For many, learning a language seems a sticky recital of vocabulary and dry verb conjugations. For even more, it’s simply something that seems so difficult it’s scary. But a language is not simply a collection of words: it’s a whole new way to conceptualise meaning, and gives an invaluable window into the workings of another culture.
Interest in language learning, particularly Spanish, is sadly on a steady decline in the UK. And despite the wealth of Spanish language resources available, this number doesn’t look set to rise. But why? Are languages simply too hard, or are we going about learning them in the wrong way?
After studying Spanish in her undergraduate degree, Australian graduate Georgia McCann still felt unsteady on her feet. Determined to sharpen her language skills, she decided to head straight for the source: Spain. Seville, to be exact:
I never really thought I would follow through with the whole ‘learning another language’ thing. However, after three and a half years of coasting through university, with my mammoth and uncertain future looming before me, absconding to sunny Spain seemed like an ace idea.
Whilst sussing out my options it quickly became apparent that considering I had very few actual skills upon completion of my Arts degree: being able to teach English in a foreign country seemed pretty much it. So I applied, and then I left.
It turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done.
I had studied Spanish at university, to what you would assume to be a sufficient level. But after three and a half years I was, it felt, more ignorant and scared of the language. To be frank, I was simply terrified. I resolved to push myself past this fear that had somehow tripled rather than decreased, and plunge myself into the country, it’s culture and it’s people to find out if what they say really is true: that the best way to learn a language is to go there.
I can now say yes. Yep. Yes. It’s true.
I have been in Spain for almost a year, and have since discovered that my fear was not unique or unusual in any way. What happened to me happens to pretty much everyone, even if they don’t admit it. We’re all different learners; we all have different methods of acquiring knowledge and skills. But when learning a second language there is one thing we all tend to have in common: we scare easily. That’s fine, as long as you don’t let it stop you. For me, the very thing that helped me learn was to teach.
Teaching English in Spain opened my eyes to some things. First of all, Spanish kids are the coolest in the world (if you have an opportunity to teach them, do it.). Working in an environment in which people learn is not only a magical experience for the opportunity to work with and shape young minds, but also instructive one. The brazenness and shamelessness of precocious 8-year-old children makes them the best teachers, it turns out.
Secondly, during my time as a teacher my fear of Spanish began to dissipate.Obviously, it happened slowly. It required some serious teeth gritting and self-pep-talking. For at least 3 months, every morning I had to remind myself that if I stuck this out, in 2 years I could say: “I speak Spanish!” I could say to myself that I did that. I braved it. For me, that was and is essential. I then discovered something that changed my learning experience entirely: once you become adjusted to the culture and the people, you fall in love. Convincing yourself every day to ‘stick it out’ becomes obsolete – you continue simply because you want to.
I remember vividly the moment in which I realised I had reached/passed this point. When my family came to visit I met them in Madrid, where I was the only one who knew more Spanish than grathias and una cervetha por favor. So naturally, I took the lead when interacting with the locals. In the familiar environment of family I found myself speaking without thinking. I knew they couldn’t understand my mistakes and so to them I sounded fluent. This gave me a certain confidence I wasn’t aware of at the time. When a waiter who struggled with her English turned to me and implored me to help her throughout the course of the meal, I realised that my Spanish was better than her English.
So, there it is: anyone can learn a language. Our (that is, the native English speakers of the world) biggest problem is that we don’t grow up with the need to be bilingual. On the contrary, a rather large chunk of the world’s population grows up learning another, nominally English. It is a norm from birth, and therefore it loses its scariness. For us, however, it seems terrifying.
But it’s not. It’s really, really not.
So choose a language, and don’t stop at books and classrooms. Immerse yourself in the culture. The link between language and culture is inextricable; you must see through the eyes of the natives, so to speak, if you want to be fluent (Jake Sully totally does it in Avatar). Only when you understand why language is the way it is can you begin to use it as a native.
And trust me, using it as a native is super fun.