Polynot: Language Learning is a Habit that I Have Not Yet Mastered

It all began in the 5th grade. when I entered St. Philip's Academy. Before that, in grades 1-4, I had been enrolled in a Catholic school where a second language was not offered. As with a great many things in life, the fact that I wasn't learning a second language annoyed my mother. She was so aggrieved that she argued that the sisters, nearly all of whom came from Poland, should at least teach us their native tongue. She exclaimed this to fellow parents at the school, my baby-sitter, neighbors and anyone else that would listen (or who happened to be in earshot.) To be fair, it was a simple solution. However, I don't know how useful Polish would be in our African-American/Afro-Caribbean community.

Suffice it to say, her protests were unsuccessful. I never learned Polish. But I did pick up a few French/Creole words from my Haitian classmates. One in particular that stays in my mind is ferme ta bouche (shut your mouth.) It was a constant refrain in the playground and to this day remains one of the few French/Creole phrases that I know.

Then in the year of our Lord, 1996, everything changed. I was finally going to begin learning a foreign language--Russian. In a way, my mother got what she asked for. I was going to learn a slavic language, but at least one that is generally more widely spoken. It would never be of much use in my everyday life, but the process would instill the very valuable skill of language learning.

Or at least it was supposed to.

The problem was that I had never quite mastered study skills of any kind. As an auditory learner, English, History and Science classes were easy for me. Their lecture based format meant that I would simply remember most things that were explained in class. The homework added practice and reinforcement. Math was more about practice than anything else. I mastered it by doing the exercises in my textbooks.

But language learning was something else entirely. I cannot remember if my teacher taught the class in Russian, English or a combination of both. But I do remember that I had a little notebook full of words that required active memorization. Something I did not have to do in any other area of my life. In fact, I found the entire concept of studying in this manner rather puzzling. I just didn't know how to do it.

On a surface level, I had an understanding that repetition was important, but I couldn't understand how best to implement it. I found that repeatedly writing vocabulary words on paper was time consuming. And in the end, would have little to show for it besides a cramped hand. Repeating the words aloud to myself was the only other option I knew of. But I often became bored after a few repetitions and would lose concentration. This method was slightly more successful than the first, but not particularly efficient. At the end of an hour, I would only have the first three words memorized in a list of ten. And by that time, I would have to move on to my other work.

My 8th grade year, I was awarded a new challenge. In addition to Russian, we were now also learning Latin. Two languages that had so little in common that they were completely opposite sides of the Indo-European linguistic chart. Nothing was similar; no cognates, no grammar, not even the alphabet. More to the point, as Latin was a so-called "dead" language, we never spoke it at all. Learning it meant little more than constant memorization of hundreds of words.

It should come as little surprise that I wasn't particularly adept at learning Latin either. My Latin teacher, a strange man with a somewhat pretentious air, reiterated this during the mid-term of the first marking period. One by one, he brought out each child out into the hallway to tell us our mid-term grades. I had been given a "C." I immediately burst out into tears of anger because I was certain that he must have had me confused with someone else. Despite my poor study skills, I did not get Cs.

His sentiments were echoed by my Russian teacher. She was not someone that I consider to be particularly encouraging. I was not someone that she believed had very much potential. In fact, she had often remarked to me that I had to accept that there are certain things that we just aren't good at. She meant learning Russian. This did not bode well for my confidence.

Now it is the year of our Lord, 2016. And in the interim of the twenty years since I first began this process, I had studied three years of high-school Latin, one year of college level German, one semester of college level French, and two years of Spanish: beginner and advanced beginner. Yet, somehow in the end, I am unable to speak anything beyond what I call struggle Spanish.

But last September I came to Spain with the hopes of rectifying this. Gone were the days of academic level study. I was determined that I would learn this language the only way one truly can--immersion. But as with all things in life, especially in Spain, things weren't that simple.

Strange as it may seem, moving to a new country does not necessarily mean that you will speak in the local language or dialect. This is especially true for a native English speaker. English has become in many respects the lingua franca; taking the place of French and Latin before it. This means that it is common to find people who speak English in places that you do not expect--like Madrid. Though the level of English here is not as high as it is in the Netherlands or Sweden, I have found that it is enough for me to avoid speaking Spanish on a daily basis. So much for immersion...

Although, I do not often speak conversational Spanish daily, I do listen to it everyday. But this is not particularly helpful. While it guarantees that I will be introduced to new vocabulary words, it does not guarantee that I will understand what they mean. I recently discovered this when I finally took the time to google some words and phrases that I often heard, yet was still unsure of their meanings. The first was me parece que. From context I had determined that this phrase meant "I agree." It doesn't. At all. According to Google translate it means "I think" and according to spanishdict.com is means "it seems to me that." So much for context clues.

So, what is a girl to do? After twenty years of language learning, the only thing I can do with any certainty or confidence is order food at a restaurant. And have the same conversation over and over again. Anything that deviates outside of my limited realm of knowledge often leads to disaster.

Just last week, I was discussing with an American friend how I could properly flirt with a certain salsero at Salsa club in Madrid. I explained to her that we had been circling each other for a while, but neither of us had made a move just yet. I told her that I wanted to go up to him and say "I know you want me," but in Spanish. This proved to be a larger challenge than it initially seemed. The word for "want" in Spanish is querer but it doesn't always carry the same connotation. In Spanish "te quiero" does not imply "I want you" as it does in English. Instead it translates to "I love you."
So if I told him, "Yo sé que tu me quieres" the denotation may be "I know that you want me" but I worried that the connotation would be instead "I know that you love me."

This presented a big problem. While I fantasized about how sexy I would be if I was finally able to saunter up and him and whisper in his ear, "I know you want me" before I led him out unto the floor for a dance; I did not want to take the risk of saying "I know that you love me"to a perfect stranger. While the first statement is sexy, seductive and a bit daring, the second would make me seem delusional, self-absorbed, and maybe a bit unhinged. That was not what I was going for. I was trying to dally, not get escorted out by security. But it echoed a larger problem. That even with the simplest language, I still couldn't communicate they way I wanted to.

Things had clearly gotten a lot more complicated since my Latin teacher had given me that "C." But I was not about to let him or Альбина Михайловна (my Russian teacher) win. I was going to conquer this language and ensure that all my mother's complaining had not been in vain. How? Well, with the only thing I had in my disposal--time.

While I was an undergrad, I relayed my problems to a friend who had a self-professed affinity for languages. He belied upon me some useful advice. Language learning was not some sort of secret talent that was out of my reach. It also wasn't some passive act that was going to happen to me. But in the same regard, it wasn't something that I needed to force. It was quite simply a habit. Something that needed to be reiterated little by little in as many forms as possible.

This meant watching movies, taking classes, using Rosetta Stone, going to language exchanges and, most importantly, engaging in culture. Languages are alive and must not only be learned, but experienced. This meant that I had to get used to being confused, feeling vulnerable, asking for clarification, coming across as stupid and, maybe even at times, taking a bit of time to study. Maybe, it would only be three words at a time, but there was need to hurry. Three words a day over the course of a year was 1095 palabras added to my vocabulary. Not bad haul when you think about it.

And after 20 years of trying, coming away with over a thousand words in one year would be more than a little feat. It would be something to celebrate. And I would come to realize that while I may not be fluent, I may not always be coherent, and at times, I may even come across as a bit nuts, I would be still be victorious. Tenacity always wins. And at the very least, I would be able to shut down my insecurities in at least two languages: ferme ta bouche and ¡cállate ya!