Learning a language – After frustration comes reward!
It is exciting to be able to speak another language. It can of course be frustrating too. Not being able to articulate what you want or how you feel or what your opinion is on something can feel terrible. Being with a group of native speakers and not being able to follow the group conversation can leave you feeling alone.
Many years ago, when I arrived in Spain for a year of teaching English, this was exactly how I felt. When I arrived, my Spanish was nil. I didn’t even know the word for ‘hello’. I had a little Spanish/English dictionary and a notebook, and I started to learn words and phrases, as I needed them. If I were going food shopping, for example, I would pre-learn the words which I anticipated I would need for my shopping expedition. Leaving my house, I would be repeating the words for ‘bread’ and tomato’ and ‘pork chop’ as I wandered down the foreign street surrounded by signs and people I didn’t understand.
I lived in a small flat with two Spanish guys who didn’t speak a word of English. It was perfect for me to immerse myself in Spanish. For the first couple of months we were like three mime artists in the kitchen, acting out what we were going to cook, flapping our arms to show the rent was due and whatever other messages they needed to pass to me or I to them. At that time, I used to go home for lunch every day and sitting opposite Miguel, I would have conversations with him in my broken language but I was only half sure what we were talking about. But every one seeped in somehow and slowly my brain was accepting this new form of communication.
Then I got really lucky. One evening (still early in my time there) while waiting for a friend outside her school (she was teaching an English class) I was watching a television match in a shop window. There was another guy there also watching the match, and it turned out that he was waiting for his girlfriend who was inside and was one of my friend’s students. We started talking in the usual mime/stone age man-type language, and when they came out we all went for a beer together. This marked the beginning of my friendship with Emilio and Maria Jose.
Every Friday they invited me out with their large group of friends. I remember the first ten minutes always going well, everybody sober, talking slowly to me and me listening intently, trying to follow the conversation. Then the beers kept coming and the conversation got faster, the lights got brighter and everything became more garbled. People would look at me and see that I didn’t understand and would stop the group to bring me up to date but I hated that as I felt that I was ruining the dynamic of the group. I didn’t want them to stop just to keep me up to date.
I felt lonely. I was surrounded by friends, but they were friends who I couldn’t really communicate with apart from smiles and a nodding of my head.
I returned to Ireland for Christmas and when I went back in early January and something strange happened to me. I started to understand! It was if my absence for a couple of weeks had given my brain the time to digest all the backlog of new language I had, and it was now able to run past my lips with a degree of fluidity. Words I heard or read began to have meaning and I felt that I was no longer a beginner, but someone on a (slightly) higher rung of the language ladder.
Breaking through this barrier felt so good! I still had many problems understanding and expressing myself of course, but this was peppered with the joy of catching a word, or a difficult expression which I actually understood! I began to feel that their language was now also becoming my language. It was something we shared rather than something that separated us.
This experience informs what I do today in my English classes. I feel that the job of the English teacher is to empower the learner. To give the learner ‘bullets’ for their ‘language gun’. I know the joy of being able to express oneself beautifully in another language (or at least thinking I do) and to be able to understand subtlety coming from someone else’s lips. When that happens, all the frustration and loneliness suffered at the beginning becomes worth it.
Often students say that they feel that they have stopped learning. That they have reached a plateau or even worse have regressed and are now understanding less. This, unfortunately, is the game of learning a language. It’s swings and roundabouts, highs and lows. But like all the great things in life you have to work. You have to suffer before the good stuff comes. And it does come… just ask anyone who has done it!