Cómo se dice…

Hi everyone, hope you are well. It’s now been a month since I have been in Spain and I thought this would be a good time to talk about language…the lack of control I have over it in both Spanish and English.
It’s a well-worn line to say I regret not working harder at school, so I’m not going to say it. In fact, I worked pretty hard at school, I enjoyed it most of the time, there were blips as with everything of course, but in the main I had a great time and I think I handled the working-to-partying ratio well enough to get the grades I wanted whilst still having the best memories of my life. The trouble is, I didn’t work hard enough after school. I’m just talking about languages here. This is the embarrassing admission, I received an A grade at GCSE in Spanish but I don’t think I spoke, read or listened to a single word after stepping outside of the school gates for the last time. That is where the regret is.
            And I have another embarrassing admission. I have Spanish relatives! I could have asked to practice talking to them on the phone, I could have wrote letters, I could have made an effort, but I guess this is the thing with being 16 and thinking you are going to live forever, have everything handed to you on a plate and manage to somehow simply ‘do’ all the things you think you want to in life. You don’t realise how much bloody hard work everything actually is. So it’s all well and good me sitting here now, aged 34, moaning about why I didn’t have a crystal ball and understand how many more opportunities life can offer if you speak other languages because I have to accept that I did what I thought was best at the time. I did work hard, but in retrospect I wish I persevered in learning Spanish, but hey, not learning Spanish isn’t the only regret I have that is for damn-well sure and on the scale of life-altering-decisions this isn’t top of the list! I’m sure there isn’t a single person reading this that doesn’t wish something similar. So, I’m starting again and that’s all there is to it.
My friend or my enemy depending on how the day is going…
I tell you something interesting, those lessons didn’t go to waste though, they may have been not far off 20 years ago but they have stayed with me to a certain extent. I can’t remember exact things but there is sense of recognition. That won’t get me anywhere on its own, but in addition to lessons and practice it may speed things up slightly.
            What is strange is that the memories and recognition that is coming back isn’t all Spanish, from what must be in some remarkable depths of my memory lying there unloved, unused, unwanted like some old cobweb covered painting shoved up the attic to get out of sight – French! I don’t know if it is still compulsory in UK schools but in 1991 there wasn’t a choice, you had to take French and then when you turn 14/15 you chose which options you would like to focus on and take your exams on at 16. I chose Spanish so therefore the previous years of French were discarded like the stale hardened end of a French stick, which was pretty much as far as my knowledge and appreciation of their culture went at that age. Of course now, now, I would love to speak French and I love their way of life as much as I do every country I have travelled to, but what feels incredibly odd (I’m sure someone knowledgeable on the science of memory could explain) is that French words are surfacing. As my brain is racing to try and think in Spanish it must be dragging every resource it has and digging up random words in the hope they are somehow connected. I can’t remember a time when I have ever tried to think of something in French, and it would have been pretty hopeless had I tried but crazily enough they have popped up. Very bizarre but it may be connected to the fact that where I currently am in Majorca, they speak their own language. It obviously has its connections to Spanish and I’m not going to research (Google…) it now to explain but they have very different words for a lot of things and to an outsider like me, some of them, and the way some people here sound in their conversation, is very much like a French/Italian mix. I am told there is also a connection to Portuguese but the mannerisms and tonality remind me very much of Italian and French (sorry for the extremely naïve explanation on this, it’s not exactly my forte {…French and Latin?…} but I wanted to share my experiences). So perhaps the reason my brain is delving into its depths is because it is hearing something similar to what I may have heard in those French lessons, ahem, 23 years ago.
Here is something that hurts…how much grammar I have forgotten. I mean the nitty gritty stuff, not general punctuation and so on, but the strict letter of the grammatical law. When I have been asked about English grammar and how to change a sentence into second conditional, what is the reflective pronoun, imperative/object/passive/future perfect/continuous/modal this that and the other…I have struggled if I am honest. It has been so long since I studied properly that these terms now seem alien to me, whether I get them right or not. It has been great being tested however because it has made me look at my knowledge in this field and I can’t see how it will do anything but help me with my writing this year. I will be examining my technique much more closely and questioning myself, so although it hurts to admit how much I have let rot in the textbook sense, I think it will do me good in the long run.
            As well as grammar, my vocabulary is taking a beating too. When you are trying to explain a word to someone to help them understand the meaning you often offer up alternatives. I have found myself trying to think of multiple synonyms and being stumped. I have had to admit to myself that my range of vocabulary is not as good as I thought it was. I don’t meant to exaggerate the affliction, I know there are certain writers who have managed to digest thousand-page dictionaries and have that wonderful ability of immediate recall and I am certainly not of them, but it is nice to have a wider range than the norm. So the last couple of weeks of working on my Spanish has made me appreciate the beauty of having a wide vocabulary and I will be working to improve mine over this year. You may remember one of my prior-to-holiday blog posts joked about missing my dictionaries; well I definitely underestimated their importance! That has been compounded by my over reliance on the Internet. I am very used to looking up online dictionaries or thesauruses but when you can’t access the web anytime you feel like it then that peculiar thing I used to do back at school in the 90’s – carrying a dictionary in my bag – becomes a habit I want to reintroduce back into my life! I think at some point soon I will have to invest in a very good Spanish and English reference materials but for the time being I will concentrate hard to improve my memory, I’m sure there is more hidden away in there than I have allowed out.
            Lastly, I have one more thing to feel let down by. My listening skills aren’t really that great either! Again, I thought I was better at it than I actually am. Just as with everything else though there is a benefit. It has made me re-evaluate my pronunciation, the way I speak (speed and clarity) and the attention I take when listening to individual sounds. This will help enormously when writing; it has already forced me to take a step back and interrogate my dialogue. When you listen to somebody speaking another language, not on the news or in a film, moments that last mere minutes, but right there in front of you for prolonged periods of time (and you have no idea what it means) you focus a lot on the emotion of the voice, it’s timbre and tone, any facial expressions or movements with their hands and arms, the way they stress certain syllables or words, the way certain intonations express a question or doubt. Things like that I am learning to use with my writing because I want to create believable situations, characters and drama and I think I have taken it for granted that just because I can speak a language; I therefore have control over it. That’s not the case and I will use the experiences I have had so far to develop my writing, not just by looking at simile and metaphor and so on, but how every day normal dialogue is expressed and the emotion and delivery behind it. Well, that’s the hope…
So all in all, I am enjoying trying to learn Spanish. Not just because of the link to writing as I have covered above, but for the enjoyment of it and the potential opportunities it may give me in the future. People have been very supportive and seem pleased I am trying. I don’t know if I will get anywhere by the time the year ends and whether I will be able to string words together to make, you know, an actual sentence, I hope so and I will try hard to, but at the very least the process itself is helping me with my writing development, a very welcome turn of events.

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