A brief account of adventures in language learning.
As a teacher, I constantly try to improve — to communicate more effectively and inform more thoroughly. There are two ways to approach this: perfect my existing knowledge or plunge into something unfamiliar.
My druthers are always to do more of what I know — read more, write more, learn more words, delve into grammar and follow phrases along winding trails to their roots. This is easy for me, effortless, fun.
In short, exactly how my ESL students don’t experience learning English.
In contrast, confronting the unfamiliar is frustrating, boring, tiring, dispiriting and knocks my confidence into a cocked hat. Basically, how my students feel.
Failing to learn
I know how they feel because it’s how I feel — or felt — about learning Spanish. My experience with the language is long but patchy. In high school I took two years of Spanish taught by nice older white ladies who’d probably never set foot outside of the United States.
At university, confronted with the choice of language courses, I panicked. Spanish had an oral proficiency requirement and my confidence was zero. I can’t do that. So I took two years of Dutch and left university knowing neither language, believing I was incapable learning.
This remains one of my biggest academic regrets. If only I could go back and shake — or hug — my too-clever-too-stupid-by-half 17-year-old self and say, it’s called LEARNING not KNOWING.
It would be many years though before this occurred to me. Instead, I followed the self-penned narrative that I couldn’t speak or learn Spanish. Nor did I expect to need to.
Then I stumbled sideways from music journalism into dance music journalism and found myself going to Ibiza once, twice, three times a year. Spanish was nominally the common language of the island and I remembered a few words. The sun and sea lured me; the music got under my skin. My job in London got stale. I decided to move to Ibiza. For several months, I spent my lunch hours walking along a stretch of the Thames on the Isle of Dogs, reading aloud from a Spanish phrase book. He estado en Roma. ¿Qué hora es?
When I got to Ibiza with a suitcase and a few hundred Euros I wrote a script and started looking for a place to live. He visto tu anuncio sobre un cuarto en alquiler. I wound up sharing a house with a half-dozen hispanohablantes from Uruguay, Paraguay and Spain.
My permanent shyness kept me from learning much though. They partied together, feasted on roast chicken, drank red wine with coke, never slept. I hid in my bedroom and watched Sabrina, nibbling on sugar-free chocolate biscuits. Carlos said one day, you don’t learn because you don’t want to. Which was true enough to sting. I didn’t want to learn, I wanted to know — and was too frightened of making mistakes to cross the space between.
In old Mexico
The next stage in my protracted learning/not-learning journey was a four month stint in Mexico, book-ended by my 29th birthday and swine flu (remember that?) On something very near a whim I travelled from Ciudad de Mexico to Zihuatanejo to Mérida, where I rented a room, bought a hammock, and got up every morning at 5AM to run. Doing laps around the track in the municipal stadium took me past a basketball game whose protagonist made my mouth water.
I started getting up earlier, hanging around the court to practice my jump shot (luckily, I’d been pretty good at basketball in high school). Soon the pretty boy and I were dating. He spoke less of my language, we defaulted to Spanish.
In those brief months I learned more, and felt more comfortable and confident in the language, than I ever had before. Necessity was more a gift than a burden — with no other means of communication even fractured Spanish was valuable. Also, it was the only thing I heard so the rhythm and word patterns became familiar. Though slight, the feeling of accomplishment inspired me to pay closer attention and try to learn more.
Retreat and regress
Then I moved back to Ibiza, the boy and I split up, and — within a few months — I’d headed back to the U.S. to reorganize my life. Spanish almost disappeared and I didn’t make an effort to hold on.
To this day, I’m astonished at people who ‘learned some English at school’ and can still muster a decent conversation. That’s not how my brain works. My learning style is almost entirely visual — things I only hear slide out of my memory like ice cream off a hot plate.
By the time I returned to Ibiza a couple of years later I’d regressed completely. And, again, discovered that I didn’t need to speak Spanish. The island is such a melting pot that everyone speaks some English, and the locals, whose native language is Ibicenc, often default English to when talking to incomers.
So I muddled along, speaking enough to navigate daily life without gaining confidence or mastery.
