Friday, June 14, 2013

Thoughts on Language and Language Acquisition

My Spanish class today was a lot less frustrating than usual and it made me very happy--partly because I learned the word for "chainsaw," which is motosierra, by the way: literally "mountain motor" or "saw motor," but naturally I prefer the "mountain" meaning. But also because it got me thinking about where I am Spanish-wise and how far I've come. It also reminded me that I've not written much in the way of language acquisition on here lately, or ever, really. And so, a language post!  
Anyone who has ever tried to learn another language--which is probably everyone reading this--knows that it takes a lot of time and practice, patience, more practice, and a willingness to make mistakes. I mean, unless you are somewhat of a language-learning genius, which I am definitely not. 
I think the most ignored element of language learning is often time. Those people who can just pick up languages are few and far between--most people study for years to become proficient in another language. Of course, immersion is very helpful, but I think it also really depends on the exact situation. I could hardly call what I'm doing immersion--I teach English all day everyday (and am not allowed to speak Spanish with my students) and live with a Canadian. Of course I practice every time I leave the house, but I'm not really forced to speak Spanish as often as you'd think, living in a Spanish-speaking country. 
Anyway, I've lived here seven months now and I've definitely learned a lot, but most days I feel pretty discouraged about how fast I'm learning. My frustration partly stems from what I think is a common misperception, especially among people who have not lived abroad and tried to learn a language there (I mean without prior knowledge), that a person should be fluent in, oh, six months to a year? 
I remember when I got back from Russia after a measly four months (and Russian is hard), people would ask me, "So, are you fluent now?" Ha! I took some written test that said I was intermediate, I think, but pullease. If you spoke to me about subjects beyond my daily routine, interests, likes and dislikes, I was basically helpless. And in that situation I was mostly immersed. There were plenty of days with my host mom when I spoke and heard nothing but Russian all day.
The fluency question is so irksome to me. Many of my friends here, who've studied Spanish since middle school, still aren't what I would consider (or they would consider) fluent. It's hard to define what "fluent" means exactly though. I suppose you could say they are "conversational" or "proficient," but there are still dozens of words they have to look up on the daily. And, it really depends on the day. Some days it's nearly impossible to wake up that part of the brain. One day I can understand and respond accordingly to almost everything and the next, I feel completely lost. I've yet to meet someone--except for my aunt, who's been here 13 years--who doesn't experience this. 
Anyway, I don't mean to discourage people from trying to learn a language--by all means, go for it. I do firmly believe that anyone can and should learn a different language, I just think you should realize that you can't just focus on the end result because that will always discourage you and seem impossible. 
I'm often overwhelmed by how much I don't understand and can't speak, but then I remember I could say maybe three things before I got here in November. I've not actually taken very many Spanish classes and I've not been in an immersion situation yet, so I just need to relax and give myself some time. I'm very, very far from fluent, but I can get by in most casual conversations and situations without too much trouble. That's a huge improvement. Plus, I learned the word for chainsaw today. That's something.

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