Slightly less rubbish with languages

I think it’s fair to say that British people have a pretty poor reputation when it comes to speaking other people’s languages. It’s easy to blame the relatively poor language education in schools, but really it’s just an excuse: it’s easier to be lazy when everyone else speaks English.

Over the years I’ve made various efforts to learn other languages, to varying degrees of success. One of the most frustrating aspects of learning is the reaction I’ve often come across from natives when you’re trying to practice your skills, which turns out to be much harder than I ever imagined. There are four typical responses:

This one’s most common with Germans. It’s clearly inefficient to speak slowly in German, when they can switch over to English and speak like a native (or in many cases, like my German lecturer at uni, better than a native, as she wasted no time in pointing out whenever we made grammatical errors in our own language). So that’s exactly what happens, normally with no acknowledgment you’ve even addressed them in German in the first place.

Only in France have I, on several occasions, been laughed at for my pathetic English attempts to get my tongue around their beautiful language. This is hardly a confidence booster, funnily enough.

een Pilsje, alsjeblieft is hardly the most complicated sentence to learn. Or say for that matter. But try it in Holland and there’s a good chance someone will immediately say “Oh wow! You speak fantastic Dutch!” is both (a) a lie and (b) patronising. After this, they just switch to ignore mode and conduct the rest of the conversation in English.

Refuse to engage altogether
Best exemplified by the reaction to the woman behind the counter in Cordoba station, who just crossed her arms, and sat back in her chair once she realised my Spanish wasn’t up to a normal conversation. I suppose as she spoke no English either, the conversation was hardly likely to be all that fruitful, but just giving up was hardly going to get us anywhere.

I know ultimately that this is as much (if not more) my fault than theirs – if my language skills really were good enough, it would be easier to engage. Plus for busy shopkeepers or barstaff or waiters, it’s far quicker to speak English rather than waste time trying to understand someone mangle their conjugations. But whatever the reason, it makes the process a darn sight harder. Which is yet another reason why I loved Antwerp: I’d barely spoken a word of Dutch in years, but from the moment I uttered my first faltering sentence and was replied to in Dutch, without any mocking, patronising comments or even any remark, it boosted my confidence straight away. The pattern was the same for the rest of the weekend, and it was great. I know my limitations, and I was hardly able to have conversations about weighty issues, but actually getting the chance to practice meant I found my language skills coming back to me even after years with no practice.

Which in turn has boosted my confidence with my Spanish. With my course of lessons nearly done, I was getting slightly worried at the lack of progress I’ve been making, especially with my leaving date rapidly approaching. But this week I felt I had a real breakthrough. I had a double lesson (three hours) after work, which was exhausting, but well worth it. I’m starting getting the hang of all my verb conjugations now and am getting better at having an idea of which past tense to use when. Prepositions are still a bit of a nightmare, but I now feel like I can have the most basic conversations, and reckon I know enough to find my way round cities, public transports and restaurants to survive OK.

In the great scheme of things, I’m still barely a beginner, but it’s a start, and I feel like now I’ve got some of the basics right I’ll hopefully be able to make good use of a few weeks learning Spanish in Xela (Quetzaltenango) in Guatemala come May – this great post from Christine @ Almostfearless really keeps me inspired. I know there’s a lot of hard work to come, but I really want to use my time away to get my Spanish up to a point where I’ll no longer have to face being mocked, ignored, or patronised for being so rubbish.


One response to “Slightly less rubbish with languages

  1. Geoff – you are a terrible H, but your language skills are far better than you a) realise, and b) give yourself credit for. In the times I have been away, admittedly my accent may have been better than yours, but you plan ahead, and know what you want to say always. When you’re in that situation, it just comes back to you. Listen to some spanish music on the plane that always helps.

    and you can always resort to the universal language – E N G L I S H S P O K E N V E R Y S L O W L Y A N D V E R Y L O U D

    if you get rid of that ridiculous facial hair, some people might even take pity on you and take you to the lost children point in an effort to reunite you with your parents if the worst comes to the worst!

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