Tag Archives Gabriel García Márquez

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.

Some books I finished reading in May

By Posted on Location: 4min read
books
They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

I travelled throughout May. This meant I was back to my ebook reader where I had started reading a wonderful series of short stories by Gabriel García Márquez some time before, and a series of short travel exploits* which happen to be the perfect size to fit between train stops.

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

These stories were strange and all in their own way represented a search to satisfy some unsatisfiable need. In the prologue at the very beginning, García Márquez discusses the origin of the story collection.

“This has been a strange creative experience that should be explained, if only so that children who want to be writers when they grow up will know how insatiable and abrasive the writing habit can be.”

These twelve stories of South American travellers are not suitable for children, and I feel in this sentence, García Márquez isn’t speaking about young, half grown humans, but children as in the children of the craft. He’s talking about me.

Stories come into mind over time, and García Márquez seems to have collected them like how one sees grubby men collecting fag ends from beneath park benches. Compelled because it had become part of him. After accidentally losing his notebook, containing the key elements of the stories, he reconstructed those that remained strongest in his mind. The whole process took eighteen years, sixty-four stories became twelve, but he wrote the current result in ‘eight feverish months’.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

Listened to the audiobook, borrowed from the library.

I am sadly susceptible to travel sickness. Not ideal for a traveller. Long coach journeys, bus rides and boats are my nemesis, for whilst on a train or plane I can quite comfortably read, but on these other forms of transport it proves icky. Audiobooks in the circumstances are a wonderful alternative.

The Silk Roads is non-fiction epic history. In its paper form, it’s a chunky book. In audio, it’s over 24 hours long. That’s some serious listening time. It’s also a huge amount of information. I liked it, because it provided a perspective on history that was different. It wasn’t that is wasn’t focused on the west (in parts it definitely was) but it gave an overall broader impression of the connected nature of the world, going from way back. It felt more complete than any understanding of world history that I’ve had prior to this.

Now I can’t remember most of the book, for which I’m blaming my ears. I’m every type of learner other than auditory. And in the bits I do remember, I’m not sure where they happened or who was involved. But I do recall thinking that I would have to, at some point, get a paper copy of this book and begin all over again. From what I do remember, it will be worth it.

My Life With Ewa by Tim Pratt

This is a love story between a young American boy, Tim, and a girl, Ewa, from communist Poland. It’s a story about visas, popes, speeding school buses, hitchhiking, love letters and a truly long-distance romance. It’s a delightful tale, in which tense arguments regarding guns at the border between east and west Berlin mix with the delightful account of the everyday. Moments like learning to queue, Polish style, or when your girlfriend’s mother asks how serious your intentions are towards her daughter.

But this story, candid and humorous, had a poignant twist for me. I borrowed my copy off Ewa’s bookshelf, in the room where I slept at night.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t care if you’re rolling your eyes you mathematical logical geniuses, I love this book. And I will keep on loving this book. I first read it seven years ago, borrowed from the Grump’s mother. This time I read the Mother’s copy, which I’d bought her, and which I’d lent to Jesse and then collected again on my detour through Germany. I read it laying on a bed in Poland, whilst hiding from having to speak to anyone.

Looking back, I’ve no idea why I liked it so much before. Back then my heart was whole and scratch-free. My Italian road trip hadn’t yet happened. I didn’t speak any Italian. I hadn’t taken up meditation properly. There was certainly no feeling smug when Gilbert explains the intensity and difficulty of Vipassana, as I’d never heard of it. Reading it again now, I must get so much more out of it. Reminds me there are other books I ought to re-read.

Gaining Visibility by Pamela Hearon

This book was a free gift from Kobo and everything you would expect from a terribly light romance set between America and Italy. I read it in a morning, whilst I was feeling exhausted and in need of casually sitting in a sunny park letting the world pass by. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, but sometimes it’s nice to have something light and quick to munch.

Do you have any recommendations of short story collections ideal for the traveller?

*In part two…