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!

How I plan to learn Spanish fast

I’m really not very patient with languages. I do like them, but being bad at them is not a stage I enjoy. I have been on a plateau for the past year. Any improvement has been unnoticeable. Now, with one of my two little ones in school, I finally have time to learn properly, and I want to learn fast. So this is my plan. Feel free to share your language learning plan, too.

 

Step one: Enrol in classes

Technically I should be able to get my oral practice from the neighbours and my grammar from the books, but I find classes a real motivation, and you do learn from others’ mistakes as well as your own. I’ll be aiming to get my money’s worth by taking the teacher all the awkward questions that come into my head between lessons.

 

My faithful grammar guide

My faithful grammar guide

Step two: Use a good grammar guide

Not a textbook, just a go-to guide with an irregular verb table and the grammar rules spelt out. A guide like this keeps different tenses and other concepts in their places.

Step three: Use every opportunity to talk

Even though I am living in Spain, at my level of non-fluency, these opportunities arrive and then disappear very fast. Once you’ve greeted some acquaintance, like the other mums at my daughter’s school, the conversation can either tail off or get interesting. Most of my conversations tail off very quickly. Even in a shop, you can either get by with a few words and gestures, or you can find the accurate way to ask for what you want and include some details. To try to get more practice, I have started planning what to say in situations that I know are coming up – the doctor, teacher, shops, anything. Since you actually do use what you plan, it gets embedded in your memory; it’s way more effective than memorising vocabulary for some theoretical future use.

Jumping on opportunities also means accepting to use very, very basic language to start a conversation, or even asking a question you think you probably already know the answer to, just to get things started. Hey, at least if you’re right then there’s a fair chance you’ll understand the answer. It’s tough having to look stupid to all these new people you’re actually trying to make a good impression with, but I figure I’ll feel cleverer when I can actually speak Spanish.

 

Spanish in the park (with the toddler on the next swing)

Spanish in the park (with my toddler on the next swing)

Step four: Work at home

Or in a café. But on my own (that is, with the baby), going through the class notes, revising new vocabulary, looking up any words I wanted to say but couldn’t think of, checking my grammar guide for the right way to conjugate some verb, or to form some tense. Also talking with friends about my language questions, as well as things I’ve just learnt. Teaching others is one of the best forms of repetition for a learner, so make sure to tell someone the new stuff you come across. I try everything out on my husband, who fortunately also wants to learn. When I was learning French I would revise classes with a fellow student afterwards.

Step five: Read for pleasure

Roald Dahl, here I come again. The local library has a few translated Roald Dahl books marked 10 years and over. They are just the right level for me. You want to find books where you can understand the story without a dictionary, or else it’s too slow to be motivating. When you meet unknown words you can guess, look them up, or skip them. Dahl’s books are good because I have vague memories of the storyline from, um, about 20 years ago. But it would be better to have books originally written in Spanish, I just haven’t had time to scour the library shelves and find the right level along with a good read. Reading isn’t just about books; packaging labels, newspaper headlines, adverts, posters and graffiti – they all count. I still remember the satisfaction of finally understanding the cultural references and bad puns in slogans on the billboards in the Paris metro stations.

Step six: Pay attention to culture

This comes in conjunction with all the other steps (that’s why Roald Dahl isn’t as good as native Spanish options, but it’s better than nothing). This is more than knowing the stereotypes. There’s a difference between knowing that the Spanish have a late lunch and knowing that the builders are going to disappear at 12 noon for something they call desayuno. See below for more.

 


Men called Maria

I already knew that all Spanish women of a certain age seem to have Maria as part of their name. When I had to find which parent was collecting the school supplies fee, and asked one of the other mums, I didn’t get all of her response. I understood it was “Maria” who was standing over there wearing a “camiseta gris”. I couldn’t see a mum in a grey top at all. “Con las gafas?” I asked, but she said no, dark hair, no sunglasses. The only one I could see with dark hair and no sunglasses had a pale blue top on. I wondered if the mum helping me was colour blind since she was definitely pointing that way. So tentatively I approached the blue top lady. Only to have a guy come over and introduce himself as José Maria and offer me a receipt for the fee. The penny finally dropped. Thinking of Maria as a woman had blinded me to his grey T-shirt. I should have known this, as France has its own share of men called Jean-Marie and the like, but they are usually not the same generation as me (think: Le Pen). The moral of the tale? Knowing what to expect is half the hard work.

First impressions of Spanish school

My daughter has now been at school for a fortnight. I wish I had more feedback on it, but trying to get information out of her is no easy task. So far she has done a fair amount of dancing to music and colouring in, has played a great deal, and has watched Peppa Pig twice. They eat their 11 o’clock snack sitting in the classroom before the break rather than during. The school day runs from 9am to 2pm with a half hour break. There isn’t any half-day option. When I was five, back in the UK, we had a break in the morning and the afternoon, as well as a lunch break. In comparison, the Spanish hours make for quite a long day at four years old (and a few kids in her class will still be three). I guess it explains the Peppa Pig, though I’d prefer some kind of free choice activity/play instead of television. We parents are supposed to send a pack of wipes, a spare outfit and 50 euros’ worth of books along with her for the year. The school provides the other supplies, and parents pay a 30 euro fee. The books are colourful workbooks, full of illustrations and stickers! Not like in my day…

 

curriculum for a four year old?

curriculum for a four year old?

