Nov 9, 2011

Languages and I

My relationship with languages is a weird one, I think: love and hate here and there.

My mother tongue is Spanish as you might or might not know, but the way I use it may be a little bit different than usual. Not different enough to come across as mad or psychedelic, but different enough for people to comment about the particularities of my speech every once in a while and ever since I was a kid. 

At the beginning, when I was a small kid I was pretty cold, serious, and more formal than the norm. My usual conversations would start like this:

Relative or family friend: Tani how are you?
Tanai: fine.
R: What have you been up to?
T: Nothing.
R: Tell me, what have you been doing today?
T: Nothing.
R: And how was school?
T: Fine.
R: And what did you do?
T: Nothing.

People found this funny, for me they were totally honest answers.

When I was about seven years old I got the nickname el Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado, or the Small Larousse Illustrated, which is a huge dictionary. I got it from some family friends and I never understood why they called me like that back then... never made much sense to me but I guess the way I spoke seemed somewhat unusual to the listeners. I would have certain prescripted sentences that I would use in certain specific situations like "control your emotions". So, imagine a ten years old kid saying to a couple of adults having an animated conversation with a patronizing voice and gesture: "please, control your emotions".

Later on, I've had a vew people complimenting the way I spoke, which tells me that indeed I sometimes may have sounded atypical.

Spanish is a language that I love, I considered it an extraordinarily beautiful and vast. Today I still think is beautiful and vast, but so is English, French, Chinese, and many other languages.

I remember when I was in high school, we had to study Spanish grammar and structure: we had to learn things like counting syllables and where to put the accents, and the subject, the verb, the adverbs, the nouns, and the like. It was never obvious to me, I still remember that I couldn't understand, I remember it very clearly for some reason. Little I knew that four or five years later I would attempt to write sonnets and other forms of rhymed poetry. I always took writing seriously since I was a teenager and that led me to study Spanish a bit deeper, so that I could write correctly. The funny thing is that you never get the feeling that you actually write correctly. I would sit at the dining table at home in Bogotá, with some white sheets of paper, a pencil, and the Small Larousse Ilustrated, and every sentence and word I wrote I would look it up to make sure it was the right meaning.

The second language that I was destined to confront was Latin. This was because my aunt used (and still uses to) visit a Catholic church that would celebrate the Mass in the traditional style, so pretty much everything was said in Latin. This was when I was really small, around six or seven; I thought it was cool, so I learned a few prayers and responses in Latin and I still remember a few. Later on when I was a teenager I borrowed the books that my aunt had from a Latin course she had taken and tried to teach myself but I lost motivation pretty quickly.

Then it was English. I had seven years of English lessons at school; during the first four the only thing I remember is that I sucked at it. I remember failing my tests, one after the other, I just didn't understand English for some inexplicable reason. I still wonder how I passed the English class at the end of the year. When I was about thirteen, my parents decided that school was not enough and sent me to take additional English lessons to some private English teaching institute in my hometown. I must confess that at the beginning I didn't go willingly, I was forced to go. In any case, it was probably one of the most transcendental decisions they made and that would have such positive consequences in my life. I remember that before the class I used to go to play video games at the shopping mall where the institute was located, didn't do my homework, and I cared very little about the course. So I failed the first semester, and I'm glad my mom didn't give up on me. When I failed the first semester something changed within me, finally I understood, finally English started to make sense to me, finally I saw the pattern, all of a sudden I could see the resemblance to Spanish... never again I failed an English test in my entire life. I attended the institute for two more years and at the end I was pretty much able to read without much problem. This was crucial because at the University I went most of my class books where in English and most of the material I read was in English... from the most basic general biology book I had when I was a freshman until the last day of university. If I had not taken the extra lessons, I would have not chosen English as the optional subject during the national examinations, which means that my final score could have been lower, it means that I may not have been able to study at the University of los Andes, and thus the events that brought me to Sweden to get a PhD and then to France may have never happened.

At University of los Andes I had to take two more years of English lessons and in order for me to get the Biology degree I had to pass the TOEFL exam with at least 213 points out of 300. I didn't do as well as I thought I would do, I failed the listening part and I scored just 217 points... I barely made it.

By the time I finished university I was able to read and write in English but my conversational skills were close to none, mostly because of lack of practice. The practice would start in Sweden... at this moment I decided that if English was to become my main language I would have to reach a level that could allow me to express myself as well as I did in Spanish. In order to accomplish that everything I did had to be done in English, from googling a subject or reading the news on the internet, to my inner dialogue: I would take notes in English, I would count stuff in English, I would become one with the English language. If I was going to buy a book online that was written originally neither in English nor Spanish, I would get the English translation. I still keep that until this day.

Today I still have a lot of things to learn, my English is far from perfect, I still make mistakes that only someone that didn't learn English from birth would do, both writing and speaking. I would like to live for a while in an English speaking country to further improve my language. I guess it is a lifetime of learning, as it is also for my Spanish: that is, if I want to become a successful writer in either language.

After English I met Swedish. I started studying Swedish before I left Colombia, I managed to photocopy a fifty years old little book to study the basics before getting there. When I was in Sweden and during the first months I went to Swedish classes but I dropped out. I kind of assumed that I was going to learn Swedish eventually... I got comfortable with English and didn't really bother to put some effort into the local language. About four years later I decided to restart Swedish lessons but I again dropped out after just two months. It is sad that after five years I was not able to speak it. I feel a bit guilty, though I didn't make any less friends or had any less fun as if I had been perfectly fluid. It is a strange thing nonetheless.

My experience with French is not better, this time I didn't even registered for some classes. I had some tapes, about ten hours of listening material to learn the very basic and I didn't even finish the fourth hour. It's been now almost two years and people freak out when I say that I don't speak any French despite the time. In Sweden people were more understanding, they never freaked out until around past the third year.

When people ask me (particularly other expats) why I have not learn French or Swedish, I used to invent some excuse. Now I just tell the truth: “frankly I haven't (or didn't) put any effort into it”, I say “I'm not really motivated, it's not really in my top priorities list”. Many fail to understand that for some reason, and I can see sometimes they are a little perplexed, even perhaps a bit offended. I don't blame them, they might feel a little thorn in their hearts, after all they did put the effort into learning the local language... how dare I say such thing! So they look at me with a little scorn dissimulated with a polite smile. They don't know a thing...

Probably it won't be the last time I'll encounter a new language, who knows what new places I'll live in, who knows what turns life takes.

If you could say that Spanish is like a mother, English would be like a beloved girlfriend to me... So I'll keep trying to get to know her better because I'm in love with her.

1 comment: