Tag Archives: trilingual

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.

Project Trilingual: The Intercambios

In pursuit of fulfilling my primary directive, which is to become trilingual, I engage in “intercambios”. These entail meeting up with local people who want to practice either English or German and who, in exchange, don’t flinch when I torture them with my abysmal Spanish.

Fuelled by the economic crisis, and the fact that foreign language teaching in Spanish secondary schools is just as crap as it is in the UK, demand is huge. The facts that Toledo is small and foreigners scarce on the ground are a total boon for me.

Predictably, most Spaniards want to learn English, but there is also quite a bit of interest in German, because Germany is where the jobs are right now. There’s a tidal wave young and eager jobseekers rolling northwards, aided, in some miniscule part, by me. Good luck to them, I say!

How do I go about ensnaring my victims? Well, the majority I bait with an internet ad, some are driven into my outstretched tentacles by a local language school, and the rest are referred on by my carefully brainwashed stock of active disciples.

The brief email exchange, which preludes every first meeting, routinely confuses people. This is because my written Spanish is apparently so perfect, that my prospective clientele is fooled into thinking that I’m the one wanting to learn English or German from them. As soon as we meet face-to-face, though, they realise that they were grossly mistaken. On email, I can waste hours brooding over every word, deliberating whether the dreaded subjunctive is required or not, and I dither for absolutely aeons before picking the appropriate verb tense – all of which would be too much to bear for a conversation partner with a pulse.

To avoid being inundated by applicants, I’m becoming ever more picky. In my three-liner advertisement, I specify that I’m looking for people who speak their target language to at least upper intermediate level. This is because I enjoy conversation, and I like to switch from one language to the other without throttling the flow or purposely having to change the topic. Going from a stimulating disparagement of faith healers to naming pieces of cutlery just doesn’t do it for me.

Apart from language level, another thing I’ve specified in my “wanted” ad is a minimum age of 25, but I’m finding now that this is still far too low. It turns out that it is commonplace for Spanish people to be living with their parents well into their thirties. Youth unemployment stands at a staggering 50%, making it impossible for youngsters to fly the nest. At times, though, I cannot help but wonder whether the reluctance to strive for independence is not a major contributing factor to this sad statistic, rather than the consequence.

Anyway, the upshot is this: I find start-up conversations featuring sentences like “how many bedrooms are there in your parents’ house” less than thrilling. I’m currently toying with the idea of revising the minimum age upwards to 30+, making it implicit that some life experience in the adult realm wouldn’t go amiss. I really don’t mind if people are screwed up and hopeless in all sorts of other ways. We’d have even more in common then!

Project Trilingual

When people ask me why I moved to Spain, I tell them because I wanted to learn Spanish. But this doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. Thanks to the internet, you can learn just about any language anywhere, and, indeed, I already spoke some Spanish before executing my move to Toledo a year ago.

My interest in Spanish goes back to my teens, though I’m not quite sure why, I’d never even been to Spain, and felt no particular affinity with Spanish or Latin American culture – I just loved the sound of the language. I didn’t even speak English back then, and decided to tackle that first. While I was busy with this, the desire to learn Spanish never really went away. Over the next fifteen or so years, I intermittently took evening classes, got a bunch of certificates, used a bit of Spanish in a couple of jobs, but I never achieved fluency.

My underlying frustration about this finally came to a head in January 2010, when I visited an American friend of mine who’d settled in Costa Rica, and found that I could simply not communicate with her local friends and neighbours. At this point, I hadn’t been using any Spanish at all in about eight years, and so the little knowledge I once possessed had atrophied.

On my return home, I subscribed to some good podcast services, and found myself a native Spanish speaking teacher in North London for 1-2-1 conversation lessons in preparation for my move to Spain. The only way, from my own experience, of becoming truly fluent in a language was to live in a country where it was spoken. So that’s what had to be done, and a year and a half later, in September 2011, I made it happen.

Why all this effort, you may ask. Well, turning myself into a (German/English) bilingual was – and continues to be – one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences of my life, and so I have the deep desire to do it again.

What does it mean to be bilingual? To me, it’s like having another CPU hardwired onto your brain. It allows for dual information processing, and permits you to develop different viewpoints, by not only filtering through language, but also through culture. In short, acquiring another language at native-speaker level is as close as you can get to fitting yourself with a second brain. It creates a kind of synergy that just can’t be grasped in all of its dimensions by monolingual people.

Being bilingual is a bit like having a superpower. But it takes a bloody long time and a lot of effort to develop. Someone who may have spoken one language as a young child, e.g. by communicating with a grandmother in her native tongue, but then switched to using another language exclusively, and who may still be able to carry on a basic communication in the former language during a family reunion, is miles away from fully functional adult bilingualism. The same goes for the average university graduate who has spent five or six years studying a language in an academic environment, plus the obligatory year abroad.

Well, after some prior study and one full year in Spain, I can safely say that I, too, am a very long shot from being trilingual. So far, the chip isn’t working. It’s like a constant nagging pain in my neural cortex. It sits there, like a parasite, compromising rather than enhancing my ability to communicate. There’s no seamless sliding into the language, my consciousness afloat on its warm waters, with my thoughts pouring out of me, eloquently packaged into fully formed sentences. None of that. Whenever I crank up my Spanish, it’s like a stuttering blast from an ice water hose.

But I’m sticking with it, and that’s that.