumulating more vocab and fine-tuning my diction. The biggest challenge, I thought, would be hitting the right prepositions, which, speaking from my previous experience with English, takes several years.

I know there’s no point complaining about how hard it is to learn a new language, especially when your standards are high. They are not going to change it for me.

If you’ve been dipping into this blog for a while, you will know that I made a start on Portuguese recently. My heart sinks every time I contemplate the verb nightmare stretching out in front of me.

But after this, I’m done, you hear me – DONE. I’ll never touch another language with flippin’ mutating verbs ever again. Japanese it is for me. It may take me a hundred years to get to grips with their impenetrable three-script writing system, but at least Japanese verbs don’t transmogrify all over the place.

Coming up (eventually): A rant about prepositions. Brace yourselves.

Project Multilingual: Two Timing Troubles

I’m worried that it’s too early to be doing this… too soon into a new relationship.

I know that some of you are getting on top of two, three or even four(!) at the same time, and I do wonder how people are managing this.

I moved to Spain primarily to get to grips with Spanish. I’d been studying the language before, for years, on and off, and I knew that I was never going to reach a (for me) satisfactory level of competence without actually going to live in a Spanish-speaking country.

So I did. And I put in a lot of effort to improve. For the first nine months, I took classes to plug the remaining grammar gaps. I listen to teaching podcasts every day, and to the radio, for hours and hours. I engage in 1-2-1 intercambios (language exchange) sessions with a number of people every week. I spend time with Spanish friends. I’ve just started reading novels in Spanish, which, thanks to the integrated dictionary on my Kindle, is going quite well. I’m not yet where I want to be with it – progress is a lot slower than I expected.

I’ve harboured an interest in Portuguese since my teenage years, and it was next up on my list of languages to tackle, but, to be honest, I’d rather have waited another year for my Spanish to solidify a bit more. However, an opportunity arose to go to Brazil for a few months with a friend at the end of this year. I don’t want to miss out, and I also want to get the most out of that experience, so I started learning Brazilian Portuguese a month ago, from zero.

Pronunciation is tricky. To stop it from sounding like Spanish, I figured, after watching a whole slew of podcasts on the matter, you have to speak like a 13-year-old Italian boy with a stonking cold whose voice is breaking. The fact that Portuguese is so close to Spanish is helpful and confusing all at the same time.

Portuguese HuecosBut grammar is grammar is grammar, in any language. Suddenly, I find myself once again filling in endless gaps on photocopied pages, requiring the right articles, pronouns, verb tenses. Because there is no other way, at least in the beginning. I’d only just left this phase behind me. (In Spanish.) It’s like the terrible twos all over again.

At the moment, I’m trying to do a bit of Portuguese each day, spending maybe between 20 minutes to an hour, and, overall, I am enjoying it … but…. I do feel terribly guilty for not investing that time in my Spanish instead. Even before starting on this new language, I felt that I wasn’t giving my Spanish the attention it deserved.That’s because I have to do other important stuff like work for a living, and for that, my head needs to be in English mode.

Any tips from anyone studying multiple languages at the same time…? At some point, I’d quite like to get back to my Japanese, which I abandoned four years ago… but that would be totally crazy, right?!?

Project Trilingual: I Can Reach The Handle Now!

This Spanish learning business does make me want to bang my head against the wall, repeatedly, morning noon and night. But sometimes, the ghost of Cervantes turns in his grave – either in despair or with mercy, it’s hard to tell which – and tosses me a scrap of hope. I’ve talked before about acknowledging the little successes, and I remain committed to posting them, no matter how piffling.

So, a couple of days ago, I went to the Museo Sorolla in Madrid with an old friend visiting from Germany. (Joaquin Sorolla Bastida was a Spanish Impressionist painter, born in 1863). We asked for audio guides, available only in English and Spanish, which was a bit inconvenient for my friend. As for me, there I stood, in front of the desk, dithering for several minutes over which one to go for. In the end, I opted for Spanish. As we trailed through the building, I kept pressing the litte buttons that explained the wonderful paintings, and… to my amazement, I understood everything.

Why did I even hesitate to ask for the Spanish audio guide? Well, only a few months ago, listening to guided tours in Spanish was a supreme effort. I understood maybe 30-40% if I was lucky. Thanks to “operation radio”, however, I no longer have problems with comprehension.

