When I was 17 everything was clear in my mind – I’d go and study German & Dutch at university, and then go and live in Berlin when I graduated, or maybe Brussels at a push (to work for the European Commission, of course). All I needed to do was study hard for four years and then I’d pop out the other speaking like a native.
Of course it didn’t quite work out like that. The German department were more interested in getting us to translate impenetrable 19th century poetry rather than getting us doing anything remotely useful like talking to each other, a matter that wasn’t helped by my friend Hilary & I whiling away the lectures passing each other rude notes in code (using the numbers from the giant Periodic Table that was on the wall of the Chemistry lecture theatre where we had our German Lit classes) and paying very little attention. So I ended up giving up German after the first year.
Dutch didn’t work out much better – I lived in Utrecht for three months in my third year, but didn’t improve at all seeing as all the Dutch people just spoke to me in English. I ended up ditching that too and coming home to finish off my degree in Geography.
I’d already failed with French, put off by the fact that even when I knew what to say, my accent is so terrible people would normally fail to understand me at all (or that could just be the French being bloody-minded).
So I’m determined to make more of a success with Spanish. I had a few months of lessons a couple of years ago which went OK – beginners Spanish is a lot more straightforward than other languages I’ve learnt, once I’d got past the weirdness of not using personal pronouns with verbs. I’m confident I can do all the basic travel necessities, especially if my experience of Mexico is anything to go by – people made a real effort to speak slowly for me and compliment me on my Spanish, which is a big confidence-booster.
I’ll be starting again soon and hope to continue right up til I go, and then have more intensive lessons when I get to Central America. I really want to make more of a success of it this time – and I’m a bit more hopeful: I’m much more confident than I was when was younger, so I’m happier to give it a go. Plus I really don’t want to spend the whole year just talking to other travellers – I’d love to be able to spend more time chatting to locals to make the most of the year.
And if all else fails, I can always get drunk and argumentative: the two most fluent conversations I’ve had in German & Dutch have been in the past few years having arguments with taxi drivers who have been trying to fleece me by taking me the wrong direction and over-charging me. It’s remarkable how many words I could remember when there was money stake.