Features » Twitters from Spain
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE
Barrie Mahoney / 2012-04-05 18:53:00
I am often asked what I see as the main priority when planning to move abroad. In my experience, planning to be an expat doesn’t work quite like that; it is more often a spontaneous reaction to events, maybe a new job or a response to sudden ill health or maybe an unexpected windfall.
Learning the language and remaining open-minded to the culture that you find yourself in, is my usual answer. Even a basic knowledge of the fundamentals of the language will make life much easier in a newly adopted country. If nothing else, it is usually appreciated by the locals, who realise that you are making an effort and, in my experience, most will go out of their way to help you.
I well remember a small, but vociferous group of expats in Spain, endlessly demanding that Town Halls, police stations, doctors’ surgeries, hospitals etc. should offer a free translation service for expats. They resented paying the 50 euros or so fee that private interpreters charged.
I used to point out that if such services were offered in English, why not also in German, Russian, French, Norwegian and all the other languages represented in the country? You could imagine the outcry from taxpayers in the UK if such a service was demanded by the multitude of nationalities now represented in the UK. In my view, the responsibility remains firmly with the expat to make an effort and, in doing so, enriching their own experiences and culture of their newly adopted country.
It is easier said than done, I hear several readers muttering. Yes, I agree, and as someone who has never found learning languages easy, I tend to dismiss the view that languages can be taught to anyone of any age. Maybe, with an effective teacher, one-to-one tuition and plenty of time for regular lessons, good progress can be made. However, the reality for most expats is that they are either working too hard to make time for lessons, or are not working and do not have enough spare cash to pay for them!
When I arrived in Spain, I knew very little Spanish. I enrolled for one of the free Spanish classes for expats offered by the Town Hall. The intention was good, but when I arrived for my first lesson I realised that the lesson would be with one teacher and forty students at all levels of ability for only 45 minutes a week. This was hardly the stuff for effective learning, and could do far more harm than good.
I tried one of the popular courses on CD. It was very well constructed, but very boring. I lacked motivation and quickly gave that up. Meanwhile, my partner, who had to learn Spanish quickly in order to get a job, enrolled on a four-week intensive Spanish course at a local language school. It was for two hours a day, five days a week for a month. This approach was on a one-to-one basis with a well-qualified and experienced teacher, and with plenty of homework. The lessons were very expensive, but it was highly effective.
I was fortunate to find a local teacher with whom I had twice-weekly lessons. This arrangement worked well until I moved to the Canary Islands. However, I was able to continue my lessons twice a week for one hour by using the Internet and Skype. The teacher was still in the Costa Blanca, but was flexible in his approach and this meant that I could arrange the lessons around my own busy schedule. These lessons worked very well for me, because they were mainly conversational, about real issues that interested, as well as motivated, me.
In addition, I accepted a language course that was offered free-of-charge by the Canarian Government. This course was a computer-based distance-learning course for English speaking expats, and monitored by a tutor who also gave feedback and assessments. I was very pleased to achieve the diploma offered after just a few months. The course also had the advantage of adding a firm vocabulary and grammatical structure to what I had already learned from other methods.
I have learned to take my language learning less seriously than in the early days. I used to worry that my mistakes could cause great offence to the listener; I have had a few of these experiences! However, I no longer worry if I make a mistake. I do the best that I can with what I know, wave my hands around a lot and speak loudly; I am also very good at mime. Usually, the recipient of my antics understands me and knows that I am making an effort. The only exceptions that I make are in cases relating to legal, financial or medical issues, which have potentially serious implications, and when I would also take along someone confident in the language.
I am told that the best way of learning a new language is take on a lover who speaks the language of your choice. However, that can cause some problems for some readers, but whichever method of learning you choose, just enjoy it!
© Barrie Mahoney