I recently wrote on my (very occasional) general blog about my past experiences with trying to learn languages.
I’m generally a fast learner, and have picked up a fair number of skills in my life, but language learning has been one area where I appear to have pretty much zero ability to learn […] A concerted multi-year attempt at German, with very limited results, persuaded me that languages really weren’t my thing …
I figured out that part of my issue was the standard I was setting myself.
I’m a perfectionist. Generally, if I can’t do something well, I’d prefer not to do it at all. So the idea of just taking a guess at what a word might be and trying it is anathema to me! [But] I’m trying to let go of my perfectionism and simply try things. Much like my tango.
I made surprising progress in Duolingo, but 50 days in, I didn’t feel like the vocabulary I was learning bore too much relation to the words I would actually need in Buenos Aires. But someone told me to trust the process – as things build in a fashion that may not seem logical to the student.
So here I am, in BsAs, with a lot of ability to talk about apples and Cuban brothers who live in the United States, and almost no vocab for really important things like tango, steak and Malbec.
But … something rather weird and quite wonderful has happened! Namely, I’m more often than not able to communicate with people who speak about as much English as I do Spanish!
The secret appears to be a mix of three things. First, being willing to guess what the Spanish word for something might be.
There have been occasional lightbulb moments. Such as the knowledge that if an English word ends in ‘–ant,’ then a good guess at the Spanish word would be the same word, but ending in ‘ante’ and pronounced accordingly – so ‘important’ becomes ‘im-port-ant-ay.’
Second, being creative with the limited vocabulary I do have, as with asking someone to recommend a good steak restaurant. “Perdón, señor, yo quiero como carne muy bien” is very far from the correct way to ask such a question, but it worked perfectly. Similarly, “Señorita, donde esta una tienda de teléfono SIM” was a very crude way to ask where I might buy a SIM, but again, she understood.
Third, not being too proud to resort to Google Translate! I downloaded the offline version of Spanish, so I could look up words and phrases on the fly. This might be cheating, but my hope is that the more Spanish I use, the more of it might decide to stick around in my brain.
Before, my first question would have been ‘Hablas Inglés?’ but I now make it a point of principle to try Spanish/Spanglish first – and it’s astonishing to me how often this works. In fact, there have been very few occasions where it hasn’t.
Buenos Aires is a friendly city anyway, but the sight and sound of an Englishman at least trying to speak Spanish seems to be appreciated. I’m also finding it fun!
I’ve always been jealous of people who are good at languages, as they get to experience places in a whole new way. But based on my experience so far, even a handful of words seem to get a surprising way toward that. I’m really looking forward to seeing how things unfold from here!