Thursday, 24 December 2009

It's Impossible

I am always amazed and saddened when someone says, "I can't," when referring to any mental task that needs to be undertaken. This usually takes the form of learning something new: a language, a way of doing something, new technologies, whatever.

"I can't" provides the perfect get-out, allowing its pronouncer to huddle down into a comfortable, easy, effortless way of life. It rarely has any significance, other than as a reflection of the unwillingness of its user to put themselves out in order to achieve whatever they insist that they are unable to do.

I have heard "I can't" so often since being in Spain. Most of the people Elise and I become acquainted with are fairly old, sixty and upward. They use the excuse to justify their apparent inability to learn the Spanish language. "I can't, because I'm too old." "I can't, because I don't speak to Spanish people." "I can't, because they speak too fast." "I can't, because they always want to speak English to me." And so on. If an excuse can be found, then these people will surely find it and make use of it to prove that "I can't."

Nonsense. Sheer, utter nonsense.

You are never too old to learn something new, let alone a language. Indeed, learning a language is a natural process that we have all gone through when we had far more reason to say "I can't," (not that we could) as very small children, learning our native language.

The oldies often think that if they go to so-called language lessons once or twice a week, then this will be sufficient to allow them to be able to learn Spanish. The lessons last all of an hour or so and, given that most of the pupils have little or no idea of grammar, even the most basic grammar, that they have not been in a classroom for forty or fifty years, that they do not have the self-discipline to pay sufficient attention during the classes and certainly not to do any homework adequately, then it is little surprise that early high expectations are soon dashed, that attendance drops and that the experiment ends in inevitable failure.

Do these people really not understand that they live in the best school there is to learn Spanish? They live in Spain, a country populated by millions of people who speak the language fluently; a country with perfectly good television and radio stations that transmit in Spanish, a country with bookshops that sell books printed in Spanish, a country with shops where the sales assistants speak Spanish.

The very best way to learn a language is to use it. It sounds simple and it is! However, it requires an effort. It means that you will struggle; it means that you will make mistakes; it means that you will not understand and will have to ask the speaker to repeat and repeat again. But the effort will be worth it and in a few years you really will be able to understand and be able to be understood. How well you will be able to do so will depend only on the amount you immerse yourself in the language: if you live in an area where nobody speaks anything but Spanish, you will become almost fluent in a relatively short time (I was almost fluent in Dutch with a year when I lived in Belgium in a similar environment); if, on the other hand, you limit yourself to only the occasional practical use of Spanish and otherwise exist in an English-speaking environment (or whatever your "normal" language is), then you will likely never become fluent and it will be several years before you will be able to partake in even the simplest of conversations.

It all depends on the amount of effort you are prepared to make! And don't come up with the excuse that I hear more often than any other: "I'm too old and can't retain things like the youngsters." Rubbish! You use a very small percentage of your brain-capacity and there is plenty of room for more information to be stored. The reason you might not be able to learn as quickly as a child is that you have other things to worry about: what's for the next meal, when is the next electricity bill due, when shall we get the new furniture (and how shall we pay for it)…?

So forget the "I can't," and instead be prepared for an effort, filled with both frustration and joy.

Use Spanish at every opportunity: shop in Spanish, go to Spanish restaurants and order in Spanish, ask directions in Spanish, strike up conversations in Spanish. Carry a small dictionary with you, or a PDA loaded with a Spanish dictionary (I found this particularly useful when I started). If you know the sort of situation you are going to have to face, then prepare yourself for it: look up the words you might need and memorise a few apt phrases; in the beginning, one of the most useful phrases is one to ask your interlocutor to speak more slowly.

Read Spanish books. Start out with the simplest of books for very small children and use a dictionary to try to follow the tale. At first this will seem like hell and it will take forever to read and (perhaps) understand even the simplest story. You will have to look up almost every word and many you will not find in a dictionary simply because you do not know the infinitive forms of conjugated verbs. Don't worry! Try to work out a meaning of the word you see given its context and if this doesn't work, then just carry on. You will be surprised how much this helps your vocabulary (which will be passive at first, but that's quite normal).

