Language Lessons Learned From a Weekend in Madrid

I have just returned from a weekend in Madrid, where it was crazy hot (for late September) but the atmosphere was the best and I got to throw out a bunch of “holas” and “graciases”. Here is a breakdown of how it went, language wise – and let me know about your own experience of putting your beginner or intermediate language skills to the test!

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  • I learned that the casual thing to say in Madrid is just “Buenas” or “buenos” and drop the “días” – one step closer to sounding like a native.
  • I had a mixed English/Spanish conversation with the hotel receptionist about a museum, and although I resorted to a bit of English and she explained some things in English, she kept returning to regular speed Spanish (which I could follow) which was nice of her and really rewarding!
  • I remembered to use the formal address “usted” instead of “tu” – this can be difficult at first because most learners use informal pronouns the whole time.
  • I overheard some old men calling their friend an “hijo de puta” – finally, something from Narcos heard in real life!
  • I asked questions! They were mostly fairly basic but I was proud of requesting a book in a shop and understanding his response and well as explaining a little further.
  • I used an impersonal construction! (I pointed at the mega spicy sauce and asked “se come con pan?” Apparently you could eat it with anything as long as you liked setting fire to your face).
  • I understood a whole bunch of plaques!

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  • I was asked by people, in Spanish, to take their photo, and I think just looking like I can speak Spanish is an achievement.

New Language Starter Kit

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Starting a new language can be daunting, so a real desire for that language is essential. The journey is long, but it does not have to be an uphill sprint – not at all – and there’s plenty of small achievements on the way to fluency. There’s infinite resources you can use, some of which are all about speed and mastery, but feel free to sift through some of it and see what works for you.

I want to share the ‘starter kit’ I accumulated for Spanish – I did not start Spanish quickly, or expertly, but I love this language. I am British but growing up with US news and culture has made me more and more aware of Latin American culture and its important role in the States. Additionally, we are not far from Spain and I have met many lovely Spanish people. This little kernel of genuine interest has kept me going.

You do not have to feel motivated every day of the week or every week of the year but if you want to speak the language, you will absolutely get there. Here’s how it began for me:

1. Duolingo

It’s free, it’s popular, it gives you shiny rewards and it does not judge you! There are some very heavy users of Duolingo out there, but my attitude to Spanish was pretty relaxed. For starters, my daily goal was at the lowest setting. Rather than going for speed, I went slowly and did a ton of revision sessions (to keep the lesson badges ‘gold’). From a base of zero Spanish knowledge, I finished the course in about a year – but I still had many questions.

Duolingo is not the perfect teacher, but the forums can be supportive, and it has proven to thousands of people the old ‘dripping water hollows out stone’ saying: five minutes a day will get you there.

2. Memrise

I switched to Memrise after finishing Duolingo: it’s a British language app which has many courses, and it focuses on old-school useful language phrases. It is well structured and goes through greetings, numbers, essential vocabulary for travel etc. It is a good compliment to Duolingo, the content of which can seem quite random. It also allows you to learn Castilian Spanish (Spanish of central Spain), whereas Duolingo favours Spanish from the Americas (fair enough).

3. Coffee Break Languages

Structure! At last! The Coffee Break Spanish podcast started back in 2006 (when people downloaded them by plugging in their iPods) and it has 4 seasons from beginner to advanced. (Other languages now available). I love it because of the friendly format, the listening practice, the grammar tips and really helpful explanations from a teacher who has been in the game a long time. There is no replacing expertise. If you find the first few episodes too slow or elementary, go browse the episodes on their website to find the best place for you to start.

4. Tutoring

Here we go: I found an online tutor – through iTalki, but there are others out there. If you find the right person, it is so helpful to have a personalised lesson. Ideally you should see a real teacher after a few months of learning because they can correct you and flip around some bad habits.

5. Mingling

If you live in or near a major city, get on Google and find a language exchange group – I’ve done language meet ups where people just go to a coffee shop or bar to have a drink, meet new people and practice languages. Try and also get a ‘tandem partner’, someone who you can see regularly to swap your languages! It is really motivating to practice face to face.

6. The Classroom

After all of this, the most effective way to learn a language really is in a classroom. I started evening courses at the beginning of the year, and it has been fun and I have seen so much progress in my Spanish – I have managed to reach an A2-B1 level so far (language level explanation here). I had the same breakthrough when I revitalised my school-level German.

While a classroom is – in my experience – the best place to get to intermediate and from intermediate to advanced, time and motivation are the most important factors for reaching your goal. It is better to be a motivated independent learner than it is to be a 14 year old who never does the homework.

I have finished my schooling but for some reason I went looking for more homework –  and you know what? I love it.

 

True Immersion

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Last Christmas, my sister gave me an English-Italian book: it was written by an American author – in Italian – and translated back into English; both versions are presented side by side. Jhumpa Lahiri, who many years ago was caught by the inexplicable urge to know Italian inside and out, did not live in Italy or learn the language until adulthood – she relied on snatches of tuition and laborious self-study in the States.

Eventually Lahiri made the decision to move her family to Rome and write exclusively in Italian. The result is In Other Words, a rumination not just on the Italian language, but on writing, the art of expression, and the struggle in finding one’s voice. It is also a glimpse into one woman’s – understandable – obsession.

We get to learn about some of her simple daily struggles to be understood in Rome, but I most related to her attempt to explain the compulsion to adopt another language, take those imperfect foundations, and nurture it into something else with which you can express yourself. The second language – if learned as an adult – will most likely be the weird cousin to your mother tongue, coming from the same mind but producing decidedly different and mixed results. This is the start of one woman’s journey to untangle her Italian and use it in a way which is readable, and slightly wonky, but all her own creation. It is a real inspiration.

7 German Learning Highs (and Lows)

High Managing to land a joke in German

Low I misunderstand “wer” (who) as “where” said in a German accent. A bunch of times.

High Learning the lyrics to ’99 Luftballons’

Low Failing to understand German TV even after becoming conversational

High Understanding German standup comedy

Low Understanding German standup comedy

High Entering the first evening class and understanding everything the teacher is (slowly) saying.

Low German grammar

High Literally gaining the vaguest understanding of German grammar

Low Discovering the preterite past tense

High Finishing Lemony Snicket in translation.

Low Trying to read Thomas Mann in the original.

High Feeling emotionally connected to a German-language novel for the first time (Der Trafikant).

Low Realising my German might never be perfect!

Me Talk Pretty One Day

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For the funniest account of learning to speak a foreign language, you should read David Sedaris’ book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. In it, Sedaris describes his new life in France, but first talks about the French lessons he takes in Paris…

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We finished discussing Bastille Day, and the teacher moved on to Easter, which was represented in our textbook by a black-and-white photograph of a chocolate bell lying upon a bed of palm fronds.

“And what does one do on Easter? Would anyone like to tell us?”
The Italian nanny was attempting to answer the question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?”. Despite her having grown up in a Muslim country, it seemed she might have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.”
The teacher then called upon the rest of us to explain.
The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and . . . oh, shit.”
She faltered, and her fellow countryman came to her aid.
“He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two . . . morsels of . . . lumber.”

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Here is a video is Sedaris giving a reading of this story on late night TV, back in the 90s.

Happy Friday!