So, I need to tear myself away from an unexpected but entertaining Smiths quote-fest on Facebook, and do something worthwhile.
With a head as clear as one of Angharad Lliar’s paintings, and with SSiW volunteers rushing to send me down to the dole queue, that means finishing this meandering story (rather than doing any actual work). In fact – please tell me that all this is inspiring you to want to learn a new language, and to use our courses to do so, and let me pretend that my raging self-indulgence is in fact of value…:-)
So there I was, living in Porthmadog through the medium of Welsh, slipping haphazardly in and out of a variety of moderately peculiar jobs. I can honestly promise you that I will never forget a meeting in Belfast to persuade some fungus academics that we were the right people to project manage a large scale fungus identification programme for them. My friend Paddy (who was an art historian by trade) and I explained that we would be hiring in the necessary expertise, but I did try to encourage them by letting them know that I was at least extremely fond of eating mushrooms. They didn’t quite laugh. In fact, I’ve never heard such a heavy, offended, academic silence. It still amazes me that they gave us the job, and I can only suppose that no-one else even submitted a bid.
I’d also joined Cymuned, and eventually ended up working in Gwynedd Council, and the world around me became a world where speaking Welsh was normal. Then, of course, I made the best decision of my life – I met and married Catrin.
Well, to be precise, she bought me for a tenner from Pishyn.com, which I think was a bargain.
And no, I didn’t marry her just as another opportunity to practise my Welsh, as she sometimes hints darkly. It was her hair, and the way she swung when she walked, and the heart of gold that colours everything she does.
But it was also very much the finishing touch for my Welsh, that much is true…;-)
Now, that might (to your relief) have been the end of this particularly story – I was more than willing to believe that I was dreadful at learning languages, and that some kind of fluke had happened with Welsh – I even persuaded myself that the fact I’d been in Cwm Cynllwyd and y Felinheli for the first two years of my life meant that I had re-acquired Welsh in the first language sector of my brain.
That was a persuasive idea when research scientists like Steven Pinker thought that the brain processed the mother tongue in one part of the brain, and all other learnt languages in one other part of the brain. New work in neuroplasticity, however, seems to suggest that no two people process any language in exactly the same part of the brain, so my neat little theory is busy falling by the wayside.
Which left me with a puzzle.
Why did I have so much more grammatical understanding of Arabic, and know so many more words in Italian, and yet could only speak Welsh?
My confusion was heightened when I bought a Michel Thomas Spanish course.
Yes, Spanish is a perfectly natural language to be learning as you settle down to a new life in Gwynedd. Okay, the truth is that I was already fed up of going into shops, asking for something in Welsh, and being told to ‘Say it in English!’. I had a cunning plan – I was going to learn Spanish, and then the next time someone told me to say it in English, I was going to say it in Spanish, and claim to be from Patagonia.
Now, here’s how the Spanish went. I took a couple of months to go through the basic course, about eight hours of content. Then I took a month or so to go through the advanced course, about another five hours of content.
Then I stopped doing any work at all, because I’m really not joking about being dreadfully lazy. Sure, I bought a couple of sample conversation books, and a dictionary, and they look very pretty and impressive on my bookshelves. And neat, too, since they’ve never been opened.
But I did one good thing. I met Dave.
Dave had just moved back to Wales after a life abroad, and as a south Walian he’d grown up without the language – and he was keen to have an hour’s conversation practice in Welsh each week. And that was great, because he’s a fascinating guy, with barrel-loads of strong and interesting opinions, and spending time talking to him is one of the great pleasures of my life.
Oh, and he used to be a Spanish teacher…:-)
So the hour a week for Welsh became an intercambio – an hour in Welsh, and then an hour in Spanish.
And boy, were those hours ‘in Spanish’ a lovely opportunity for a bit of Zen meditation in the early days. I suspect Dave may have rather loved the sheer peace and quiet of staring out of the window at Porth Dinllaen while I took twenty minutes to work out how to say ‘I would like to speak more Spanish, but I can’t, because I’m lazy’.
A few months down the line, though, something quite remarkable was happening.
We were having conversations. In Spanish. Sure, I’d amuse Dave by throwing in words in Italian on far too regular a basis – but we were talking Spanish. We were talking Spanish hundreds of miles better than I’d ever spoken Arabic, or Italian, or Thai, or Shona, or Portuguese, or German – after an absurdly small amount of time and effort.
By the time we’d been keeping to our weekly meet-up for a year, there was no way I could avoid the truth any more – I was a Spanish speaker.
No, not a fluent Spanish speaker – isn’t that word brilliant for putting yourself down?! – I’d still say I’m not a fluent Spanish speaker – but I can and do enjoy spending entire evenings talking Spanish to anyone willing to talk Spanish to me, and it has become another of my life’s great pleasures. I’ve even read The Lord of the Rings in Spanish, which has provided me with all sorts of not particularly useful vocabulary.
Something important had changed.
I’d spent 32 years failing miserably to learn any of the languages I encountered, even in the best possible situations for language acquisition.
Then I’d learnt Welsh in a single year of working extremely hard at it.
And then I’d learnt Spanish in a year spent popping down to the pub once a week.
Now, I like understanding how things work. You might even say I’m a little obsessive about it. Or, if you’re Catrin, you might suggest that I verge on lunacy, and need careful monitoring for my own good.
But none of this made sense to me.
And that was how the line of thought that would one day become SaySomethingin rumbled slowly into life.
How it grew from bafflement to a collection of actual lessons, though, will have to be a post for another day. I’ve told the functional story of the early days of building SaySomethingin on the forum before, but I’ve never talked about the underlying ideas, and how they came together.
If you’d like me to do that, well, just keep breathing, because it would take wild horses to stop me now.
Of course, the more comments you leave, the sooner my obsession will drive me to finish the story. Probably…;-)