Tag Archives: trilingual

Project Trilingual: The Reading Challenge – No More Chickening Out!

It’s that time of year when New Year’s resolutions run riot. For me, forcing out valiant resolves for no other reason than it being the start of a new calendar year is not the way to go. However, I find that there’s never a bad time to check in on projects that are already up and running, to assess my progress, hone my focus and maybe do a bit of tweaking.

‘Project Trilingual’, aka as learning Spanish, is my biggest WIP right now, and one area, where I definitely need to step up my efforts is reading. Because… frankly… I’m barely doing any.

This may sound paradoxical, because I love, love, love reading. I love it. Besides being tremendous fun, it’s by far the most effective way of expanding one’s vocab. Reading has always been a favourite leisure activity of mine, and in my twenties, I even had a job where I got PAID to read books! I worked as a Braillist for the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind), and so my job was transcribing books into Braille.

During the six years I worked there, I read books that I’d never have picked off the shelves in a bookshop or a library in a million years, like advanced (for me) Mathematics, triathlon training guides, Teach Yourself Albanian (containing the oft-used sentence “how many stalactites are in this cave?” – I’m not making this up!), Aran knitting, and the Koran. I don’t think there’s a subject area I haven’t read at least one book about.

I’ve consumed hundreds (maybe even thousands…?) of books in English and German, but, so far, I’ve shied away from those scary Spanish books. Sure, I’ve been doing some reading, but it’s been limited to short texts, like teaching podcast transcripts and the occasional article, plus dull day-to-day stuff like phone bills and pesky letters from my bank.

The sticking point is that I primarily read for pleasure, and having to stop to look up every fifth word does my head in. But there comes a time when you’ve got to push beyond your comfort zone in order to make progress and get to where you want to be. And I’m at that threshold how. In order to get better, and be able to read Spanish books for enjoyment, which has always been my goal, I need to step up my reading, even it it hurts right now.

So, here’s the task I’m setting myself: Besides my daily dose of podcasts, I’m going to read at least one article in Spanish and/or a couple of pages of a Spanish book every day. This may not sound like much of a challenge, but I know I can commit to this. It’s an achievable goal, and it’s more than I’m doing now. It’ll get easier, less painful and more rewarding as I go on, which will make me want to read more.

To make it as easy as possible for myself, I’ve downloaded some books in Spanish and a bilingual dictionary onto my e-reader,  so all I have to do as I stumble from one unknown word to the next is to tap on it and the definition/translation comes up. No tedious thumbing through dictionaries like in the old days, nor typing words into a search engine. Really, I have no bloody excuse!!!

I'll be leaving this one till last, methinks...

I’ll be leaving this one till last, methinks…

Language Woes: The Fear Of Losing It

We all have our existential worries. Some worry about being inadequate parents. Some live in fear of ending up as bag ladies under a bridge. I fret over losing command of my native language.

I’ve been an expat longer than an inpat. I spent 19 years living in my birth country, Germany, followed by two decades in the UK, and since September 2011, I’ve been in Spain.

Unlike many other expats, I’ve never surrounded myself with German people while away from Germany. It’s not that I’m consciously avoiding my fellow countrymen, but I just tend to make friends with people I connect with, regardless of their extraction. I don’t seek out places where Germans might purposely meet and congregate. Incidentally, Germans are not a very congregatory people, nor am I particularly gregarious by nature.

The upshot of it is that I’ve used very little German in my daily life over the past two decades. I speak to my family only when forced at guiltpoint, and I’ve but two close friends left from my school days, plus a couple of German friends I’ve picked up in recent years, and that’s pretty much it. The rest of the time my life happens in English, and, since moving to Spain, in Spanish.

During my absence, Germany has been through a spelling reform, and even though I’ve looked at the new rules, I can’t seem to retain them. German now is littered with  peculiar-looking words like “Essstörungen” and “Schifffahrt”. I find it disturbing. Besides, I used to understand the old rules, e.g. when to use ‘ss’ and when an ‘ß’ was needed, but the entire batch of newfangled edicts elude me. Sigh.

Also, I lived in Germany before the arrival of the internet, email, mobile phones, lady shavers and other assorted gadgetry. I lack a whole host of tech vocabulary. Most of the time, German has just adopted the English term, which is handy for me, but what gender has been assigned to it? German nouns have one of three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Is ‘blog’ masculine or neuter? Is ’email’ feminine or neuter? I haven’t a clue.

