Being British about being rubbish

I found in my letterbox this week an advert for a language institute, with upbeat promises of imminent proficiency and the slogan A hablar se aprende hablando! Granted, but there’s a very British obstacle to learning to speak by speaking which was particularly evident during my course.

 

This is my third year of the Casa de Cultura course. Although there are – officially – four levels, students of any level are free to join the class at any point over the year. Despite the lack of structure and the fact that it’s only three hours a week, it has actually been an invaluable course which got me through the DELE exams (B1 and B2), along with websites like studyspanish.com and my trusty exam guide El Cronómetro.

 

Apart from it being cheap and very close to my home, two major pull factors for me, the other big selling point is that all nationalities are mixed together so the course is entirely in Spanish. Spanish taught through Spanish, not through your native tongue.

 

Murderous identities, or, In the Name of Identity

Murderous identities, or, In the Name of Identity

 

I noticed, however, in the lower levels where there are many Brits, lots of them group together and chat through class in English or murmur the English translation to each other at the first hesitation. They are choosing to learn through English. They would rather a quick translation than a Spanish explanation of a word, learning through context.

 

They also spend a lot of time insisting on how rubbish they are, in fact each one is adamant that they are more rubbish than the other. It’s all very self-deprecating, which breeds good feeling. Speaking well, you fear, would have the opposite effect, generating suspicion, mistrust. Someone who can pull it off, instead of inspiring admiration, would have broken ranks. In fact, in the face of class participation, the atmosphere is very much what it was when I was 14 and sitting in French class with Mrs Prowse. When called upon to talk, surrounded by their compatriots, the British say a few words in Spanish and then tail off in English. The teacher repeats what they were trying to say in Spanish, and they answer, “Yep, that’s what I meant”. Needless to say, the Finns in the class don’t talk to the teacher in Finnish, nor the Russians in Russian.

 

The embarrassment of attempting to speak or even passively learn a foreign language while among one’s compatriots is fearfully strong. Students seem both intimidated and discouraged by their self-applied label of “Rubbish at Languages.” Yet something in us fights against openly trying to improve. Somehow our skin crawls at the mere idea of pretending to talk Spanish, because after all it does feel like a pretence. Pretending to be foreign. Putting on an accent. Putting ourselves out there. Like trying to do improv in a crowded metro. Except this is a language course, attended by people who have all paid to learn a language.

 

The ubiquitousness of English has become a shield for these British who get out of bed for a class twice a week but revert to their own language as soon as possible. Not because of laziness but because of embarrassment.

 

Why is that? Are we just afraid of getting it wrong? If so it would apply to all subjects. I don’t know any other topic where the students go to learn but seem bent on failing. Is it altogether too earnest for us Brits (cf “earnestness” in Katie Fox’s Watching the English)? Do we fear we look like we are trying to be clever, to be posh, to …heaven forbid… better ourselves?

 

Although I have always liked languages, I do know this fear. I can’t separate it clearly from other forms of self-consciousness that clutter the landscape. But I remember when I threw it off for French, when I was 15 and visited my sister in France. I spent a lot of time on my own visiting Paris and somehow the walls dropped. French wasn’t “foreign” in Paris, it was natural, necessary. I didn’t think I would suffer from it again, not in a serious ability-cramping way, but I did. When I lived in Beirut and had made local friends using English, I found it really hard to begin using my very limited but improving Arabic in conversations. I felt like it meant saying Look at me! I’m speaking Arabic! I also wanted to have proper conversations, not ones that were dumbed down to my language level – that is, small talk! But I could have mixed languages. I should have mixed. After all, the real Lebanese always do.

 

Lebanese pastries

Lebanese pastries

 

I’m still angry at myself for living in Beirut for nearly four years and not coming away fluent. The upside is that this regret goads me on in Spanish. I refuse to leave Spain without learning the language. I refuse to be prevented from learning by the fact that I don’t know everything. And the words of Amin Maalouf ring true: ‘Linguistic diversity is the pivot of all diversity.’ If you can learn a man’s language, you can walk in his shoes.

 

The less sweet side of Beirut

The less sweet side of Beirut

 

To my relief, I found that in the class for the higher language levels, this gregarious linguistic suicide doesn’t happen. People are openly - dare I say earnestly – trying to learn. Even those with a sense of humour. I wonder why. Is it just chance that there are too few Brits in the higher classes to trigger any kind of herd behaviour?  Is it because those who are too crippled by the embarrassment just can’t progress any further? Does their self-assigned failure become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do socially “normal” Brits keep themselves back to be socially acceptable? Is moving forward uncomeradely, disloyal? The British are the biggest foreign community in this town, yet in my class they are decidedly underrepresented. There are three Finns, two Russians, two Ukrainians, a Persian, two Italians, a Dane, a Belgian, a Bulgarian, a Chinese and a Moroccan.

 

I’m the lone Brit. With no-one to whisper the answers to me. No one to murmur jokes to. No one to make me embarrassed about trying to talk “foreign”.

