Anthony Fragola Temple in Spain

Learning a Language is Hard

Well, ok, duh. That’s a pretty well known fact. Not very many people say that learning a language is easy and the programs/websites/classes claiming they can “Make you fluent in Japanese in 30 days!” are lying, unless you’re Daniel Temmet, a British savant who learned Icelandic, considered by some to be the most difficult language in the world, in a week and spoke on a television show from Reykjavik:

I think that understanding the basics and being able to speak enough to get by doesn’t take too long to learn, especially if you work hard at it, but to actually know a language, in my opinion, is so much more than that. Even though I know enough Spanish to have a half-decent conversation, I don’t claim that I speak it and I’m not sure when I’ll be comfortable enough to do that.

If you get past the fundamentals and have a working knowledge of a language, there are still quite a few things to conquer. I’m realizing that imitating the accent is very important in having native speakers understand you. And for Spanish, that means using five vowel sounds (not the 12+ we’re used to in English), rolling the r’s (something I have yet to learn) and in Northern Spain specifically, pronouncing z’s and soft c’s like a ‘th’ and pronouncing the ‘j’/’g’ harder than normal (imagine a tone-downed version of the sound you make when you clear your throat). Once you’ve mastered the accent, you’ll be as fluent as a native speaker, right? Wrong.

Apart from imitating the accent, you’ve got to really work to understand it too. The majority of my Spanish teachers have been native English speakers. I’ve only ever had two native Spanish speakers as professors, and neither of them has been from Spain. So, getting here and having to ask “¿Cómo?” after everything my host family said was a little discouraging. After starting to get used to hearing the rhythm and the accent, there’s even more to worry about.

Understanding the slang/idioms/colloquial language that people use can also be very tricky. It can be very hard to understand certain phrases, and it can be very difficult to explain them too. You can say something that would be grammatically sound according to a textbook. That doesn’t mean that a native speaker would say it though. So understanding and learning how to use common, everyday language is vitally important to fluency.

In combination with the pronunciation and accent, these sayings, vocabulary and inflection create different dialects of language. Here is a map of Northwestern Spain and the different dialects of Spanish spoken here:

As you can see, spanning across the two most Northwestern autonomous communities of Spain, there are 7 distinct, classifiable dialects spoken. The more rural the area, the more distinct the dialects become. Some are even considered to be separate, though related, languages from Spanish.

Even though all of this seems really frustrating and annoying, that’s what interests me about it. That we learn our mother tongue without consciously thinking but that it can be so hard to learn a second language fascinates me so much. I tell my host mom that if I decide that medicine isn’t for me, I think studying linguistics and second language acquisition would be really interesting. She just says No, vas a ser doctor – No, you’re going to be a doctor.

Language is not only a means of communication between people, which is very important, but it also a factor in defining how we think. Lately, I’ve been sitting with my host family and I’ll occasionally have a thought. Not necessarily a particularly intellectual one (those are pretty rare) but something more like “I’m hungry.” And then, I’ll think to myself that a Spanish speaker could want the same exact thing (food), but instead think “Tengo hambre.” Madness! How could anyone think about being hungry differently? It’s hunger. It’s that simple. Ok, I’m getting a little off topic here.

Anyway, I’ve been starting to think about all of this more and more while in Spain. To me, knowing a language isn’t being able to chat with someone for a few minutes about sports. It’s not being able to order a café con leche. It’s not getting an ‘A’ on an exam. Knowing a language means being able to think in that language. To hear the subtleties and inflections when someone speaks. To hear a joke and laugh instinctively. To unconsciously swear in when you stub your toe. And for us who are learning a second language, to know that language is to think without translating into our mother tongue.

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