Being the nerdy bookish type, I used to have excellent spelling and vocabulary in my native language, but my former competence is eroding, syllable by syllable. Although there’s no imminent danger of me ‘forgetting’ my native language, i.e. I’d never not understand what I was reading or what somebody was saying to me, but much of my vocab has moved from the active part of my brain to the passive side, resulting in a pronounced loss of verbal eloquence.

I realise that I’ve got no one to blame but myself for this sad state of affairs.

Sure, not having lived in a German-speaking country for most of my life seems like a vaguely passable excuse, but I’ve let things slide really badly. I’ve been taking my native language for granted, doing next to nothing to keep it brushed up and sparkling. I’ve locked it up like some captive creature in a dungeon. Every now and again I go down there, shine a torch at it, and note to my horror that it has atrophied a bit more.

So, am I doing anything to stop the rot?

Well, over the past year, I’ve been making a more conscious effort. I dip into German newspapers over breakfast every day. I’ve also bought myself an e-reader, which allows me to download books in various languages, and so I’ve started reading German books again – something I should have done a long time ago! (Incidentally, if any of you can recommend some good German reading, I’d be very interested to hear. But please, I don’t want anything that’s been translated into German, and no Schwedenkrimis, I beg of you!)

I’m thinking that maybe starting a blog in German would be great way of resuscitating my writing skills, but somehow, I can’t see that happening any time soon… not even as a New Year’s resolution. I’ve totally lost my confidence 😦

Doing It For The First Time… In Another Language

You may be of the persuasion that you can lose your virginity only once, but this isn’t so. Don’t flinch – there’s no need to submit yourself to any surgical tissue reconstruction. All you have to do to re-live the awkward experience of your fist time is get down to it in another language.

Now, unless you’ve been watching porn in your target language, you probably won’t be au fait with the colloquial terminology referring to the fun parts of human anatomy, never mind being capable of engaging in saucy repartee.

On the upside, your first carnal encounter with a native speaker of the language you’re currently struggling to get to grips with is a golden opportunity for acquiring vocab that you won’t find in any textbook. And seeing that language learning (besides eating cake) is my all-time favourite hobby, that’s more than enough to motivate me.

Right then… let’s scroll back about nine months, when my Spanish was still abysmal.

So, here we are, in my living room, him gagging for it, me gagged by lack of vocab. I do take comfort in the knowledge that men all over the world function pretty much the same on a basic level. And that there is no higher level.

The session kicks off well. Of course, proceedings are punctuated by me asking for the name of various bodily protuberances, as we happen across them, but this doesn’t seem to be disturbing the flow too much. He’s one of my intercambios, you see, and used to enduring my constant questioning without complaint. I refrain from jotting things down in my notebook. A man’s patience can only be pushed so far.

Curiously enough, he doesn’t seem at all interested in the corresponding terms in English. That’s probably because there’s no longer enough blood circulating above his neckline to power the memory banks. Fine by me, as long as I’m getting what I want. I can tell that his residual thinking runs along the same lines.

So, the clothes are off, we’ve made it onto the bed somehow. Things are in full swing, when he says something to me. I gather that it’s a request for me to change position, but I haven’t got a clue which way he wants me. I’m capable of understanding ’69’ in all Latin and Germanic-based languages, and I’m 99% sure that’s not what he’s after. Just as well he’s the burly sort who can shuffle me around and re-arrange my limbs in the desired order. Ouch. My poor back.

Now he’s asking for something else. I don’t quite catch it, not helped by the fact that we’re not exactly face-to-face right now, so I just say yes. Next thing I know, there’s a finger up my butt. Or possibly two. Aha. That’ll teach me.

About twenty minutes in, he shouts something. Although I haven’t come across that particular expression before, I have no trouble deducing its meaning. “Ah,” I say, “you use the verb ‘correr’ in the reflexive for that?”

Hmmm…. this doesn’t appear to be a good time to be discussing grammar. Fine, I’ve worked it out: In Spanish you’re running instead of coming. Shame that I’m not quite there yet myself… But from a language learner’s point of view, the whole undertaking was highly satisfactory.

The Messy Morass of the Intermediate Language Learner

In the beginning, it’s so easy. You don’t understand much. You can say “thank you”, “I like the food” and ask where the toilet is. You’ll even stand a good chance of  finding it, as long as the answer is accompanied by an index finger pointing you in the right direction.

Every new word you learn, every new phrase – it’s just so exciting! Only yesterday, you didn’t know the words for “sun”, “wait” and “wardrobe” in X language, and now you do. Learning is positively blissful.