Questions for a multilingual family

These are the questions I asked before having kids. I still ask some of them every year or so. The kids grow; we move country; they start school… language is such a fluid thing so everything is up for change. Looking back on the six years – nearly seven – since my daughter was born, I would say that some things were easier than we thought. But the biggest surprise was the difference that personality makes.

 

What is your current linguistic landscape? 

Mum (main caregiver) – English; Dad – French; Community – Spanish

 

Is it really enough if there’s only one person speaking a given language to them?

Much of the time, the kids only get French from their dad. Because he is bilingual, it would be easy for us all to slip back into English, so we have to be on guard against that. I have nudged French into being a main language at mealtimes, though without directly talking French to the kids. We’ve had to make sure they get lots of time with their dad at weekends, but their French is perfectly fluent, probably as good as their English, and always has been. We’ve relied on books to broaden their vocabulary, but always choosing them for interest first and foremost. They probably make more grammar mistakes than monolingual kids their age. Things like “She sended the letter,” or “Tu as allé au parque?” or “Ça ressemble comme…” from the English “it looks like” or even in the reflexive, as in “Ça se ressemble à …” from the Spanish “Se parece a…“. Still, they are switching between three languages every day, so I figure some ongoing interference is inevitable.

 

What about the language delay?

What language delay?

 

What if they reject a language?

This hasn’t happened to us so far, although there is plenty of time left for teenage angst (or is it preteen angst these days?) and other life changes to throw the cat in the pigeons. I ward against it by speaking highly of French language and culture (in age appropriate-terms, so “French culture” = croissants, by the way). As for Spanish, I’m enthusiastic about learning it myself, and we both try hard to speak Spanish to locals even when we could get away with English. Although my 6-year old is not a big fan of school, it hasn’t been an excuse to reject Spanish, and so far we haven’t had any linguistic issues.

cof

 

Do they mix?

As in do they randomly switch language mid sentence? No, not unless they are talking to bilinguals. Do they sometimes use a French word in an English sentence? Yes, and vice versa. Usually because they have forgotten the word or never learnt it. Sometimes they break off and turn to one of us to ask “How do you say XYZ in French?” Sometimes they adapt a word to make it fit. The other day my son was talking in French about “la lavadoire”, a new take on the Spanish lavadora / French la machine à laver (washing machine). You can’t blame him, I mean it does sound French.

 

Still, it’s a question of knowing what to use where. I think of how often I say “thingy” or “truc” when speaking, and how I would naturally eliminate that in a job interview.

It’s also a personality thing. My oldest would never use a French word on her English grandparents, for example. My son might. My daughter focuses on expressing information precisely and succinctly and can get blocked if she doesn’t feel she has the right word. She’d rather stay quiet. My son, in complete contrast, communicates more in terms of a general feeling, and he’ll just keep chattering on until you get the word from the context. As he grows we’ll do our best to provide enough vocab to keep up with the chatter.

 

Overall, though, they are very clear about addressing me in English, their father in French, and the outside world in Spanish.

cof

 

What about the kids between themselves?

They used to opt for one or the other, depending on what game they were playing or what book they were reading, or who was in the room with them. Then they spent a year speaking almost only French to each other. Even if I said in English, “Go and tell your brother it’s time for dinner,” it would be relayed in French. I think this was triggered by a bit more time spent with cousins (a bit older, so quite impressive) and it could have been influenced by French being closer to Spanish which was becoming a more important language for us all.

 

But now they have swung back to switching. So far no Spanish between them, though I feel my younger, more talkative, less pedantic child would be perfectly happy if his older sister made a move that way. Not sure how we can keep that at bay, but for now pedantry is on our side.

 

How can you boost a language if you feel it lacks support?

My quickest and easiest tip is songs. If daddy spends all day at work and comes to the dinner table tired, shortly before bedtime, they’re not going to get much French input. But we make sure to learn lots of French songs and just humming one in the afternoon can get them singing in French together. It’s also great for car journeys, long or short, when the rush to get out the house without forgetting something vital has usually wiped our minds of any brighter, wittier conversation.

 

Books are a great crutch, and keeping the telly off so they can actually appreciate reading has been a big part of that, I believe. The Petites Poules series was a great hit when my daughter was five and just starting to enjoy reading alone in French. Secret Seven and Tintin followed at six. And they are now rereading Énigmes à tous les étages with great delight. At four and six they need an adult to read it with them first, but they get no end of pleasure out of rereading it alone or huddled together. Now I could really do with new ideas for chapter books or a short story series in French, so leave a comment if you can recommend something!

cof

 

Although I never speak directly to the kids in French (save on a few very rare occasions for the sake of others), I’ll happily read to them in French. In fact their love of books has grown so that not only will my 6 year old happily read Tintin to herself, so will my 4 year old, even though for him it’s just looking at the pictures and repeating lines he remembers, in French. While daddy’s at work, that’s a big gain in terms of exposure to their minority language.

 

 

How does it feel to have trilingual children?

Go to India or Africa and ask mothers there, they’ve been doing it much longer.