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.

 

 

The voice in my head

The voice in my head has started speaking Spanish. I’m not talking about some personal revelation, my conscience, or an auditory hallucination. I’m talking about that internal monologue that tells and retells my life as I live it. I’ve always had an inner narrator. I don’t let it out that often. Still, that doesn’t stem the tide of narrative. In fact if anything it needs a release onto paper, onto the keyboard, or it gets a bit frenetic. My inner voice is what makes me write.

 

The monologue relates, but it also thinks ahead, prepares dialogues for upcoming situations, most of which never take place. Unbidden, my inner voice has switched to Spanish to script these hypothetical dialogues, in preparation for the day’s or week’s events. Pretty poor Spanish I might add. With a slim vocabulary. As if listening to oneself talk wasn’t bad enough. So that’s added motivation to steam ahead with my Spanish lessons since I am tired of communicating in such a limited fashion, both with the real world and with my inner chatterbox.

jacaranda in the evening sun

jacaranda in the evening sun

 

I finally got to the stage where my Spanish was at about the same level as my French was after 6 months in France. I can hold a conversation, read magazines and newspapers. On the other hand, normal conversation with two or more people is often too fast or idiomatic to understand, and films are the pits. I watched one the other night with a plot so obvious that I got the whole story, but despite that I hardly understood any of the dialogue. Kind of similar to a film I started watching in Gujarati. I can’t remember how many French films I saw before I started getting the dialogue. But I do remember a point a few months after moving to Paris when I stopped translating what I heard into English in my head. It was the point when I began to just hear and understand without thinking about it in English.

 

Now I feel the need to try and break through a barrier and understand normal-speed real-life Spanish, so I’ve begun watching the evening news. I’ve also put a Spanish news feed on my phone, that way I’ll see in print the names of felons, politicians and other headline personalities, to help me understand the news.

 

I am trying to keep the linguistic boundaries clear for the kids, so I don’t put on Spanish telly or radio when they are around, even though this limits how much exposure I can get. I do read them library books in Spanish. But in general I leave the Spanish to the Spaniards so we can maintain good levels of French and English in the home.

 

Until now I have learnt Spanish mostly via French, since they are so similar. I was constantly looking for the link with French. Now, though, I need to cut free and try to immerse myself in Spanish as much as possible, and shoo away thoughts in French and English that slow me down. The voice in my head needs consistency to make any sense. Real immersion. I’m unappreciative when teachers tell me the meaning of Spanish words in English. I prefer an incomplete understanding in the foreign language to an exact correspondence in my own, because it gets me thinking in Spanish, not converting to Spanish.

 

In the meantime I’m getting more interference when speaking French, with little Spanish words sneaking in here and there. It’s annoying, but I guess inevitable.

 

Even my mobile phone can hear the voice in my head. When I hit the space bar to change the language of the keyboard, it used to switch from English to French first, and then on a second tap, to Spanish, my third most used language. But clearly it has been eavesdropping; it now switches straight to Spanish, leaving French to drag behind in third place.

 


 

Teach your kid to read French

I last wrote about the DELE Spanish exams, which surprisingly I passed, and I’ll have more on that some other time. But today I want to talk about a lovely book for teaching your kid to read French. This has been just the thing for helping my five-year old learn to read in French, but I can imagine it being useful also for older kids who are not native speakers. I’ve included photos so you can judge the level for yourself.

 

Kids are sponges, but that works both ways. Easy in, easy out. Growing up with several languages may sound exotic, but the reality is you have to strike a balance. Sure kids CAN learn anything and everything, but there’s only so much time in the week. And like adults they will conveniently forget what they don’t use. I’m also not a fan of high-powered schedules for kids. I’m just not willing to sacrifice a lot of family time and farm them out to afterschool classes all week long just to make them trilingual.

 

Balthazar découvre la lecture

Balthazar découvre la lecture

 

There’s never time for everything, so you need to decide what is important and what level you want to achieve in each. I like to think I’ll see my kids speaking, reading and writing in English, French and Spanish with a good level of proficiency, and having an affinity with Arabic (spoken and written) even if they don’t learn to speak or read it as kids. I think we have enough language resources (ie relatives, friends, circumstances, travel and access to books!) to manage this, but of course life does throw surprises at you.

 

I think we have English nailed since I’m their main caregiver, and incurably pedagogical at that. Plus English will always hold its appeal when they are in their teens and wanting to watch blockbusters and other weapons of globalisation. And my daughter is already picking up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to read to herself. So that’s English taken care of. As for Spanish, my little Beiruti is already in her second year at the local school, and my Paris baby starts in September. They’ll get ample practice at reading, writing and, of course, chatting in Spanish. French on the other hand risks falling behind. We already make sure they get plenty of stories and some one-on-one with dad. We haven’t ruled out returning to France at some point such as during secondary school.