Watch Spanish television (ban Sky, BBC, ITV and any other national channels). Spain has a full digital terrestrial service (TDT and it's free), so watch the news and a few other programmes in Spanish (as a reward, you can watch a few series in English, or German, or French… thanks to the digital nature of the transmissions). In the beginning, you will understand almost nothing the presenters say, as they will seem to speak so quickly. Don't worry. With time you will start to pick out words, then sentences, and in a few months, assuming you make the effort (see, it again requires effort) to watch every day. Leave talk programmes on in the background in order to allow yourself to get used to the sound of Spanish and to hear different accents.

And, talking about accents, try to eliminate or at least disguise your "foreign" accent: don't ask for "Oon caffay con letchay, paw favaw," but attempt to shorten the vowels and roll the "r"s to make it "Por favor, un café con leche." Listen to how the Spaniards say it! Also, take note of stress marks: Spanish has a few simple rules about stress (normally, you stress the last-but-one syllable), but stress marks override these rules and indictas how a word must be pronounced. Near Guardamar is the village of Almoradí. See the stress mark on the final "i"? (It looks like an accent, but serves a different function.) Well, that indicates that instead of saying "AlmorAHdi" (following the normal rule of stress), you must say "AlmoradEE," with the stress on the final syllable. So a written Spanish word actually shows you how to pronounce it!

Have absolutely no worries about making mistakes. You make mistakes in your own language (you might not know it, but you certainly do) and it is only to be expected that you will make mistakes in a language that you are learning. I was once in a market and She Who Must Be Obeyed wanted cushions larger than those on display, so at each stall I asked the stallholders if they had "Cojones más grandes," to which I inevitably got a huge smile back, even as they explained these were the only ones available. I discovered later that I had used cojón instead of cojín and that cojón means something quite different (you are free to look it up)! The point of spoken language is to get your ideas across to someone else; if there are mistakes, it really doesn't matter (formal written language is a different kettle of fish), so don't worry about making them. Certainly in the beginning, you will have to struggle to get even the simplest ideas across, but that will gradually improve. The secret is, the greater the effort, the quicker the improvement.

Something I have found very useful in learning Spanish, or, at least, increasing my vocabulary, is to do crosswords and other word puzzles. You really need a dictionary of synonyms to start off with this, or perhaps a good school dictionary (Santillana publishes the excellent Diccionario Escolar de la Lengua Española. I also watch Spanish game shows, such as Pasapalabra (quite impossible to follow for the first year, as they really do speak very quickly), Saber y Ganar, and Password. But perhaps this is for just a little bit further down the learning line.

Don't think that you will ever truly become a totally fluent, perfect speaker of the language. To achieve that takes years and years of major effort and practice. You will never fully eradicate your "foreign" accent, but all languages have accents, and Spanish is certainly no exception, so you are just adding to the vast selection already available. Native speakers will always recognise you as a foreigner and that's fine, as they will admire your effort and determination to speak to them in their language, as befits a guest in their country. I lived for 35 years in Belgium and could speak Dutch quite well, but always with a slight accent. When I speak English, English people recognise that I am Welsh, even though I left Wales when I was nine years old! You don't get rid of your origins that easily! (That still doesn't excuse Oon caffay con letchay, however!)

To make things more interesting, learn a bit about Spanish history and culture. Both topics are amazingly interesting. I know that many towns and villages refer to their older buildings as monumentos when they often do not merit the description monument, but look further than the tourist industry's hyperbole and linguistic nuances to discover the wonderful cultural mix that Spain was before the Catholics destroyed it. A better perspective on the people and their history should make the language even more interesting to learn.

In the meantime, use the best school there is, Spain itself, and get out and try to make practical use of the language. Forget your inhibitions, forget your worries, just get on with it and, above all, stop saying "I can't." Soon you'll be saying "No puedo," and that's a lot better!

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