Thursday 8 January 2009

With a view to communication

It was a language that brought me to Spain. But the language was my own. One of the largest, and growing, industries in Madrid is the language business, and what language do the Spanish want to learn more than any other – English. There are companies here that rely on English Speaking volunteers to help their Spanish clients get to grips with the intricacies and oddities of the tongue of Shakespeare and Twain and I will write about those very soon. But when I first came here I had a language problem of my own: I spoke no Spanish.

Well, that’s not quite true. From a vacation taken many years previously in the Canary Islands I had one very important phrase, “Una cerveza, por favor”. A beer, please. On the pleasantly warm evening when I first arrived in Madrid that phrase was the only one I used. And it worked. I sat at a terrace bar surrounded by beautiful seƱoritas and drank my first beer. Within a week I had learnt to modify my only sentence to, “Una cerveza fria, por favor”: make it a cold one!

Since then my knowledge of the Spanish language has not exactly come on in leaps and bounds, more in trips and stumbles. But I can communicate: I shop for food, I get my hair cut almost the way I like it (but apparently that failure of communication between client and hairdresser happens even if you are fluent!) and I mostly make myself understood in the majority of circumstances.

When, as children, we learn our native tongue, our mothers do not tell us about verbs and nouns and adjectives (or conditionals, subjunctives, prepositions and whether these words are perfect, imperfect, or pluperfect for that matter). So why do teachers of second languages instruct their pupils in a language no one understands. Dammit, I was fluent in English before I started school (more or less) without knowing a scrap of grammar, it should be easier now I am all grown up.

A language is like a wall. The words, the vocabulary, are the bricks. The grammar is the mortar that keeps it all together. Well, you can build a wall just with bricks and the language equivalent is you sound like Tarzan. “Want beer. Cold”. Communication is established and a need fulfilled – but you sound like an idiot.

When I look back it amazes me how many of my Spanish friends were happy to consort with an idiot. Like the good friends they turned out to be, and they are, you might think they would encourage me in my endeavours to speak their language. But no; in me they had a ready made way of practising their English. Hmm. Thanks guys!

I spent a year sounding like Tarzan, then decided to do something about it. There are probably as many schools teaching Spanish to Foreigners in Madrid as there are Schools teaching English to Spaniards, but the circumstances of my life made it awkward to sign up for a course. So, I bought a book and began. That book didn’t really do it for me, so I bought another … and another. Eventually I had quite a library – and still I wasn’t getting anywhere.

You see, there are different ways to approach learning a language. I envy those who can learn by rote. They just absorb the vocabulary and the grammatical rules and never question anything. They become fluent in no time. Me? I want to know why that phrase means what it means and why that grammatical rule is used. It seriously impedes my progress, but that’s the way I am.

But we live in a world where just about anything you need to know lies hidden beneath a keyboard. The Internet! Do you have any idea how many websites there are that want to teach you a language? Well, lots! How many of them are any good and are not trying to sell you something? Not many!

Well, for your education here are a list of some the good ones; the ones that helped me get to the stage I am now (So it’s their fault, not my procrastination!):

Top of the list are the many podcasts from Notes in Spanish. Thanks to Ben and Marina for some “cool” and really helpful stuff. Also the forum on their sister website, Notes from Spain. There are people on there who really know their cebollas.
Coffee Break Spanish, a series of 80, yes! 80 podcasts from the Radio lingua website – and now Showtime Spanish. Find both of the above on Itunes together with a bunch more language podcasts.
The Spanish bit of The explanations both on the main pages and on the forum have been invaluable
The Spanish section of

Most of the books are much of a muchness, but one that has really helped has been Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish.

Actually, books are key for learning vocabulary. But here I mean NOVELS. Read, read, and then read some more. Only use a dictionary if a word appears three times on the same page and if you can work out the meaning yourself. So many words are almost the same as they are in English. And remember, when you were learning your native language, you didn’t read Shakespeare – so don’t read Cervantes. Read comics and other childrens’ books until you progress.

Of course you can buy language lessons on Cds. I quite like the Michel Thomas courses and if you really want to spend money there are the Pimsleur Courses. Those last are sooo boring, repeat, repeat, repeat, boring, I have to steel myself before sitting down to what I feel will be a mind-numbing half hour lesson, but thirty minutes later I just feel I have got better.

But certainly not least, I have to thank some really mean and tough friends who didn’t want to go around with an idiot. They got me speaking – and listening. I still vandalise verbs and screw subjunctives and if the Spanish were as chauvinistic about their language as the French, they would have me shot, but if you want to learn Spanish, or any other language, get yourself some really horrible friends like those. They are worth their weight in oro.

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