My own chaotic and largely unsuccessful language learning journeys (part II)

Unluckily for you, enough of you said you’d like to hear more of the ramble I was on yesterday, and three facts have conspired in your favour:

1 – I’m still stuck in bed, with Catrin’s tablet as my only companion (if you don’t count the notebooks full of scribbles about what I should be trying to do next with SSi!)

2 – Loads of absolutely brilliant people on the forum have been volunteering to do all the work I usually do, so I’m rapidly becoming unemployed, and

3 – Heck, I love talking about myself as much as the next person – and if the next person is actually listening to me (which doesn’t often happen at home!) then all the better…;-)

So, where were we?

Ah, yes.  I’d come back to Wales, aged 15, plus a mother and brother, minus a father who just disappeared in the Far East.  Barring the occasional peculiar phonecall, the next we heard of him (several years later) he was in Papua New Guinea, which I suppose means that I was even more irritating than my own children, however hard that may be to believe…;-)

So there I was in Wales – in the holidays, at any rate.  The ideal time to start learning Welsh, one might have thought.

And the startling truth is, I did sort of give it a go.  Despite my track record of absolute failure with languages, I’ve always found them enticing – perhaps because English always seemed so easy, and it offended me that I didn’t seem to be able to speak anything else.  On top of that, Welsh mattered to me – moving from country to country and having an English father had never shaken my simple knowledge that I was Welsh (which probably came from the fact that Nain always had losins in her pockets for me when we went on walks, while Granny would try (unsuccessfully) to hide all her chocolates whenever she knew we were visiting).

For the first time in my life, I bought a language course – a Linguaphone course, as it happens.  I even got about half way through it, and I watched a handful of programs on the brand new S4C, and even understood a few words here and there.

But oh, it was hard work.

Stuff was explained, and then I’d see it in sentences, and then I’d have to try and remember it, and I didn’t have a clue how to remember it apart from just saying it over and over again, which was BORING, and then more stuff would be explained and I’d have to try and read dialogues which had bits in them that hadn’t been explained at all… you may perhaps have had similar experiences.

Now, I have a very simple and effective way of dealing with adversity.

I give up.

It works like a dream, although I must admit that it has certain drawbacks as a language acquisition strategy.

A few years later, I arrived at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.  In UCW Aber (as it was then, before this standalone nonsense happened) you had to do two supplementary subjects in your first year.  My main degree was English Literature, so my supplementary subjects were, of course, Welsh – er, no, sorry, I mean Education – and Welsh (er, no, sorry, I mean Philosophy).

I’d been told that Education and Philosophy were easy, you see, and I knew that Welsh wasn’t.

And so, in a few thoughtless moments, perhaps afraid that admitting I couldn’t speak Welsh would somehow stop me from being Welsh, I threw away the best single opportunity I could have asked for to become a Welsh speaker.  I think perhaps, after all my earlier experiences, I didn’t really believe it was possible – which might be why I try so hard these days to make sure that even our earliest stage learners understand that they really *can* become Welsh speakers.

After I graduated, I pottered around for a year or so pretending to do research, and then one day I found myself on a plane to Zimbabwe for a two year stint as an English teacher.

I bought a Shona grammar book.

I discovered the joys of grammar.

I learnt that Shona has a noun case for long, thin things, like snakes and, er, roads.

But despite living in a Shona village for two years (enough time for me to have become fluent several times over) I never got any further than being able to say ‘Hello, how are you?  I’m fine thanks, I teach at Neshuro School, goodbye.’  Oh, and I learnt how to say ‘Oi, YOU!’ in a threatening tone of voice, which was helpful when I was coaching the school rugby ‘team’ which the kids asked me to set up.  We had one match against a private school in Masvingo, and we scored a try, which lead to a pitch invasion (okay, it was only me, but I think it still counted) – we decided to ignore the 50-odd points the other side scored.

Shona was, I think, the first time I felt really frustrated about a language.  It was all around me, all the time, but that grammar book was seriously rubbish.  I mean, absolutely rubbish.  I’d revisit it every few months, spend a couple of weeks repeating things I’d never, ever need to say (The snake is not in the house – so why the hell are we talking about it, then?  Get back to me when the snake IS in the house, because that’s a conversation worth having), and then I’d give up again.

I did get far enough to be able to plough my way painfully through some fairly basic books, but could I have a conversation that went beyond asking how someone was, and telling them I was fine?  No.  Firmly, absolutely not.  Yes, I’ve wasted a LOT of opportunities – and Shona wasn’t the last.

Next stop, linguistically speaking, was Dubai.

This time, stung by my experiences with the Shona grammar book, I bought several books.  I even read most of them.  Hold on to your hats – I even went to night classes, which provided me with reams of handouts I was somehow meant to learn on my own, and virtually no opportunity to practice conversations.  I learnt about word roots – how k-t-b is the root for things to do with writing, hence kitaba = book, katib = writer, maktab = desk, kataba = he wrote – all very interesting in an abstract way, but could I say ‘Can I borrow that book?’.  No, I couldn’t.