Different Spain, different Spanish
After getting married, my husband and I wound up Jerez de la Frontera which is, spiritually and linguistically, the diametric opposite of Ibiza. My first night in town, I went into a local bar and asked for a copa de rosado. In the sketch-comedy minutes that followed the server offered me everything from snails to pork chops. I wound up with a glass of tepid sweet white wine and the poor man never figured out what I’d asked for.
Soon I learned that vino is what the locals call sherry, that the province of Cadiz is allergic to consonants, and that I hated feeling stupid. For the next two years, I hardly understood a word, and barely spoke Spanish. Far from being helpful, immersion sent me into retreat. With minimal exposure to English, Jerezanas couldn’t decode my bad Spanish the way Ibicencos had. I’d been coasting and now I crashed against the monolingual Atlantic shore.
I took private classes, but a 90 minutes a week wasn’t enough and constraints of time and finance prevented me from doing more.
Tapping into BaseLang
One day, browsing for language sites to use with my students, I came across a review of online language schools. BaseLang’s subscription format caught my eye. I checked out the site. Forgot about it for a few months. Moved across the country to Galicia. Encountered, for the first time in two years, easy-to-understand Spanish. But the sense of failure that had been nagging me since university remainede — you’ll never be able to speak Spanish.
Finally, I logged in, paid the first month’s fee, and started BaseLang’s DELE program with no clear idea of what to expect or, really, what I wanted. The first thing that reassured me was the PowerPoint style lessons with plenty of opportunities for reading the words and language structures. I have to write most words to spell them with confidence, even in English, so being able to look at what I was studying was crucial.
More important still, the teachers were — are — without exception expert and kind. I am not a good student. In fact, I’m the kind of student I, as a teacher, avoid: egotistical, nervous, impatient, easily frustrated, anxious, demanding. If I can peg new information to something familiar, it’s okay but when faced with something unfamiliar, like the subjunctive in Spanish, my mind starts to scramble.
Fortunately, BaseLang’s DELE progam is designed (it seems) with people like me in mind. The content consists of four vaults of material: grammar, test prep, skills improvement and electives. Within these sections are detailed lessons that combine instruction and practice so you can put to use new ideas right away.
The DELE exam tests four skills — reading, writing, listening and speaking — and BaseLang echoes this format. Its audio library is impressive, with listening exercises on all sorts of topics, featuring all kinds of accents. Though designed for test prep, these have helped my real-world comprehension too — I can now differentiate between Mexican, Colombian, Venezualan and Spanish accents, for example.
Though I usually work through lessons with instructors, I can access the material any time to review topics, work ahead, or get some extra reading or listening practice.
Putting it to the test
A couple of months after starting with BaseLang I decided to apply for Spanish nationality. One prerequisite is passing the DELE A2. That test wasn’t available in my time-frame so I signed up for the more advanced B1 level. Suddenly, improving my language skills was a matter of urgency. With minimal time to prepare, my teachers and I focused on B1 test prep. For the first time, I had to write articles and essays to order, and give expositions on speaking subjects.
This experience gave me a new appreciation for what my English students go through. Learning a language is one challenge; learning to navigate a test is another. Under pressure, lacking confidence, I relied on my teachers not only to guide me through the exam prep, but to cheer me on.
The morning of the exam was wet and blustery. On the drive to town a rainbow emerged, tying our small valley in a bow. It felt like a good omen.
Despite going to the final minute in the writing exam, and babbling like a loon in the speaking, I was relieved and delighted that BaseLang’s practice materials were identical to the exam. In terms of content, the long morning of the test could have been another session with one of my familiar teachers. This gave me a bit of confidence, but I wasn’t going to feel 100% until the results arrived.
When they did, I could hardly believe it. You need 60% in each section to pass. My scores in reading, writing and listening were above 80%. And speaking — my weakest point, the reason I ducked out of Spanish in college? 100%.
Now, I’m studying for the DELE C1 exam with BaseLang and, for the first time in my life, am confident in my ability to learn Spanish. As I tell my students, no one ever masters a language completely — I learn more English every day. Now, I can also say, happily, that I learn more Spanish too.