El Coronel

The towers of San Gimignano
Tuscany, Italy, May 2018
On route to learning… Spanish.

A little under two years ago, I received an email confirming that from the following October, I would be teaching in a school in Spain. I had worked in Spain before this. I taught English at an immersion camp one summer. Spanish was forbidden. A few years after that I worked as an au-pair in the Catalonian region, a place where the children’s first language was Catalan, not Spanish, and where I was supposed to talk English. I learnt a pathetic smattering of Catalan words and the Spanish phrase ‘café con leche’.

On receiving my job offer for Spain, I went off to Italy for the best part of the following two months and so it wasn’t until the very end of July that I began contemplating that I was going to need to speak Spanish.

As a language teacher, I am fascinated by how we learn languages, or more precisely, how we fail to learn them. Although I was instructed in French for five years at school, and obtained an A grade, with maybe 300 hours of class time, I have remarkably little ability to communicate in French. This is not a unique situation.

I asked the adult students in a physics class here, in Chile, how long they had been learning English, for some the answer was ten-years.

“Perfect, we can talk in English.”

They shook their heads. Whilst they have sat through class after class, they haven’t obtained any skill with using the language. Put on the spot they couldn’t create a sentence. Their cheeks pinkened.

In the school in Murcia, Spain, students in the top classes who have been forced through the intense bilingual Spanish system can express themselves. They are capable of sharing their disgust at the idea that British schools have gender segregation for physical education in English, for example. Once they let go of their inhibitions start to rant about their Latin teacher, unfair exams and each other. The top classes. Teenagers who often go to school in the morning and private classes in the evenings.

Some students are different. I ask for their name and they roll their eyes. A few minutes later they’re interviewing me about British politics, tearing apart my taste in music or asking me about how to travel the world. These students are different. I ask them how they learnt English, and they shrug. With a bored expression they seem to ponder a moment, they had classes at school, yes, but so did everyone else in the room. Then it comes out. Either, they play video games – often online video games against native English speakers – or they are obsessive about music or they watch a lot of television in English. Whichever it is, they absorbed words in context and then actively sought out clarification.

I am not a musical person and I don’t watch a lot of television or play many video games. But I don’t need to, because I have the language in context all around me, every day, and I am forced to actively seek out clarification because, otherwise, I cannot make clear to Loreto when I’m going to be free for her to drop off her fresh-from-the-farm eggs so that I can make pancakes.

Although I teach them, I don’t believe that English classes work particularly well. It’s basic maths. The teacher can listen to only one student at a time. This means that the majority of the students’ mistakes pass by without immediate correction, by which point the urgency of learning the point has drifted away. Or, the students fail to make enough mistakes. If students were listening to each other speak, and learning from each other then maybe it would work.

But even then, by the time Thursday’s class comes around, Monday morning’s vocabulary has been almost entirely lost. Teachers correct the same pronunciation, inject ‘do’ into the same questions and rehearse the same few phrases over and over again.

When I was learning my times-tables we used to practice them every day at school, quickly, a five-minute bout of scary anyone-might-get-asked firing of six times eight, seven times two…

The students memorise what they have to for the exam. Then a week later then put it aside and start the next chapter with contains new vocabulary for them to rehearse for a few weeks and then not use again until the following term. They might be able to spell their first name, but they cannot recite the alphabet.

I think one of the reasons why so many students fail to learn is that they don’t start with a clear goal. For those who are driven by music, video games or film, I don’t think they start with a grand goal of speaking a foreign language. They start by wanting to know what they’re singing. Or they want to beat the bad guy in the game. They want to win. They have something specific that they want to understand.

I would say that not-coincidentally, several of my Spanish teenagers understood elements of Japanese or Korean. Nobody taught them as such, but they’ve filled their time watching and listening to videos. Where they have been curious, their brains have naturally put in the effort to learn.

So what was my goal when I first started learning Spanish? Something more specific than simply survive.

In August 2018 I walked into a bookshop in Leeds, went upstairs to the foreign languages section and looked at the selection of books available in Spanish. I pulled out Gabriel García Márquez’ El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.

Reading it seemed like an impossible task.

Today, nearly two years later, I finished it.