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”.

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!

Siblings and language choices

As parents we make a ton of decisions on behalf of our kids and languages are no exception. We decide what language we will each speak to them, when, what language books to buy, which type of school to send them to, which language to speak in our couple…. But something we have no control over – or very little – is what language our kids will speak to each other. I’ve been waiting impatiently to see how sibling dynamics will develop between my two kids and now the little one is actually talking, there is finally something to observe. He can say things like “Mummy eating toast, daddy eating porridge.”  If he sees a book he likes, he says “Want-it have-it book. Please mummy story.” So now that we actually have some verbal communication to speak of, here is an update on my two kids and the three-and-a-bit languages we live with.

 

reading together

reading together: “C’est quoi ça ?”

The oldest (4 years and 3 months) is fairly articulate in both home languages and knows quite a bit of vocab in Spanish, her school language. I have to be vague about her knowledge here, as she hates being quizzed, so I have no idea exactly what she has taken on board in the last month of full-time Spanish school. I know she knows her numbers, most colours, greetings and a fair bit of everyday vocab. I’m pretty sure she must understand the common instructions at school because her teacher says she does what she is told. She doesn’t mix languages, never has.

The little one, at 2 years and 1 month says hola and gracias in Spanish, along with hundreds and hundreds of English and French words. He doesn’t mix languages, always speaking English to me and French to his dad. He often says something to me and then turns and translates to his dad.

As for Arabic, the little one can use half a dozen words and my oldest, my little Beiruti, can understand a few expressions in addition to a limited vocab. Arabic exposure is minimal. This is just what they get from me and a few books I read them.

 

The interesting bit is listening to them speak together. I had expected them to speak English to each other above all else. After all, I look after them all day while dad works (though the oldest is now at school in Spanish until 2pm). I was afraid they would pick English and stick to it, even though at meals and on weekends, their dad talks plenty of French to them. As a couple, we speak a fair amount of English in front of them, even though we also speak French together whenever I have the energy. With the oldest being a girl, it could also be that she mimic me, her mother, more, and play mother on the “baby” of the family. That would mean English.

 

However, I’ve been delighted to see that they switch language regularly, and speak both English and French together, though not randomly. Whoever starts the conversation seems to dictate the language, and the second speaker follows suit. They are definitely influenced by who is around. When with me, they are more likely to speak English amongst themselves, which is only natural and socially normal. When they are with their dad and I am out of the room, I hear them talk together in French more. However, external presence isn’t the only influence. They will both start talking in French together about a French book. Or recycle a joke they had enjoyed in French with daddy. Basically, they adapt to whichever language is favoured by the context around them.

 

I am looking forward to eavesdropping on a further facet next week - the cousin dynamics, as we have my sister’s family coming to stay. They are also bilingual but living in France, schooled in French. As is common in this type of bilingual set up, the minority language (English) has decreasing influence as you get further down the birth order, while the importance of the community language grows. Maybe my kids will speak English with the older cousins and French with the younger, or maybe they will be influenced by us mums chatting in English all day.

 

It’s too early to say if my kids will continue switching between the two languages together. Maybe they will settle on one. If we stay here in Spain a long time, I can’t help but expect them to end up speaking the community language – Spanish – together . My husband speaks French to his parents but English to his siblings because of living in the US for the first 14 years. I think I’d feel funny about my kids speaking a language I wasn’t fluent in as their preferred language together. Then again, if we stay that long I’d better be fluent!

 


Tricks with tenses

The pretérito perfecto is the sneakiest false friend I have met so far. Yes, it’s true that most of the time it equates to the English present perfect. It’s true that we say, “Have you (ever) eaten paella?” and “Has comido paella (alguna vez)?” [both pretérito perfecto], whereas we say, “I went to Rome in 2012,” and “Fui a Roma en 2012,” [both simple past]. English speakers can just translate I did as hice and I have done as he hecho, word for word… for the most part. They have an advantage over the French who have only one form: j’ai fait.

BUT in English you do not use the present perfect with a specific moment in time. You cannot say “I have taken the train on Saturday.” Or: “I have eaten breakfast at 10 o’clock.” Or: “I have been to Italy in 2012.” Or even, “I have been to Italy five years ago.

In Spanish, on the other hand, you CAN combine the present perfect with a moment in time. What matters is not so much whether a precise moment in time is mentioned; what matters is if the general period of time is over or if it is still ongoing, or very recent and relevant to now.

At 11am you can still say: “Esta mañana he desayunado a las ocho.” In fact you should say it, because the morning is not over yet. But once you are home for dinner, you can say “Esta mañana desayuné a las ocho.” Because the time period (la mañana) is completed.

NB In Latin America, the simple past (hice) has gained ground over the present perfect (he hecho) apparently influenced by the same phenomenon in US English compared to British English. If you are in one of the Americas and this post doesn’t make sense to you there is a good reason for that!