I am one of those dummies. I know next to nothing about 20th century Spanish history but let me tell you why today is important – today is the anniversary of the Spanish constitution, which was ratified on 6th December 1978. Dictator Franco had died only three years previously.
It is wild to me that both of the two languages I am studying, Spanish and German, were part of European dictatorships so recently, which only ended in 1978 and 1990 respectively. What is more crazy is that these democracies were rebuilt so peacefully – setting aside for a moment Spain’s attempted coup, which had no casualties.
This history occurred too recently to have made it into a British school syllabus, and my understanding has only developed in the last few years of trying to glean a little Spanish and German culture. (See my post on German reunification, also known as Die Wende).
I would be interested to know what others have learned about history and culture from their language journey!
Have you heard of the Falkland Islands? Or Las Malvinas? I am British and my awareness of this tiny territory next to Argentina has always been minimal. Among millenials – people I know – very little is known about the 1982 conflict, and the name ‘las Malvinas’ is known even less. In doing a little research, I found this video from The Guardian newspaper explaining why the military action was successful for the British, which is accompanied by scores of jingoistic and xenophobic comments.
I respect that the concern for the UK government at the time was that British citizens – albeit a very small number of them – could potentially be forced into a dictatorship, but the issue is not black and white. It felt like a real wake-up call when the Duolingo podcast featured this story back in 2017, which examined one Argentinian soldier’s memory of the war. In what feels like a deliberately diplomatic stance, the episode covers an unlikely friendship between the young soldier and an English local.
In contrast, just last week NPR’s podcast Radio Ambulante put up an episode about two Argentinian soldiers’ experience of the war, which occurred six years into a dictatorship. (Available with transcripts in both Spanish and English). Their belief in victory was quickly shattered and hundreds of lives were lost.
I would be interested to learn more about the conflict, which is yet another example of how choosing to learn Spanish has challenged my assumptions about politics and history. Those depressing YouTube comments (yes, I know, don’t read YouTube comments) has strengthened my conviction to learn more, ask questions and look for more to the story.
I learned about the accidental German teacher/life coach Jaime Beck from this article in the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel (in German). Jaime came to Germany from Colombia aged 14, with barely any German, and eventually became a hotel owner and business consultant. In 2015 he visited a shelter to make a donation at the start of the refugee crisis, where he was mistaken for a German teacher … and so he taught, even though he sometimes confuses the dative and accusative cases.
Broadcaster Deutsche Welle did a story on him in English, which can be seen here.
Jaime offers students mime, energy, and plenty of his time. This ranges from acquiring theatre tickets to helping them fill in applications, accompanying them to the job fair, and on one occasion driving a woman in labour to the hospital. While respecting their backgrounds and the terrible trauma many of the refugees have been through, he gets annoyed if a capable student is not doing their best inside or outside the classroom, and argues about topics such as sexism and LGBTQ rights.
I was deeply comforted by Jaime’s ability – despite minor grammatical errors – to motivate language beginners in quite desperate circumstances. He does not have to teach, let alone act as a lifeline for scores of people, and his energy is amazing and touching.
The desire to learn a language is the first hurdle – and not every 14 year old in French class gets over that hurdle. If you have chosen advanced Spanish in school or beginner German as an adult, you understand the appeal of languages, what they bring us and why they matter. How, though, do we keep it going?
Picture the long-haul. Accept that learning and refining a language can be a life-long (headache) journey.
Understand your reasons for learning.Needing a language for work or life can be motivating but also intimidating – learning out of interest has freedom in that sense, but does not give you a driving force. Work out how to push yourself or how to encourage yourself in both situations.
Use the native speakers in your life for their expertise and to remind yourself you can still chat with them!
Find other people who are learning the language so you can commiserate (see quote below).
Vary the tools you use, whether it’s reading and writing (books, newspapers, flashcards) or listening and speaking (film, TV, podcasts, apps, tandem partners, Meet Ups).
If possible, give yourself breaks – be it one day or a few.
Immersion is valuable, but so is making the learning time count. You could watch an episode of Narcos, or spend 15 minutes making notes on a podcast or looking up words from a newspaper article.
Make use of professionals if you can, either in a classroom or through a tutor. They can correct you, explain well, and untangle the grammar. They can also praise progress when they see it!
Go back and reflect on the basics. If you have completed any beginner or intermediate levels, go and test yourself online and appreciate what you have mastered so far.
… [I] never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.
Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language” 1880
Why are you learning your language/s? How do you find your motivation?