As for my first week at school, ie my Spanish classes, I’m relieved to be finally doing something about my Spanish deficit. Having taught a fair amount of English, I know that being able to read and write a language doesn’t mean you can speak it. Although Spanish looks understandable to me on paper, I still struggle forming very basic accurate sentences in real life. So when I went to the A2 level Spanish class (beginner II) and found it fairly straightforward, I was not sure whether to ask to move up or not. The teacher told me to go ahead and try the class above, and I’m glad I did. The course will definitely be harder, but I’m willing to be stretched.

 

One major advantage is that the harder class is half the size, so that means twice as much practice in class. It seems at least half of the students doing the lower level don’t bother continuing to the intermediary stage. There is also less disparity in levels in my new class. In the A2 level, there were 20 students, of very varying abilities, even though many had been there the year before for A1. Interestingly, just over half were British, whereas in the B1 class I am the only Brit. There are a couple of North Africans, a couple of Iranians, a Frenchman, and a couple of Scandinavians. Of course, different ones have different strengths, especially those who are working and are therefore quite integrated and know a lot of vocab and expressions related to their jobs. The primary school vocab I’m learning isn’t that useful in other contexts. My only strength is my impatience – I should use that on some job interview question about my failings. Actually, the Instituto Cervantes, which devised the standardised DELE levels describes A1 as Breakthrough (acceso), A2 as Waystage (plataforma) and B1 as Threshold (umbral). I definitely don’t want to be on the plataforma any more, and I can’t wait to get past the umbral.

Check out their site if you want to try past exam papers and the like.


 

A few words from my week:

AMPA – parents’ and teachers’ association, pronounced “ampa”.

asistir – to attend

ausentarse, yo me ausenté – to be absent, I was away

la rutina diaria – the daily routine

ama de casa – housewife/homemaker/stay at home mum; careful - the Spanish say el ama, just like el agua and el aula (classroom) even though these nouns are feminine. That’s because they start with a stressed ‘a’. If it helps you to swallow this phrase, the ama is not from amar (to love) meaning someone who loves housework so much that it’s all they want to do in life, but actually from amo, owner.

soy perfeccionisto/a – I’m a perfectionist (somebody else said this, not me, believe it or not.)

 

Bursting the bubble

This my second vuelta al cole in Spain, the second time I have been here at the start of a new school year, when summer winds down, temperatures become pleasant, and town gets quiet.

The first was a non-event as nobody in our family went to school, to the surprise of our neighbours. This time round has been quite different with my four-year old now officially escolarizada, which actually meant braving the seasonal flurry of stationery to buy books (for preschool!). She wasn’t the only one. I am now enrolled in the Casa de la cultura for Spanish lessons twice a week, as I attempt to keep up with my daughter as long as I possibly can!

This is the third time I have moved to a new country and thrown myself into learning the local language. But this time is more complicated than the previous two.

 

unas mochilas

unas mochilas

The first time was the simplest: I moved to Paris and immediately started a French degree. I knew a lot of other English students but I did plenty of activities in French, listened only to French radio, wrote all my notes in French, and read constantly in French. I had no internet at home for the first two years, so no BBC Radio, no English TV, no Skyping family all the time. Instead of looking things up on the Web I had to find everything out from the locals. It was true immersion.

The second time was in Lebanon. I started lessons after a few months. Lebanese is a harder language to break into, as there’s no real written form of it. But by the end of three years I could understand most of what went on, even in fast-moving social situations. However, meetings and the radio were still very hard. I also had my work (in French and English) and soon a baby to take up my time, as well as other priorities.

This time round is the longest I have left it before starting any classes. I’ve spent the last year and a half in a bubble. I speak Spanish every day, but only the smallest of small talk, buying the veg, other mums at the park, neighbours in the stairwell. I have a few Spanish friends who speak reasonably good English. Life is too busy for me to go out looking for new friends just because they are Spanish. However, this time round there are also some advantages. The local language seems so much more accessible. Unlike Arabic, you say everything like you write it (albeit at top speed). Plus it is so similar to French. I’m not just talking about words like timide (FR) and tímido (ES – shy). Even phrases like no vale la pena (it’s not worth it), and hacerse pasar por  (pretend to be) are so similar in form to the French equivalents ça ne vaut pas la peine, and se faire passer pour.

 

There wasn’t a placement test for the classes at the Casa de la cultura. The secretary just enrolled me in the A2 level. From what I can tell, A1 is for absolute beginners, A2 for basic tourism, B1 for actually communicating, B2 for competency, C1 for fluency and C2 for mastery.

