Spanish: The triumph of optimism over experience, or a far more modest goal

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.

It’s a somewhat ironic deficit, given how much I’ve gotten to travel over the years (82 countries and counting). But a concerted multi-year attempt at German, with very limited results, persuaded me that languages really weren’t my thing.

However, I’m conducting one final experiment …

German, aka the final definitive evidence

Many people pick up languages easily, or at least can do so quickly with enough effort. Those people tend to think I just haven’t put in enough work, or stuck with it long enough, or tried the right course, or spent enough time in the country, or <insert theory here>.

No. Allow me to present the final definitive evidence: my attempts to learn German.

I spent more than a decade as a qualitative researcher, and almost all my projects were international. The long-haul countries varied, but the vast majority of projects started with the UK, France and Germany – so most months included a visit to Germany.

Added to that, I used to be a Nürburgring addict. That meant an additional monthly trip to drive around in 13-mile circles, which at least taught me the German for ‘More tyres, please.’

Oh, and I had a German girlfriend for three years.

If ever there was a language I ought to have been able to learn, it was German.

I made a really concerted effort. When listening to German focus groups, I would adjust the audio balance so that the German dialogue and simultaneous translation into English were more balanced. When out and about in Germany, I would try to use only German, no matter how desperately the poor Germans on the receiving end of this tried to switch to English. I spent countless hours trying pretty much every German language course on the planet, listening to the same lessons over and over until something stuck.

My final resort was the Michel Thomas course, widely considered the course of last resort. If he can’t teach you a language, nobody can.

He couldn’t. At my peak, I spoke around 900 words of German, and I’d be surprised if I could remember 90 of them today.

So why the hell am I attempting to learn Spanish?

I’m not. I’m attempting to learn a little Spanish. If I hit my German peak of 900 words, I’ll be thrilled. Even more so if I don’t forget the words faster than I learn them.

But, as you may know, I have a kind of passing interest in tango. Once this damn pandemic settles down, my plan is to spend one month a year in Buenos Aires (one week of holiday, three weeks of working by day and dancing by night). Just as I felt it was ridiculous and embarrassing to be spending so much time in Germany without speaking at least some German, I feel the same way about Buenos Aires and Spanish.

So I’ve downloaded the Michel Thomas Foundational Spanish course, and will be making a start on it as soon as I regain the ability to concentrate for longer than my working day.

The one weakness of the Thomas courses is they don’t develop listening comprehension, but Steph recommends Duolingo for that, so that will give me a follow-up

I’d be lying if I said I was optimistic, but I’d be delighted to prove myself wrong. Watch this space.

4 thoughts on “Spanish: The triumph of optimism over experience, or a far more modest goal”

  1. I had the advantage of learning Spanish for two years during high school, although it was Mexican vocabulary and accent. When I finally set foot in Buenos Aires 30 years later without any conversation practice, I was at a loss for words.

    What helped me most was having a milonguero boyfriend who loved to talk about tango. I listened to conversations for three years and then finally realized I understood people.

    Even after 23 years living in Buenos Aires, I know I make grammatical mistakes all the time, but if people understand what I wanted to communicate, I achieved my goal. I’ll always be recognized as a foreigner who has Argentine citizenship.


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