I’m sure I am breaking a cardinal rule of language immersion by writing this. That is – never break from your target language and use your own. But does writing count? In any case, I’ll call this a Cheat Day, solely because speaking / writing in English after being attacked by Spanish all day feels like eating a plate of brownies.
I’ve been in Spain for a week, I’d like to take a moment in my own language to reflect on my experience so far. I’ve been journaling every morning for the past three years, but since I got here I’ve switched it up and am now logging my mornings in Español. It’s awful. I have no clue if what I’m writing is grammatically sound, and I fear the day for when I’ll have to go back over everything I’ve written at the end of the month – incoherent dribble from some Americano painfully rendering his days in a language he can’t properly speak nor write.
When I speak, I’m a monkey. But not your typical run of the mill eat-your-face kind of monkey. I’m a shy, bashful, nervous little simian who speaks about 12 semi-tones higher while trying to communicate. The people talk so much here, the whole culture seems to revolve around getting together to talk and gossip. You know that wonderful moment when dinner has finished but conversation is still flowing, and people aren’t in any rush to leave the table because they’re having too much fun talking and gossiping? The Spanish have a word for that – Sobremesa – which is a testament to how much weight they put on hanging out and talking. They talk so much, that everyone is typically talking at the same time because they never stop talking.
As an American, I have to say that I’m not quite used to this. I’m trying, but god dammit if there’s never a day where I’d rather stick my head in a boiling vat of olive oil then to mutter a few weak phrases I’ve memorized. Like a bad martial art, I have a handful of practiced phrases that only work at the right time. Like a bad martial art, I’ll need someone to set me up just right so that I can execute my practiced maneuver.
When you first jump into the learning another language, you’re mind isn’t as blank as you’d think it is. You can already speak a language, and you can do it very well. I don’t think we realize how good we all are at speaking our native tongues, until we really give a go at speaking another. There’s all sorts of techniques out there on quick ways to learn, on achieving fluency with minimal effort, but what does it mean to speak?
When you’re learning guitar, when do you say that you can play? To say you “Can Do” something carries a lot of weight. You are able to—what, exactly? Play a song? Mutter a phrase? If I can cook an egg, does that make me Gordon Ramsey? The sliding scale of ability does not link up to the words “Can” and “Can Not”; it’s like comparing black and white to a rainbow.
Bear with me for a moment, and try to imagine it how I see it: When you learn anything, think of it like an incomplete web starting a stopping in random places. This is how learning looks in the beginning. Your knowledge is sporadic, you may know a thing or two but the dots have not been connected. Sometimes, one piece of the web will link up to another, and the strength of that connection is dependent on the amount you’ve practiced it. These come in the form of epiphanies. As you learn more, this process continues, and the web grows larger and more connections are made. The web you’re left with is the accumulated, executable knowledge you’ve collected and rehearsed over a period of time.
I like the web idea, because it’s closer to nature’s process of building by accumulation. But we humans are not used to creating webs, we like to create square buildings. When drawing analogies to learning we’ll say things related to building a house, like “Work on your foundations first”, and “Only once the walls are up can you work on the plumbing” *wink*. But when executing, like speaking, playing music, or drawing, we’re not traversing through our building looking for a misplaced word, we’re scanning our tangled web of knowledge on a specific subject. After a while everything has an equal amount of importance, and the advanced topics are no more advanced than the fundamentals. Eventually, everything connects.
Anyways, enough rambling. I needed to expunge some English out of my system like a bad case of diarrhea, and damn does it feel good. Not deviating away from a target language is like waving a glass of wine in front of an alcoholic – it’s right there, it’s so easy, all you need to do is take it. But the times when you spend the most effort, when you’re so fed up you want to punch yourself in the balls, is when real learning is taking place.