When I got home and researched the levels, I decided A2 could be a bit slow. I know there will be stuff in it that I don’t know – in fact there’s probably a fair bit in A1 I don’t know yet. But with a kid in school, I am now officially out of my bubble. Not only do I have to talk to her teacher and to the other parents, I have more time to talk to everybody I meet all week, and more time to learn on my own. Also I know the past tenses, the future, the conditional and the subjunctive, when I see them. And I’m willing to work at it because I’m impatient to be able to communicate.

So I tried the online tests, which I passed, up to and including B2. I’ve always been better on paper than in real life. Sad, but true. In fact, when I sat a similar placement test for Classical Arabic lessons years ago, I asked the teacher to enter me into a lower level than the one I qualified for, and the class I ended up in was plenty hard enough. There I was at a disadvantage there compared to many of the other students. Most were of Arab origin, so that gave them some background knowledge, concrete examples they knew were right, and a bunch of random vocabulary they could call in to play. This time I don’t feel any such disadvantage, as most foreigners here are English or Scandinavian or Dutch and can’t call on any knowledge of Latin languages. So I have been swotting up on my conjugations in the hope the Casa de la cultura will bump me up a level when I start.

 

From now on I’ll be sharing what I learn here. I figure it makes an extra outlet to ease the avalanche my husband faces every time I come in the door, spouting all the expressions and grammar explanations I’ve learnt! For now, here is a bit of vocab from the scolastic baptism of fire.

 


 

la mochila – back pack, specifically at my school they want them to be sin ruedas, without wheels, so none of this small suitcase business

 

la vuelta al cole – the back-to-school period or start of the school year

 

el cole = short for colegio – primary school …NOT British college (16-18y), not French collège (11-15), and not US college (18+). After el colegio comes instituto – secondary school

 

infantil – the preschool section for ages 3 to 5

 

la maestra – teacher, or of course el maestro if you have a male teacher

 

el desayuno – breakfast of course, however my school papers say the children must have desayuno before school but also bring desayuno with them in their mochila to eat before el recreo (break). So elevenses, or playtime snack, or tuck if you like. Le goûter for the French, but at the wrong time.

Against the flow

You would think that passing on your mother tongue to your children would be straightforward. Actually, if you speak a well-regarded, globally useful language, it isn’t particularly hard. Relatives on both sides of the family will support you and even be grateful you can pass on a language which will boost the kids’ career prospects. There is a plethora of materials available. People won’t look at you strangely in the street. People won’t erode your determination by suggesting that your speaking your native tongue is hindering their progression in the majority language.

You can look at it this way: if English is the minority language in your family, you needn’t worry because it’s the majority language of the world. The same is true of other “major” languages, to a lesser degree. I really feel for parents trying to transmit equally important heritage languages, but which are less well known or considered of little use in the business world.

Lots still to learn...

Lots still to learn…

Still, even with a “major” language, there is one element which can make it hard to pass on that language as fully or as consistently as you had planned. I tend to think of it in terms of a current. Immersion works because you end up being carried along by the current. As soon as your kid goes to school, they’ll not only learn to swim, they may even be carried away by the majority language to the detriment of their minority language(s). So they need you to provide a strong enough flow in your language for them to swim in that direction too when they choose. But as a parent living in a foreign culture, you, too, need to learn the local language. Just because you want to pass on a family language doesn’t mean that you don’t want to integrate your host country. Anyway you need to talk to teachers, doctors, and so on. So mentally you are pushing yourself into the local-language current, trying to learn to swim in that direction. This makes for a linguistic struggle in your head, because you too end up being carried along by the majority language, even though it may be your weakest language.

On the one hand I desperately want to ease the transition into school for my rather reserved daughter. I want her to know some basic vocabulary, to be able to express basic needs. I also want to keep up with her teachers, her playmates, her homework. On the other hand I want to keep providing a decent flow of English interaction when she is with me, and also support our other minority language, French. Not to mention continuing to support a modicum of Arabic exposure. I already try to speak French with their dad during mealtimes so the kids are more immersed in it. I can’t afford for the majority language, Spanish, to steal any of my linguistic effort, when the last thing my kids need to hear from me is Spanish because they will be thoroughly immersed at school.

So my plan is to start Spanish lessons in the autumn, when my oldest goes to school. But I know this will mean a battle of currents. I know I’ll have to fight against Spanish expressions slipping into my speech, fight against the tendency to choose vocab from the top of my head which would mean muddling it all up, fight against talking in sentences that would raise monolingual eyebrows.

Some people succeed with a more relaxed approach, but I need consistency, so does my routine-loving daughter, and so does my 19-month old who says his 40 odd words in three languages and I’m sure will end up being on the receiving end of an avalanche of Spanish once his big sister comes home from school and wants to play teacher on him, poor thing.