Saturday, 19 February 2022

A journey into Spanish

This is not about dance but in the past I have written about the similarities between learning to dance Argentine tango socially, and learning a foreign language largely intuitively, so I include it here. 

Before I started translating tangos a few years ago, the little Spanish I had was courtesy of a year's worth of study done over thirty years ago as an adjunct to my A-level course. My parents had bought an apartment in Catalonia in 1982 which they had kept for over fifteen years.  While I had loved the holidays in that idyllic, rocky, coastal corner of the Costa Brava (now very sought-after), my exposure to both castellano and Catalan had been limited to road signs and menus. Though I was still able to read some Spanish I couldn't say much.

In 2017 I started trying various language learning platforms and apps: Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, Busuu, Memrise, Language Zen, Beelinguapp and in the following year, Tandem. I had started my children on Duolingo perhaps the previous year and was myself becoming more interested in the lyrics of the songs I heard in the milonga. Not being fluent in Spanish meant that I had been afraid to take the bus in Buenos Aires in 2016 in case I accidentally ended up in some far-flung barrio of that insecure city and was not able to safely make it home.  I still remember that sense of fear and lack of independence caused by not being able to converse fluidly. These factors may have motivated that 2017 exploration of language apps. The key thing though was that in March 2017 I went to Barcelona for a few days to dance.  Spain tugged at me again. I went to Madrid for a few days in May, again to dance and did the same again in Salobreña in Andalucia over the New Year of 2018.   While I can't remember how much Spanish I used on these trips, it probably wasn't much more than conversing briefly with my Airbnb hosts, yet just being in Spain was an ever-present reason for learning. 

I had by now lost my fear of getting about on public transport but the more language I understood, the better were my options in restaurants my opportunities for chat in the milongas or for insights into the culture. By the time I took my children to Málaga in October of 2020 I could ask for things, get about, hold simple conversations, understand a lot of what was said.  None of my conversations was sustained, simply because I didn't have Spanish friends who didn't already want to practice the English they already spoke and I didn't meet Spanish people often with whom it was normal to converse over more than life's essentials

My experiences with most of the apps did not last. The best of the software was Language Zen which was then only web-based.  It was one of the first to use Artificial Intelligence successfully. But when that company developed an app about which my phone's security systems raised flags. I see these are now resolved. Language Zen can assess your level of Spanish (and it is only Spanish-English) successfully and adapt as you improve. It is truly personalized learning which is the next frontier in education generally. It challenged me then and still does. I liked the title too, implying that there was a relaxed way of language learning, that it was more about a mindset than slogging your guts out over grammar books in school, a smart state of mind rather than hard work. I have discovered by talking to Spaniards in the thirties to sixties age bracket that the slog-a-lot way is still the way they learned in school.  Person after person has the same story: "no talking, only grammar".  That is how at least one generation in Spain appears to have (not) learned English in school.  I can sense their frustration and their desire to rectify this across our conversations in the ether.   

Language Zen also had the option of using music and lyrics to learn. I liked both the personalised element and the music. But while Language Zen is richer and more challenging than Duoling I found it somehow less compulsive & that compulsion is important to keep a language habit going. I put down Duoling's success in this regard simply to its annoying yet successful sound and animation. I had also been translating tangos for pleasure and found these the richest form of learning Spanish I had found to date.  It was also all I had time for.   It wasn't just the poetry of the tangos that was enriching, nor the insight into Argentine culture and history, but because each tango is associated with someone who helped me understand it, who brought their own perspective, insight, character, kindness and humour to those conversations. 

And yet, it is perfectly possible to be able to translate tangos and not be able to hold up a conversation in ordinary life. 

Today, similar software to Language Zen has been developed called "Progress with Lawless Spanish". It can also read and adapt to your level and map out your progress via an interesting "brain map" visualization but it offers primarily grammar quizzes.  Based on an initial test and your continued use of the product, it makes an assessment of your skill level (which you can change) and offers appropriate exercises. It tests your grasp of grammar by asking you to complete sentences using these constructs and, if you so choose, it can be very challenging.  I have used these not so much to analyze grammar, as I prefer to learn more intuitively. Instead, I use the sample sentences to hear correct constructions which I try to learn less by rules and more by sound.

On April 1 2019 I started a daily habit of using Duolingo, which remains unbroken today. But Duolingo has not really taught me Spanish. I found that app too easy and it doesn't adapt to the ability of the learner. It is the thing however that nudges me to keep up Spanish even though, for long periods I have done nothing but my daily 5 minutes of Duolingo. In 2021 I started listening to the Duoling podcasts, but soon found these too easy as well.

