Late last year I spent a week in Granada, and as well as visiting the Alhambra three times (I was besotted), I went to Spanish classes at Escuela Montalban. I was a total beginner, and since I’d been teaching total beginners, I thought I might get some insights.
Let’s start by saying that I know that my ‘total beginner’ status is a very privileged one; I’ve had other language learning opportunities, I understand how different languages work, and in theory, I know how to be a self-directed learner. So it was humbling to realise just how difficult it still is to fix a few new words in my head from one day to the next.
- My school French and Latin studies meant that at least I could recognize the many cognate words, unlike my own students from Afghanistan and China, now studying English. However, this had its negative side, as I constantly used the French pronunciation of sounds like ‘en’, driving my teacher CRAZY. I seemed completely unable to shake this habit.
- Numbers! Why is it so hard to count in another language? Is our own numbering system so ingrained? Like my students back home, I seemed to have difficulty with certain numbers. One to ten was fine, but once, docs, trece, catorce … oh dear.
- I struggled with Spanish grammar (verbs in particular). I now understand more clearly how students muddle ‘I like, he likes’ or ‘I am waiting, she is waiting’.
- My confidence was shaken by those small but annoying problems that come with poor language skills: getting on the wrong bus, not understanding directions, etc.
The happy bits:
(the good things, the wonderful things, that make me hope that my students have some of these experiences too):
- A brilliant and entertaining teacher, always pushing me to speak.
- The homestay experience which forced me to use the little Spanish I knew.
- The thrill of being able to communicate, even if that just meant asking for my favourite melocoton jam with breakfast
- The warmth and friendliness I encountered when I went to Tango events, even though my conversation between dances was limited to “I am here for one week” and “I am from Australia”.
- The happiness of being in such a beautiful country.