These are the joys of the beginner. Make the most of it while it lasts, I say. Most people never get beyond that threshold, and there’s a reason: It’s called the ‘intermediate’ stage. You know it is upon you the instant you’re hit by the crushing realisation that you know, in fact, next to nothing.

This most vexatious of all learning stages is marked by an inordinate amount of drudgery: sweating over grammar drills that slide right through the Teflon-coated folds of your brain without leaving even the slightest imprint, your eyes turning bloodshot from staring at vocabulary lists for hours on end, and your throat muscles have gone into spasms over trying to roll Rs, practicing your tones, or whatever. Your short-term reward for all this toil is nothing but frustration and embarrassment over every incompetent utterance.

Language acquisition works a bit like an inverted pyramid: You progress from the bottom up, and even though the levels all cover the same vertical distance, the amount of knowledge, expressed in terms of the area of a pyramid slice you need to cover to get the the next level, gets bigger every time

Language acquisition works on an ‘inverted pyramid principle’: You progress from the bottom up, and even though the levels all cover the same vertical distance, the amount of knowledge, expressed in terms of the area of a pyramid segment you need to assimilate to get the the next level, gets bigger every time

In an effort to improve and test yourself, you watch  films, you listen to native speaker conversations, and you do catch some words, but in truth, you struggle to even get the gist most of the time. They speak way too fast for you to even identify any of the vocabulary you know, never mind comprehending the bewildering garnish of idiomatic expressions interspersed with slang, which neither your textbooks nor your well-intentioned teachers prepared you for.

The intermediate phase is immensely risky. On those rare occasions when you’re feeling buoyant about your verbal skills, you just won’t be able to stop yourself from coming out with a couple of not-too-shoddy sentences veering dangerously towards the colloquial. This can easily fool a native speaker into believing that you are, in fact, capable of engaging in a normal conversation. Before you have a chance to take flight, they start talking to you. And there you are, frozen on the spot, nodding at them with a rictus grin on your face, without the faintest clue of where this is going.

Not only do you not want to abort the mission and make yourself look like a fool, but you’re clinging to the vain hope that the very next sentence is going to bring a lighting flash insight, which will reveal all that they’ve been rabbiting on about for the last fifteen minutes. Deep down, you already know that this is futile, because you’ve been in this very situation a zillion times before. The best you can hope for is that they won’t suddenly stop and look at you expectantly, waiting for you to divulge detailed opinions on the topic.

Luckily, in about 80% of these instances, you’ll come away relatively unscathed, because people generally just want somebody with a friendly face to listen to them attentively, not interrupt, and agree with them. Intermediate language learners are perfectly equipped for this purpose. I don’t know why we’re not making shedloads money out of this…!

So, how do you know when you’ve finally made it out of the intermediate morass? Well, in my experience, what happens is that, all of a sudden, you’re able to pick out the words and expressions you don’t understand, and you can ask for clarification.

Welcome to the immensely rewarding phase of the advanced learner. Let the warm wave of recognition that all the blood sweat and tears were well worth it wash over you.

I only just got there with my Spanish. I’ve still got a long way to go until I reach near-native speaker level, which is my goal, but it’s important to celebrate the milestones as I stumble along the path.


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com


Learning Languages – Quality or Quantity?

Languages are one of my big life passions. But I don’t speak very many of them at all. My current count is a paltry two and a half (three and a half, if you count Bavarian, but that would be cheating 😉

I guess we’re all different when it comes to our language learning objectives. Some value being able to ‘get by’ in as many languages as possible. I can see the merit in this approach, especially for travelling purposes. A basic-to-intermediate knowledge of just five languages – English, German, French, Italian and Spanish – can get you all the way through Western Europe (and through a fair bit of Eastern Europe as well) without suffering too many miscommunication disasters.

Whether it’s cake or languages – I want all or nothing, me!

Thing is, I don’t just want tourist vocabulary. Or work vocabulary (bloodless “International English” springs to mind – yeuch!!). Or drinking vocabulary (“Una cerveza por favor…”) siiiigh.

I want the full bandwidth. I want to read novels without sobbing into the dictionary, watch a soap and cringe up all my innards over a corny line, understand a 92-year-old granny’s incoherent warblings. I want to FEEL what I’m saying, give it nuance, zest and, if appropriate, a bit of humour, not just run my brain’s equivalent of Google Translate. I’d rather speak three languages competently than be able to order a pizza and side salad in twelve. It just doesn’t satisfy me. It’d be like a lifetime of eating nothing but starters, without ever getting to the main course or the best part, aka dessert.