Curiously, at the point of choosing the audio guide, my conscious mind hadn’t quite caught up with the fact that my listening skills had improved greatly since my last tour. With hindsight, it seems silly now that I thought I might struggle with the Spanish audio guide, when I manage to understand just about everything else – people talking to me, films, the TV, etc. I guess, my initial doubts were like those of a kid looking wistfully at the doorhandle it couldn’t reach the last time it tried, not realising that it had, in fact, shot up a couple of inches in height since then.

The steps leading up to the entrance of Sorolla's villa, now a museum

The steps leading up to the entrance of Sorolla’s villa, now a museum

And a close-up, coz the tiles are soooo pretty ;-)

And a close-up, coz the tiles are soooo pretty ūüėČ

Project Trilingual: Feeling Chuffed About The Little Successes

I usually whine on about how hard this language learning malarkey is, how frustrated I am and that I need to do better.

As everybody who’s been through this process knows, it’s impossible to get a sense of your own progress on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.

So, more often than not, it’s other people commenting on your level of linguistic competence which triggers the realisation that you might actually be getting somewhere, and I’ve had a couple of heartening pronouncements from unbiased strangers recently.

The first one tumbled out of the mouth of a friend of a friend when the three of us were having a drink together. The guy (who I hadn’t met before) asked me how many years I’d been living in Spain. That’s right, he said “YEARS”. I realise I’m willfully¬† misconstruing his choice of words into compliment on my Spanish, but,¬† I reckon, if he thought I’d been in Spain for a long time, then my Spanish must be getting quite good, right? On the other hand, he may have such rock-bottom expectations of foreigners acquiring a serviceable level of the language that he was impressed by me ordering a a bottle of tonic water.

A slightly less ambiguous appraisal from another complete stranger came last Tuesday, during a flight form Madrid to Miami. I got chatting to a chirpy Nicaraguan lady in the seat across the aisle from me. Although I’m unlikely to meet her again, I shall nevertheless love that woman for ever and ever, because she asked me if I was Spanish! Oh my, if I’m managing to fool a native Spanish speaker into thinking that, I must be making some serious headway!

As an aside, even though I’m not in Spain at the moment, Project Trilingual is by no means on hold. Key West is a stone’s throw from Cuba, and the island (the whole of Florida, really) is full of Cubans and other Latin Americans. Spanish is spoken everywhere, and I keep listening to people in the street speaking it in their various regional accents, and I don’t miss any opportunities to converse in Spanish with the staff in shops and restaurants. It’s great to be able to understand what’s going on around me. Only a year ago, this would have been impossible, and I find it very satisfying ūüôā

Getting More Out Of Language Exchanges

The start of a new year lends itself to doing a bit of strategy revision on up-and-running projects. In this vein, I’ve already told you in a recent post that I’d committed to reading more in order to crank up my Spanish vocabulary.

Besides tackling the reading issue, what’s also been on my mind is that I could be working my intercambios (language exchange sessions) a lot harder than I currently am.

Like most people, I’m a bit lazy. I turn up for my intercambios, we have a chat over coffee or a glass of wine. I might even scribble some notes on loose bits of paper. Usually, both parties end up learning something, and we go away happy, mission accomplished. Well, sort of.

It would a big difference, I’m convinced, if I actually prepared for these sessions, for example by keeping a notebook throughout the week, jotting down specific questions and queries which come up while I’m working on my Spanish by myself, i.e. during reading, studying grammar, working through podcast material or listening to the radio.

It would also help if I made a specific point of practicing new vocabulary and expressions that I’ve come across during self-study by foisting it onto a native speaker.

I do actually keep a notebook for recording new words and expressions, and I occasionally re-read them, e.g. while waiting for the bus, but so far, I have not been making a conscious effort to practice the new material with a live victim, and I never retain what I’ve heard or read just the once. This strikes me as a major missed learning opportunity.

I think my laziness is down to having a virtually unlimited supply of native speakers at my disposal. It’s one of the paradoxes of human nature that we often don’t fully appreciate what we’ve got when there’s an abundance of it.

There’s a myriad of uncertainties about grammar and vocabulary usage swirling around in my head, but I fail to resolve them efficiently. I just take it for granted that these questions will eventually resolve themselves in time,¬† by virtue of the continued exposure I get just by living in Spain. And they will, but I could make progress so much faster if I made a smidgen more of an effort in honing my approach.

So, the plan is this: I’ll be keeping a notebook dedicated to language queries, taking care to write them down as and when they occur, ready to be inflicted upon the next intercambio. Watch this space…