I’m pretty good with languages. I’m not bragging, it’s a fact. I don’t know why but I’ve always been able to pick up words, phrases or an accent quite quickly in pretty well whatever country I visit. Okay, not every country – I’m terrible with the Asian languages – although I can say ‘please’, ‘thank-you’, ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’ in most of them. Except Vietnamese: I can’t say anything in Vietnamese. I’m still working on pronouncing “Pho” properly. And written Greek is … well, Greek to me. But languages like German, Italian, Spanish and French (sort of) have always come fairly easily. Funny fact: I actually started out majoring in German and French at University. However, at the time – the early ‘80s, I couldn’t figure out what I would actually do with a collection of foreign languages to earn a living other than teach so I switched majors to business. Boy how I now wish someone had discussed with me the Global Economy, the Diplomatic Core or how much money translators can make before I had made that move! At any rate, the reason I’m bringing up languages now is because I’m in Spain and my brain is up to no good. We came here on a holiday from Paris where we’ve been living for the last 3 months.
Maybe it will help my problem assessment if I outline my level of competence in each major language that I’ve learned so far: English – fluent speaking, reading, writing and understanding (except after a lot of wine); German – well, I lived there for a year and became totally fluent. I can still read and understand it reasonably well but I’ve been told my writing is not that great anymore and I’ve lost a lot of my verbal German (except after a lot of beer). Spanish – prior to our move I’d been learning Spanish for a couple of years and it was going well. I was getting quite conversant and managed numerous intelligent discussions while on holiday in Mexico last Christmas. French – French is hard. I took French from Grade 2 all the way up through second year at University. Prior to moving to Paris I abruptly stopped my Spanish lessons and returned to private French lessons for about 6 months. At the moment I can understand about 60 – 70 percent of what I hear on the radio but only about 10 – 20 percent of what I hear in the Metro or on the street. My reading is getting better: I’ve moved on from “Le Petit Prince” and “L’Etranger” to more “regular” novels. My verbal skills seem to vary on a daily basis but are generally about a middle-intermediate level.
From the above it’s apparent that, other than my fluency in English, I’m marginally competent in German, French and Spanish (I will add that I also have a smattering of Italian). It is these marginal competencies that I think are causing my poor brain to short-circuit here in Spain. What is happening is this: my brain is popping out words and phrases in whatever language it decides is appropriate in any given situation. For example, last night at dinner the people at the next table were speaking German. My brain registered this as I tried to understand what they were saying. As a result, when the waiter came and asked me very clearly in Spanish what I would like to drink, my brain – and hence my mouth – answered him in a combination of French and German. Whoops. I literally had to sit and concentrate in order to actually respond in Spanish. It happened again today. I went into a Pharmacy to ask if they had any contact lens solution and my brain had me come out with something in a strange mix of French, English and Spanish that even I didn’t understand! Whoops again.
While these anecdotes are humorous, everything I’ve mentioned to this point begs the question: so what? As long as I get what I want or need what difference does it make if I speak the “local” language or not? Well, I believe that language matters. I don’t like visiting a country without trying to learn a little bit of the local language. If I can speak even a few words, voilà, I will have communication! And, if I can have communication, there is hope for interaction, education and understanding. Similarly, I can’t imagine living in a foreign country and not learning the language – which is why whenever I leave our apartment in Paris I refuse to speak anything but French, in spite of the best efforts of store clerks who immediately flip to English when we start talking!
But I think my brain has reached its limit on this trip. It’s been working so hard on French for the last 3 months that making the switch to Spanish without warning is causing my brain to short-circuit. My marginal competencies in so many languages are wreaking havoc. What’s the expression? – “I’ve risen to the level of my own incompetency”. My communication skills are now in decline – not only do others not understand what I’m saying, I barely understand it!
In pondering this situation I think I’ve come up with the key to improving things: I need to become more fluent in each of my languages. That way my brain will be in a stronger position to flip from one to the other on an “as needed” basis. To this end I also have a plan: I will focus on French for the moment because it makes the most sense since I’m living in Paris. I’m starting lessons in November, plus I participate in a conversation group a few times a week. Perhaps I should also consider an immersion program in…..say, Provence or the Alps?
Once my brain feels reasonably competent with French I will move on and immerse myself in my next strongest language – Spanish. This may mean a move to Spain for a few months but I will persevere for the sake of the language and my poor brain. After that, surely my German would return to fine form with a 3 to 4 month stint in Berlin and, what the heck, maybe the only way I’ll ever learn Vietnamese is to actually move there for a period of time. In fact, why stop there? I hear there are great language immersion programs to help with Hindi…and Italian…and Portugese…and…