 

But how to crack reading in French? Dad is at work all day and French is as hard to decipher as Spanish is easy. The orthographic depth of French is, well, deep. I found this out when I taught her to read. We began with easy three letter words which are read just as they are written, with no silent letters. That meant tonnes of household objects and animals in English, but scarcely a handful in French.

 

Enter Balthazar.

pain, train, bain...

pain, train, bain…

 

Each page takes a grouping of letters which produces a certain sound. The example words are beautifully illustrated.

 

bille, vanille, chenille...morille?

bille, vanille, chenille…morille?

 

Most of the words are simple, others are less common. Some of the sentences are frankly hilarious.

sound/word activity

sound/word activity

 

And at the end 30 little sound cards with the relevant word on the back to match with picture cards.

 

Result: my five and a half year old is suddenly reading pages of the P’tites Poules collection of stories, which Amazon has down as being from 6 years and up. To see her so engrossed in a book, actually reading silently to herself, is just a treat.

Balthazar reading activity

Balthazar reading activity

 

I see Balthazar also has a range of first readers for little ones. They are in cursive, which could be difficult if your kids are in an English or US school, which either doesn’t bother with cursive or teaches it much later. The Spanish feel as strongly about it as the French do and teach it from five years old, and kids are doing loopy b’s and z’s before they can write much more than their name. However, in these books apparently the silent letters are in grey so kids can read the words and get used to the spelling, which sounds like a smart approach to French for novice readers.

A fourth language in small doses

Arabic is now the family language my kids hear the least of. They overhear a bit from the grandparents and I still read occasional stories in Arabic which they love. We still use the phrases they have learnt. But Spanish has had a major boost recently in our family, with my four-year old starting school in Spanish and the two-year old getting occasional Spanish babysitting while I myself go off to Spanish lessons.

 

Fi shi? Looking for letters

Fi shi? Looking for letters

Since we already have three languages in our daily life, and since I am not a fluent Arabic speaker, it is only a small part of our life. In our current circumstances, there’s neither the exposure nor the need in place to get my kids to speak Arabic well.  All the same, I didn’t want to drop it entirely. And so we keep it alive in two very limited contexts: animals and the letter box. This might seem odd. But many multilingual families – whether it be in first world TCK multilingualism or third world nationwide multilingualism – work on the basis of one language for one place/situation/context.

 

So we use words they already know from our books like The Odd Egg, and from our animal alphabet cards and the conversational Arabic I learnt living in Lebanon to talk about animals we have seen, often on our regular trips to the local zoo. I don’t know if anyone ever got as much use out of their year pass as we have in the past 12 months!

 

As well, we talk Lebanese Arabic about the letter box. Yes, this is the weird bit. It usually starts with the guessing game “Fi shi ow ma fi shi?” Once we find out what is in the mail, if anything, we discuss that. A lot, a little, a letter, who for, who from, where from? Sometimes the conversation continues as we take the lift up home and open anything interesting. It’s two minutes of Arabic a day, most days. It is what it is. A thread, a connection. And they love it.

 


 

Stressing over stress

Recently, my Spanish teacher tried to teach us where to write acute accents in Spanish. The first rule was: Agudas: son las palabras cuya sílaba tónica es la última. Llevan tilde cuando terminan en vocal, n o s. The other rules applied to llanas and esdrújulasThese three categories refer to which syllable the stress falls on.

 

The problem is I usually don’t know where to put the stress (or tonic accent) in the first place before even asking myself what the final letter is, and if therefore it needs a written accent. So I decided I’d best turn the thing around and learn the stress rules first, since accents are usually used to show exceptions to the stress rules.

 

The rules of stress are roughly the following:

  1. In most cases the stress is on the last syllable;
  2. However, if the last letter of the word is a vowel (very common) or an s or an n, then the stress should be on the penultimate syllable. This gave me a starting point for pronouncing words I don’t know well in Spanish. The next stage is as follows:
  3. Words following these two rules don’t need accents. Words that don’t follow these rules need accents on their stressed syllables to show that they are exceptions;
  4. It follows that:
  • all words with the stress on the third-to-last or fourth-to-last syllable need an accent on that syllable (eg, el estómago, or the grouped form dándomelo)
  • any word ending with a vowel or s or n which doesn’t have the stress on the penultimate syllable needs an accent (el jardín)
  • any word ending with the other consonants which doesn’t have the stress on the last syllable needs an accent (fácil)

 

For me, learning the topic in this order was easier. You don’t need to memorise number 4 since you can deduce it from the rest. If you are already fluent and just need to learn how to write correctly, the other perspective probably works better.

Apart from showing stress, there are a couple of other reasons for using accents in Spanish, but that is enough for me for one night!