I even tried to break out of the class structures by arranging a weekly attempt at conversation practice with a fellow student – she was from Pakistan, and wanted to learn Arabic to please her father, and I got on excellently with her lovely mother.  And then her father found out, and banned her from ever seeing me again – she wasn’t even allowed to go to the class any more.  We hadn’t been flirting – we’d hardly even smiled at one another – we’d been too busy trying to figure out how the heck we could fit the word ‘desk’ into any useful sentences.

I didn’t give up, though – I’d forgotten my proven method for dealing with adversity – and my next step was to arrange a four week immersion course in Cairo, living with a local family.  You’d think that would do the trick, wouldn’t you?

But it didn’t.  My teacher was lovely, and friends with Ahdaf Soueif, who wrote the breath-taking ‘In the Eye of the Sun’, which I recommend as strongly as possible.  The syllabus, though, was grammar, grammar and a bit more grammar.  Meanwhile, the ‘family’ I was staying with turned out to be an old man and his middle-aged son – think Steptoe and Son and you won’t be far off the mark – the food they produced was enough to reduce a grown man to tears, and we communicated almost entirely in grunts and inspecific gestures.

I did manage to have an occasional night out with other students – not other Arabic students, who all wanted to speak English as soon as they got out of the class, but local Egyptians who were studying other subjects at the same college – but although they were a good crowd, my contributions were pretty much limited to saying ‘I want a shisha’, ‘I want a hibiscus drink’, ‘I want a coffee’, smiling a lot, and trying occasionally to laugh at what might have been the right time.

Oh, and I managed to buy an adaptor, but that was mostly a matter of saying Salaam alaykum, ‘I want’, and then pointing.

So that, ladies and gentlemen, was the sum total of my adventures in language acquisition as I stumbled over my 30th birthday surrounded mostly by camels.  Not particularly promising, I’m sure you’d agree – and I’ve airbrushed out in toto my school’s unsuccessful attempts to force me to learn long lists of French vocabulary, although popular culture was kind enough to teach me ‘Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?’, which I can honestly admit I have never been within a million miles of having the opportunity to put to work.

Now, some oral morphine has arrived, with instructions (more or less) not to use it.  So I’m eyeing up that and the Tramadol it’s meant to replace, and will have to call it a day with the typing for now.

Part III, and the beginning of a change in the storyline, will fly through the ether to you as soon as I’m back in the happy world of cotton wool walls and bright colours everywhere…:-)

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9 responses to “My own chaotic and largely unsuccessful language learning journeys (part II)

  1. The amount of Shona that you learned reminds me of the amount of Swahili that I know: Hello. How are you, Sir? How are you, ma’am? How are you, ladies and gentlemen? Thank you very much. The Swahili for these phrases/sentences is the total corpus of my knowledge of Swahili. In contrast, I have learned a lot of Welsh from SSIW (northern). I am now on lesson 21 of the Intermediate course. Thank you for your excellent approach to language learning.

    • It’s delight to hear that you’re doing so well with it, Charles – congratulations! We actually have someone doing some voluntary work on a Swahili course, so with a bit of luck we’ll be able to publish some of those lessons in the course of next year…:-)

  2. You’ve lived a fascinating life Aran, can’t wait for part 3. You really should write a book you know. Loved that…:-)

    Take things easy fella, think of this little episode as just another episode in your book…;-)

  3. Ooh, new posts, and interesting ones too. Do carry on!

    Your Arabic sounds a bit like the Polish I learned when I went last year: beyond greetings, saying thanks, and asking if people spoke English (the answer to which in Katowice invariably seemed to be negative), I learned the one handy word “chciałbym” (I would like) and then just sort of gestured! Or, if I had wifi at the time, looked up the thing I wanted on Google Translate immediately previous. 🙂

    The “voulez-vous coucher” thing always amuses me – the idea of addressing someone as ‘vous’ while asking such a question sounds a bit quaint and old-fashioned to me 🙂

    • Mm, Polish – another language I’d like to get a handle on, if I could find a nice, easy way to do it. There has been a strong Polish community in Pen Llyn since the war. I started withthe ‘Michel Thomas Method’ for Polish, which only served to convince me that Michel didn’t actually share his method with the company he formed, or perhaps didn’t even fully realise himself which bits of it were the most important…

  4. Ah, yes, the three-letter root. So logical. So tidy. So annoying when you get into measures and which to use to create who done what, with what, and how. It’s been decades, so I now don’t recall which is the desk and which is the place – mektab or mektaba.

    Looking forward to installment three. Hoping to read it from home (but don’t bet the farm on that!)

    • Ain’t that the truth! I can’t wait for SSiArabic, so that I can have the experience I’ve seen people who’ve been struggling unsuccessfully with Welsh for years have with SSiWelsh…

      I hope very much indeed that you’ll make it hope in the very near future – hang on in there – we’re thinking of you, and looking forward to having your cheerful, friendly and helpful voice on the forum again…:-)

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