Not Quite Spanish: Learning Spanish
I really wish I were three years old again. This has nothing to do with afternoon naps, sand castles, or eating crayons, though of course these are all lovely pastimes. Rather it is because a three year old tends to pick up languages quicker than a runny nose. This has now become an issue to me because I recently celebrated my one year anniversary of having lived in Barcelona and the breezy fluency I had presumed by this stage is far from a reality.
On arriving in Barcelona, I immediately enrolled in a language school encouragingly named "Speak Easy". I arrived an absolute beginner with little more than the occasional wonderfully executed "por favor" to guide me. As the weeks tore by I soon found myself propelled from nivel infantile to the dizzying heights of low intermediate. Oh the confidence, the pride, the pluscuamperfecto. In those first weeks one is surrounded by a safe bubble of stupidity. A few expressions are picked up but when employed in an every day context such as a bar, the rot which emerges from the low intermediate speaker is so appallingly off the mark that the concerned camarero is forced to dash for the nearest English menu.
However as the weeks progress and the vowels fall into place the odd slow witted camarero tends to mistake one for someone flirting with fluency. And as anyone who has given it a bit of a crack will tell you, learning a language is a two folded beast. There is the speaking part, which tends to come reasonably freely, and the understanding part, which comes as willingly as trunk control to a very small elephant. Often a very closed ended sentence on the part of the extranjero, for instance "donde esta la playa", is greeted with a mountain of jumble delivered with breakneck speed.
Speaking Spanish with other extranjeros is one of my favourite pastimes. They are usually as hopeless as I am, tend to speak slowly and, if they happen to be from the same school, will generally be restricted to the same few topics of conversation. I recall fondly an "emersion" dinner which I enjoyed with a French Chica and Hungarian Chico from my class. For nigh on two hours we sat in a café on the edge of Plaza Universidad babbling in broken Spanish, none of us able to properly convey any personal histories because we hadn't yet mastered the past tense. After two or so deranged hours and several cervesas, the whole thing deteriorated into chaotic babble with much pointing and gesticulation. I suppose we could have defaulted to English but we were all enjoying speaking Spanish in Barcelona far too much.
As a New Zealander, from an island approximately a billion miles from Europe, where the majority of people are unlikely to taste an authentic croissant until their mid twenties, there is little need for a European language. Knowing the ins and outs of the Spanish Pluscuamperfecto in my country is about as beneficial as a pair of suede shoes to a hippopotamus. Sure, there are some studious types who are given a shove early on for the help it may provide later in life, but by and large people tend to get by reasonably well without. Because of this, it would seem natural to assume that friends, upon hearing that you have spent some time in a foreign land, might mutter something along the lines of "wow that must be tough, I could never imaging doing something so brave…you really are impressive." Not a drop of it! Rather they tend to look disappointed when you break the news that after close to a year you are not yet fluent.
In conclusion my advice to anyone eager to take up Spanish would be as follows. First, start as early as you can. Within the womb if at all possible. If you fail in this respect, at least be European. For some reason this should give you some form of advantage over the rest of mankind. Finally, if you are unfortunate enough to be like me, from lands afar where European languages are the stuff of fiction, and this very fact hasn't proved sufficient reason to put you off immediately, know that for the coming years you will have an uncontrollably wobbly trunk. However know too that should you ever find yourself in an absolute pickle, which will tend to occur on a daily, if not hourly basis, a well executed "Vale Vale"(Bale Bale) accompanied by a slow jog in the opposite direction should see you safely home.