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The adventure of learning
Again too long since my last newsletter and again my apologies. Many things going on, mostly good, though of course the shadow of That Icky Thing (the pandemic) still looms. As many of you know, Spain is doing quite well for now: aroung 90% of target population is vaccinated (that’s the 12 years and older), contagion is mostly 25 per 100,000 with a few places at 50, and boosters for over 70 year olds are starting this week. Many though not all virus regulations have been relaxed, but there’s still that shadow. Which most of us are not really talking about out loud, though many of us may be feeling off or thinking about That Icky Thing. Over beers somehow I compared The Thing to a wormhole. Who knows what’s on the other side.
Anyway. One of the things more interesting than That Thing which has been taking up a lot of my mental space over the past year is (drum roll) language.
Language first for my long-delayed project of recovering my French, buried under more than 30 years of Spanish. And guess what? It is still there, buried, or rather lost, like a computer file you cannot find. But once accessed, it was a nice surprise how much I still remembered. To jump-start myself, I did one of those home learning things (French in 30 Days) then weeks on Duolingo and simplified books. From there I moved on to Harry Potter in original French and watching French movies or TV shows on Netflix. So I’m not at where I want to be, but I’m well on the way. And hey, let this be inspiration if you have been putting off a similar project. It is rewarding, mostly fun and (get this) language learning keeps our brains active so slows mental decline (so does learning a musical instrument, just so you know). But the French project is hold because of the second project.
Language second for another long-delayed project: doing a Spanish proficiency exam to have some kind of document showing my level of fluency. Why that? Because Spain loves documents, and sooner or later that document will be necessary for other long-delayed projects (confidential for now). Anyway. The most accepted proficiency exam in Spain is the Instituto Cervantes Diploma Español Lengua Extranjera (or something like that) or DELE. There are six levels for the DELE, starting with beginners A1 and going up to highly advanced C2. My decision early this year? Should I try for the more accessible C1 or go for the C2, which many native speakers would fail or find really challenging? So…… I chose C2 and did quite a lot of preparation, did the exam late May and got results in late August, and………. missed passing by three points. Dang and double dang! That was mostly due to really bad audio quality; I probably could have argued the missing half-point in writing (because that really surprised me) but not the audio. So next step: repeat, but C1 to not have to study so much, it’s easier and the grading system is more friendly. Exam is mid-November and yes, I’m doing prep though it shouldn’t be too hard.
But during that whole process of preparing the exam, I also was thinking a lot about the process of learning a language, in general and my own specific process. Yes, there is a lot of memorization, but sooner or later you just have to dive in and start talking / listening / reading. People often ask me how long it took me to get fluent, and I never really know the answer, just that when I arrived in Spain for college junior year, my grammar was pretty solid but spoken fluency not so much and vocabulary ok but not great. Of course I learned a lot that long-ago year, and I really remember one specific moment when reading the Spanish novel Nada (Carmen Laforet) in one of my classes first semester, looking up a word on the very first page and learning the Spanish word for lightbulb, which of course I had not learned before because why would I learn that practical word in class? And I still remember the “wow” or lightbulb (groan) feeling of that language learning moment. Of course there have been other wow moments, but that was one of the first or most intense.
Oh, and reaching fluency? Spanish boyfriend with two sisters and a bunch of their friends were very important in that process, which of course included cultural immersion. I never socialized with American students so yes, my fluency did improve dramatically that college year.
One of the other things about language that I’ve been pondering is the difference between being bilingual from childhood and reaching almost native fluency later in life. In spite of not passing the C2, most people tell me that my Spanish is totally fluent and only noticeable as non-native because of my accent. But I do not consider myself truly bilingual and wonder if linguists or neuro-linguists or whoever studies this kind of thing have markers for bilingualism and if yes, where would I be on their spectrum compared to my friend Cristina who grew up bilingual, has no accent and almost no errors speaking, but has real problems writing in both languages, which I do not.
Even more than that, I wonder if there is a difference between what goes on in the brains of people who are bilingual from birth, and people who have extremely high fluency acquired later in life. From bits and pieces read or heard, it seems that there is one place in the brain for native language and another place for acquired languages, which means that in case of a stroke, someone might lose their native language but not their acquired language. That sort of makes sense, and might help explain why my French project is going relatively well – grammar books and dictionary are all Spanish-French so I never use English. Yes, Spanish and French are closer in grammar and vocab, but apparently they are also closer in my brain so maybe neurons (or whatever) are working more quickly than if I were thinking in English?
But what is really odd: apparently when people are bilingual from infancy - really have two native languages – only one can go in the native language area. I’m curious about which language goes there, because obviously the baby doesn’t decide – is it the first language the baby hears, or what they hear most frequently, or the language that the baby connects with most? There is probably an explanation, though even the best experts might not really know yet. Many brain functions are still a mystery, and if you really think about language acquisition, it’s clear it is quite mysterious too, even if we ignore the drudge work that is part of that process when we learn as adults.
Which leads me to the very last language thing (promise!) which just crossed my mental path yesterday, while reading for my university micro-degree. Ponder this: the process of creating a written language for a spoken language. As in, how to create symbols that stand for the sounds of the language, make sure everyone knows what is what. How does that even work? Numbers ok, but sounds? And every language has its own collection of necessary sounds, so even if a culture with no written language wants to borrow a set of symbols from another culture, some wouldn’t be right for the new language, and other symbols would be missing? An interesting conundrum, and an important one for history, because until a culture has a written language, it is very hard for later people to understand that culture. I had never thought of the process of creating a written language before, until it appeared on the pages of my history book about early peoples in what is now Spain.
But perhaps that is another story for another time.
What’s on in Madrid: last weekend had LOTS going on. For now…..
Craft fair on Paseo Recoletos, starting at Cibeles. Until November 7, 11AM to 9PM
Farmers’ Markets: Cámara Agraria (southeast corner Casa de Campo park, metro Lago): November 6, more info at http://www.camaraagraria.org/ Mercado Productores-Planetario, November 7 21, more info at http://productoresplanetario.es/
Vocal concerts in towns near Madrid Saturdays October 30, November 7 + 13. More info at https://www.fundacionorcam.org/a-villa-voz-2021/
Spanish speakers who like learning: Spanish distance learning university UNED has some really interesting courses, open to everyone. Sort of like Adult Education, you can do History, Astronomy, Art, various languages, literature, or practical things like computer skills or professional skills. Most of the courses are seminar-type, a few intensive days, or one night a week over weeks or months. Most are available online, direct or “diferido” (delayed viewing), some are in person. Inexpensive, most are around 30 - 60 euros, and even give you college credit. I have done several, the three completed were all very good, the two just started I’m not sure yet. Curious? (if you are a curious person, these are for you!). Get more info here, click Extension Universitaria then Cursos. Have fun, and let me know what (if anything) you do. https://extension.uned.es/