The stories of a couchsurfer

Learning a language, Part II

The last post in this series focused on the first few steps of learning a language – specifically me learning the French language during my travels. At that stage I had been in France for roughly two months and was just about to head into Spain.

This article takes place just after arriving back in France after the six week hiatus in Spain and the effects that this had on my language development.

There’s a few things to note here. The first is that I was placing myself into an environment where I knew next to nothing about the language. And I really mean next to nothingHolaGraciasAmigos and Español were about the only words I knew. I didn’t even know how to say beginner critical words such as Sorry or Do you speak English.

This meant that during the six weeks I learnt a lot about learning a language from scratch. It had been a long time since I had started from scratch with the French language in Montréal and I had forgotten just what kind of a daunting experience it is.

Truth be told, though, I wasn’t in Spain to learn Spanish. I was there to see the place and I never went out of my way to actually learn. To me, it would have only conflicted with the reserved space in my brain for the French language that is already muddled enough. I didn’t want to put that at a compromise and so I never reached out and attempted to learn.

Whereas in France I would actively seek Couchsurfers that may have difficulty speaking English in order to force me to speak French with them, in Spain I would actively seek the opposite – those who could speak English so that I could take the lazy route and communicate in English.

It was just too much of a learning curve to embark on at this stage and I figured that six weeks of learning would just cause more pain than benefits and, with no real ambition to return anytime soon, would most likely be half forgotten by the time I picked it up to continue later on in life.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the Spanish language and would love to learn and become fluent in it – it’s a very practical language to know in this modern age – but it’s something for another day.

Regardless, learning was unavoidable and straight off the bat you begin to learn words that are everywhere. Salida for Exit. This one is written everywhere in the métro and train stations that it’s force fed to you to learn. Todas for Today. Again, written in many shopfronts for advertising and on the news broadcasts as well as the newspapers.

There’s no escaping it. Unless you walk around blindfolded, you will learn it.

This is the great advantage of immersive learning. Putting yourself into that twenty-four seven environment will force you to learn it. Learn the word todas in a two hour weekly class and you may forget it the first two lessons before finally remembering it the third. Walk down a street in Madrid, and you’ll see the word fourteen times and you’ll have it fixed in your memory bank for years to come.

Of course, these are simple words and while they are great to fill out your mental dictionary it really doesn’t make much use without knowing how to put them together. It’s not very useful to communicate by just stating single noun after noun, although this is much preferable to not knowing anything at all (and I did resort to it at a train station once).

The next step is learning how to string them all together to better express yourself. Take an example sentence.

What are you doing today?

Well, we already know the word for today, so we can safely substitute that in. But how do we say the rest? Don’t ask me, because I never learnt it. The thing is, even if I had, there are likely a multitude of ways of saying what are you doing depending on the context so it’s not something that you’ll see constantly repeated day after day on the front page of a newspaper or in a shopfront. These phrases aren’t as easy to learn as the simple nouns that we spoke about before.

And then there are other things that on the face of it appear simple but aren’t generally found too often shoved in your face on a daily basis by the public.

Sorry is one such example. These kind of things are best learnt by simply asking people. This was one of the few words that I was keen to actively learn, and so asked one of my Couchsurfing hosts pretty early on. Lo siento.

Learning a language from scratch takes a lot of dedication to constantly push yourself. It also takes a lot of patience. You will, undoubtedly, find yourself in situations like I had faced in Málaga. This is a part of the process. It was unavoidable. I faced the exact same thing with French in Montréal when I started too.

But I did find that it was easier to retain those few words and phrases that I had learnt. I attribute this to the fact that my brain has begun to adapt itself to such a style that accommodates learning a language.

This would support the notion that the third language is always easier to learn than the second one, because not only have you learnt the most effective techniques at learning a language, your brain has become adjusted to doing so.

More interestingly for me (and potentially the readers too) is the effect that the Spanish trip had on my French learning. Both Spanish and French are very similar languages, being derived from Latin. I’ve always thought that this makes the learning process easier. So many French can speak a decent level of Spanish and vice-versa. I’ve met a lot of French or Spanish that say learning a language is not so bad and attributed it to this.

Well, that’s easy, I thought. Half of your words are the same with perhaps a different ending, so it’s much easier for a Spaniard to learn the French word plage when the Spanish equivalent is playa than an Englishman who has to try and substitute it for the word beach. Even the grammatical structures are very similar.

By in large, this assumption is true. But the similarity can actually pose negative effects as well. When two words are so similar, it can be easy to just substitute one for the other in the wrong language. Of course, I’d never expect a native Spaniard to forget that the Spanish word for beach is the French plage and not the Spanish playa but it is possible for a third party who is attempting to learn both Spanish and French to get them muddled up and forget which is which. Or outright replace one with the other.

Case in point is my findings with that Spanish word salida, as mentioned before. I had seen it so many times that one day in Spain I tried to recall to myself the French word for exit but couldn’t. All I could think of was the word salida, full knowing that it was instead a Spanish word.

It’s as if my brain has only reserved enough fibres to hold one secondary language, not two. And when I had, through repetition, learnt the word salida that linked to my English dictionary of exit, my brain just threw out the existing French sortie. I did manage to find the French word without looking at a dictionary but it took some time.

This demonstrates a negative effect. It makes perfect sense that going to Spain isn’t going to improve my French language skills but now it seems that it actually decreases them. This was a worrying effect indeed.

Then there is, of course, the sheer fact that time outside of France feels like time wasted. Those were six weeks that I could have been in France improving my French, and instead my level was not only staying stable to what it was prior to my departure from France, it was seemingly actually decreasing!

The French terms and phrases that I seem to have forgotten due to it are likely to come back stronger than ever in only a few days, so it’s not realistically a destructive factor. The lack of learning French is the more worrying thing for me.

Departing to another country, particularly one with another new language, is a dangerous ploy in attempting to learn a chosen language. For best results, either don’t do it or keep the visit short.

Of course, I’ve got to weigh up my desires of learning the French language and traveling the world and figure out which one is more important to me.

Right now, though, I’m happy to be back in France and can continue progressing without inhibition.

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