And yet, Spanish had somehow improved without any real study or much application, certainly nothing I would call the "hard work" so often advertised as being the thing that produces good results.  I have reasonably good French and I used to have Italian.  I took a few trips to Spain, translated maybe twenty tangos over quite a long period when the mood took me and when I could find native speakers willing to talk to me about them.  Yes, I looked out for signs and words in Spain and translated them when I found them. But I think that was about the extent of my "study". 

In February 2019 at a largely Spanish tango 'encuentro' weekend in Murcia I remember going round the cathedral on a Spanish tour and understanding almost nothing.  But I think this was the period when I was translating the tangos.  And yet, the language of the tangos is not modern Spanish.  Most of the time I didn't know if a word I didn't know was  'lunfardo', a kind of evolving Buenos Aires slang or Spanish until I couldn't find it in a modern dictionary.   

By January 2020 I joined a similar tour in Cordoba and understood perhaps 80%. I still can't really explain this.  I had been on a number of brief trips solo trips to Spain since 2017 - to Barcelona, Madrid, to Valencia, to Málaga and Granada and a solo tour of, Cádiz, Sevilla, Córdoba.  I went three times with my children, to Calpe with the grandparents, to Málaga and to Valencia / Alicante.  It was perhaps eight trips altogether, each time for a long weekend or up to a week.  But I had not felt that I had spoken a lot of Spanish.  

In October 2021 I started a Spanish Higher because I planned to teach French and I had been told you need a second foreign language to at least A-level standard.  The local authority took months to approve my request and I joined the course a month late.  After another month I asked to move up to the Advanced Higher (pre-university) course.  I was predicted an A, obtaining 88% in the mock exam and 40/40 in the writing exercise.  A career as a modern foreign languages teacher looked like it wasn't going to be possible for bureaucratic reasons. But with my predicted grade and the love of learning Spanish I wanted to take the exam.

In terms of resources I was essentially on my own. With the rise of Omicron I had been asked not to come into school after only a month on the Higher course, so never met the other Advanced Higher students who were allowed to continue attending.  Nor was I able to use the material they were studying. I was put onto a self-teach online programme called SCHOLAR developed by Heriot-Watt university but its content was in some cases more than fifteen years out of date and full of bugs. 

The only other option was to forge my own way. But with no travel available and the first exam in 5 months, the question was, how? I had made friends with a Spanish man at the end of 2018. We were sitting next to one another at my first and possibly only meeting of 'Españoles en Perth', in McDonalds. I was the only non-Spanish person present.  He couldn't speak a word of English. I could barely say anything. He chatted away to me in Spanish, presumably thinking I understood more than I did, which was almost nothing. I offered him a lift at the end of the meeting as I was going past his past. We exchanged numbers and thereafter, very occasionally met for coffee. With the pandemic this all finished and we didn't pick up the threads until October 2021 when we started to meet up more often.

From October 20201 meeting my friend regularly and around the same time starting the academic course had a dramatic effect. The month I spent in school raised the bar in terms of what vocabulary I should be learning, the speed of native speakers which I ought to understand, the topics and sentences I ought to be able to read and the fact that I ought to be able to write and put forward analysis and arguments in Spanish. This raising of expectation was key to my progress. The practice with my friend let me speak and practice listening. I had had almost no practice speaking Spanish during my month in school. The teacher did what she could, going around the class asking individuals to supply short phrases. Conversation practice in pairs was rare and short. I simply could not see how we would go from that in October to holding a fifteen-minute conversation in March.

When I asked the school if I could see a booklet of Advanced Higher material, I was able to get a sense of the level of that material and scoured the internet for similar material. It became clear to me that I could simulate this level not by classroom learning materials but by simulating real-world experience of Spanish - reading news articles in Spanish, listening to the radio, watching films with only Spanish subtitles, finding language partners online and putting myself in situations where I had to speak Spanish. I wrote emails to friends in Spanish using whatever technology was available to help and twice my new partners offered to correct my written texts, which was invaluable. These activities were enjoyable but not particularly easy. And yet you set our own challenge. If I want and today still, if I want to understand completely what is being said I have to look up a lot of words. But the more you look up the fewer you have to look up next time. This learning curve is steep but relatively short. You can quite quickly reach a sort of plateau where you can hold a conversation, where you understand the gist of film or a news article, where you can speak without translating in your head. To learn in this way does require probably greater commitment than most people are willing to make, depending on how quickly you want to learn the language. It also requires motivation and a belief that you can simulate an immersive language learning experience, not to the same extent as being in a foreign country but to an extent that is valuable and transformative.

I did not go to Spain at all between January 2020 and today  I don't sound Spanish, my mistakes are scattered like mines across the littoral of my linguistic landscape.  I stumble, I encounter holes where I want a word, but that's how children learn too.  And in the last six months through simulating, as far as I am able, an immersive experience, my Spanish has improved measurably and is still improving.