When the language tank is full – Revitalising one’s language learning

So, another year has gone, and I have to admit, 2013 was pretty good to me. I launched into January with abandon and ambition, armed with an array of resolutions, most of which I more or less achieved. I did regular sport, was adventurous in the kitchen, got my writing career off to a decent start and threw myself back into the world of reading. All in all, it was a year when, refreshed by my travels the previous autumn, I found myself able to devote more attention to the things that are important to my everyday lifestyle.

However, there is one glaring omission from that list of achievements; one resolution that was once more conspicuous by the neglect afforded to it. One thing I failed to do that should surprise anyone who’s known me for any length of time: I did not learn Spanish.

As those who have been reading this blog for a while will have noticed by now, languages are “my thing”. They are “what I do”. I love languages, and always enjoy learning something new in any language, even if it’s just the odd word. In fact, here are some choice ones I learned last year:

  • Heimskur – An Icelandic word meaning both “stupid” and “one who has never left their home”, a connection that resonates with my own ideals
  • Petrichor – The scent of rain on dry earth, a wonderfully evocative term taken from the Greek words petros, meaning stone, and ichor, the blood that courses through the veins of the Gods
  • Curglaff – The shock felt in bathing when one first plunges into the cold water
  • Resistentialism – The seemingly spiteful behavior shown by inanimate objects
  • Tyromancy – Divining by the coagulation of cheese
  • spahči – a reindeer with tall, slender antlers

Over the course of my 27 years, I have managed to learn English, German, Swedish and French to varying levels of competence, and am able to understand decent amounts of other languages as a result. Yet Spanish seems to have eluded me. It is, in fact, not the first time the Hispanic language has graced my list of resolutions – it debuted at the beginning of 2011, originally as part of the preparations for my planned trip to South America later that year. As it was, I learned very little before I landed in Buenos Aires, and a lot more in the six weeks that followed. Most of which has since been forgotten, the holiday now having ended more than a year ago.

“Spanish is an easy language; you’ll learn it in no time!” This is what I’ve heard and, indeed, what little I’ve learned seemed pretty easy to pick up. What’s missing is the drive. When I began to pick up French again 5 years ago, I was able to get to a reasonable level relatively quickly by studying at home with textbooks and then speaking with a tandem partner once a week, after which I enrolled in a couple of intermediate to advanced-level courses to fill in the gaps. I watched French films once a week and tried to read in the language regularly (an endeavour which was made easier by the volume of comic books available through the library at my language school).

In view of this experience, it was only natural for me to assume that a similar method would work for Spanish. True, this time I would be starting completely from scratch, but I still wanted to avoid a beginner’s course because…well, I rather snobbishly thought it beneath me. From what I know of such classes, they are often aimed at those with no prior experience of learning foreign languages, and the idea of having to sit through hours of explanations of what a verb is was nothing less than nightmarish to me. I wanted to learn by myself, then visit courses later on to polish my own knowledge. Yet two years and a variety of aborted methods later, I find myself not much better off, my level of expertise in Spanish still close to nada. How can this be?

As a freelancer, I have more free time than now than I did when I was learning French. I probably also have more money to spend on books, films and the like. Every now and then over the past twelve months, I would pick up my textbook or sign up to new easy online method that would inspire me to a brief flurry of activity, filling my head with conversations about various professions and directions for getting across a hypothetical town. Then, just as suddenly, something else would come up and distract me. I forgot to put the time in, or convinced myself I didn’t have it, and all my shiny new vocabulary began to gather dust on the shelves at the back of my mind.

Where was the motivation? Surely, if this was something I really wanted to do, I wouldn’t be forgetting to do it. Would I?

It is something I really want to do, of that I am sure. What’s frustrating is the pace. Even without the course, it takes a long time until you have something you can put to practical use. The crawl of the word-by-word, “Hello/How are you?” phase of learning a new language was frustrating me, resulting in a loss of focus. I continued to try different methods, all the time telling myself that all I needed was the right structure.

Then, a few weeks ago, a horrible thought struck me. Perhaps there was nothing wrong with how I was learning – after all, the same methods had worked for me before, right? Perhaps, with four languages already up there fighting for attention, my mind was actually full?

It was a terrifying thought, but nevertheless one that, by this point, I had to give some serious consideration. The general consensus is that it is easier to learn languages when you’re younger. Is my brain’s resistance to Spanish a consequence of my now undeniable presence in the land of adulthood? Has my mind started to become closed to new ideas, new cultures? The thought of this panics me. Languages are what I do, right? For so many years they have been an integral part of my identity – how can I have lost the ability to learn them?

Then I think back to my time in South America. I was only there for six weeks, but by the end of them I was able to muddle through basic conversations in Spanish pretty well. With more time, I felt certain I could have picked it up properly. When I returned a year ago, I was filled with a renewed drive to finally get to grips with this slippery tongue. So what happened?

The answer, as it turns out, was obvious. Life happened. In South America I was on holiday, with little else to occupy my mind than thoughts of the current day’s sightseeing activities or where my next empanada/artisanal beer was coming from. Consequently, there was plenty of RAM leftover to dedicate to new words, phrases and grammatical discoveries. When I returned to Germany and started taking on jobs again, that processing time was once more needed to translate and organise my schedule. What little free time I had was often going into my writing and music, or simply winding down and switching off. There was no space in my head for Spanish – not because of the languages already in there, but because of everything else.

So, as another new year begins, how do I deal with this problem? I’m still freelancing, and I obviously don’t want to sacrifice my music and writing time; as creative outlets they use a different part of my mental energy and offer rewards that the more input-intensive process of language learning can’t give me.

Instead of taking time away from those activities, perhaps the best method would be to fit Spanish into my working day. After all, it’s mainly for work that I’ll be using it. This also has the added advantage of slotting my learning into a part of my life that is already actively structured, thus relieving some of the self-inflicted pressure of feeling I have to use my free time productively.

My new year’s resolution for 2014, then, is the same as it has been for the past two years. Except now, there’s a twist. Instead of forcing myself to crack open a textbook at night when I get home from work, I’m going to start my day with Spanish. Just half an hour at first, at least three times a week. Maybe read a newspaper article, learn some vocab, do a couple of exercises in my book. The key will be to keep the momentum going. Fingers crossed I can see it through – third time’s a charm, and all that…

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