I’m not there yet with my Spanish. Trying to read books is still positively painful, and hell, what I wouldn’t give to understand my accountant! I just shuffle him a pile of papers every three months, sign on the dotted line and pray. I expect to be amassing a formidable repertoire of prison slang when I get done for accidental tax fraud.

I read polyglots’ blogs half in wonderment, half green with envy. OK, I can completely see how somebody might end up speaking ten languages fluently, if they’ve grown up in a trilingual household, and were continually shunted from one corner of the globe to another by their diplomat parents.

I’ve also come across people who claimed to speak a second language, but then got busted. Many moons ago, while working for a financial services company in the UK, I interviewed a young woman for a position that required speaking to German customers over the phone. The girl gave me a well-rehearsed speech, like one of those a 16-year-old might regurgitate at the start of an oral exam when prompted to “talk about yourself”. But when I asked her some non-technical, work-related questions in German, she drew a complete blank. What was she thinking, applying for a job that was all about offering assistance to people who had just been robbed of their bank cards and other valuables in a foreign country? That “My name is Julie, I grew up in Shrewsbury, I have an older sister, and my favourite subject is history” would placate them?

Now, I’m by no means above launching a half-baked attempt at learning a language. I’ve dipped into Russian, Japanese and Chinese. I did Russian at school for a couple of years, and Japanese and Chinese as an adult for about six months each. Although I never went beyond beginner’s level with any of those three, it was a real eye opener to see how differently they work in comparison to Germanic/Romance languages. With the Asian ones, I just love the concept of verbs that don’t change (Spanish, take heed!), and also the nifty thing about just sticking ‘ma’ or ‘ka’ at the end of a sentence to turn it into a question, without having to fiddle with the word order.

Japanese is the one I’d quite like to pick up again at some point. What puts me off, though, is the thought of the time and gruelling effort (not to mention money and…. PAIN!) it would take to reach even intermediate speaker level – never mind cracking the writing system! Part of me is thinking, what’s the point of even trying, when I’m never going to be able to read a novel in Japanese?

Anyway, the next one on my list is Portuguese. The Brazilian kind. A friend of mine is also keen to learn it, and she wants us to kick it off together at the beginning of 2013. I’m a bit nervous about it. I feel that I’m not quite ready, and that I ought to fully apply myself instead to filling the gaping holes in my Spanish. On the other hand, Portuguese and Spanish are quite similar, and so progress should be comparatively swift.

My overall aim is to master five languages at (close to) native speaker level. I’m half way there, and, barring being run over by a bus or dying early of cake poisoning, I’ve still got about half my life in front of me. So, I reckon I stand a fair chance of accomplishing my goal. It’s definitely quality over quantity for me. Now, if only I could stick to that policy on the cake front…

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com


Project Trilingual: Brain Operating Status: Utterly Uncooperative

I’ve come to recognise that my brain and I want different things. It wants an easy life, I want to cram it full with Spanish. It’s not a happy marriage. But we’re just going to have to stick it out.

Spanish in my head ≠ Spanish on my lips
To foil my efforts of self-advancement, the wobbly grey clump in my skull has installed a scrambling device somewhere between my ‘thought’ Spanish and my ‘spoken’ Spanish. So, when I’m quietly thinking in Spanish, I’m amazingly fluent. All the right words just seen to flock together in a pleasing arrangement, my synapses fire the required grammar at it, and I’ll be holding the most eloquent of conversations. In my head.

But out in the real world, it’s a totally different experience. I sound totally inept. The mutilated utterance that spill from my lips in the presence puzzled-looking people bear no resemblance to the harmonious conversational flow of my imaginary world.

My Spanish conversation teacher back in London, who was originally from Madrid, told me that she used to sit in front of a mirror for hours, talking to herself in English, and that this had helped her a great deal. I think I laughed out loud when she told me this, and dismissed the idea.
But lately…  I’ve been thinking… maybe she was onto something… I may have to report back. Incidentally, if anyone else has tried this, I’d be very interested to hear about it.

A lazy ass gatekeeper
You see, what I want from my brain is to act a bit like passport control and customs operations at the airport. I want all the words, grammar, expressions etc. neatly lined up in single file, properly identified, tagged and content checked before being dispatched into the wild.

But no. My brain is like a garden hose riddled with punctures. Instead of a nice, steady stream emerging from the front end, the blasted thing jerks and splutters, emitting water in trickles and squirts in all directions. And as fast as I’m trying to plug one leak, ten new ones spring up.

How do I turn off  a malfunctioning spellchecker?!
I’ve also noticed that my general performance pattern follows a bell-shaped curve. There’s a halting start to each conversation,  I get better after ten to fifteen minutes (the warm-up phase, I suppose), I peak, and finally, as my powers of concentration start to flag, it becomes a real struggle.

Once I get to this point, my brain plays another one of its prized tricks on me: It kicks into overactive spellchecker mode. We’ve all suffered from the unintended consequences of these creative little programmes when sat in front of our computers… only last week, I was hammering the concluding part of an article into my keyboard, when I mistyped “complete”, which the spellchecker helpfully auto-corrected to “copulate”. Well, my brain pulls the same antics when I’m talking to innocent people, and, unlike when I’m at home working on my tod, on those occasions, there are witnesses. Who are cracking up.

And  because I’m riled and frustrated at this stage, I will switch to English if my conversation partner has a passable command. A total cop out, I realise…

Project Trilingual: The Radio – My Friend and Traitor

About six weeks ago, I acquired a marvel of modern technology called “The Radio”.

Let me explain what prompted this purchase: About 95% of my entertainment and information gathering needs are catered for by The Computer. Courtesy of the internet, I have not used a radio, nor a TV, for that matter, in years, or at least not on a regular basis.

The reason for getting myself a radio was that I’ve been having ongoing problems understanding spoken Spanish, even in instances where the speaker’s pronunciation was crystal clear, and I knew all the vocabulary. I’ve tested this by listening to numerous podcasts, where I was barely able to understand more than the gist, but had no problems at all reading the transcripts. My just brain just wasn’t processing the spoken language very well, and I was still struggling with this after an entire year in Spain.

In my mission to finally crack this, I carry my radio around the flat like a talisman. I listen while cooking, getting dressed, cutting my toenails, washing up, as well as between waking up and actually getting out of bed (some days, this can take hours!!), etc. And I don’t just have it bleating away in the background, I apply myself to listening intently.

Within four weeks of this, there was a notable improvement in my comprehension level, and I’m expecting that, after two to three more months, I will no longer have the processing problem. From then on, I’m hoping, I’ll mainly be focusing on the fun part – assimilating new vocabulary and expressions, and perfecting the art of colocation (learning which words go to together and in what sequences – it’s what makes you express yourself like a native speaker, besides accent and pronunciation).

What I’ve also discovered is that, despite its prowess as a booster of linguistic skills, The Radio is a treacherous piece of equipment in need of very careful management.

At this stage, I’m not particularly choosy about what I’m listening to. Adverts, endless dissections of the economic crisis, weather forecasts and traffic updates  – it’s all grist to the mill. As long as people are saying something, I’m learning.

But there are three things that make me lose the will to live: Football, Radio Vatican and Radio Santa Maria.

Avoiding said broadcasters poses a formidable challenge. Especially when I happen to be in the shower.

Radio Santa Maria, in particular, seems to have adopted guerrilla warfare practices to ensnare its audience. It does this by emerging on random frequencies at any time of the day. There I’ll be, all nicely lathered up in my  steamy paradise, engrossed in a cookery programme on how to perfect a tortilla flip, when suddenly, without much of a warning, it switches to a sombre-voiced Sister will be lamenting the spiritual desertification of the modern world.

I’m half expecting them to start broadcasting from the microwave any day now.

Another curious hallmark of Spanish radio what happens during “tertulias” or chat programmes, which usually comprise the show’s host, a random clueless person (the producer’s niece or nephew, I’m guessing) and two “experts” on whatever topic is being discussed. So, how this works is that, Instead of taking turns, everybody talks, all at the same time, getting louder and louder, until all but one run out of breath. The ‘winner’ will keep on talking, until the others have recovered sufficient lung capacity to chime back in.

Also, watch out for programmes broadcast after 1am. Again, there will be a group of people. But this time, they won’t even pretend to be discussing something worthwhile. Instead, one of them puts on a muppetty voice, spout a complete load of bollocks, and everybody else will be laughing most hysterically. This goes on until the wee hours, when it all switches back to wailing (in a more serious voice) about evictions and cutbacks.

Music programmes are another tricky issue, especially those featuring flamenco music.  Oh my. But I’ve wised up to this now – as soon as there’s a middle-aged bloke being interviewed and he starts talking about his guitar, I know that I’m mere seconds away from an eardrum full of him yowling on about some woman leaving him – and she had very good reasons for doing so, that much is clear.