Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A tale of language success

Those familiar with my postings will know that I'm currently learning Norwegian, but that's not the subject of the story I want to share today.

Last week, I went on holiday to Spain. I studied Spanish for two years in school at age 16 (I'm now 26), and haven't kept up with it since beyond occasional holiday. I intended to do a quick refresher course before leaving, but other things (mainly Norwegian) got in the way.

However, I turned up and was determined to follow the mantra of Benny from Fluent in 3 Months, and SPEAK. I knew I had limited skills, but I also knew that there were some situations I would be able to handle. I knew the basics of grammar, and I still had retained a decent amount of 'tourist vocabulary', including all the numbers.

On arrival I managed to buy bus tickets and, in probably my favourite victory of the whole trip, managed the entire check-in process in the hotel in Spanish. The lovely receptionist realised immediately that I was trying to speak limited Spanish, and spoke slowly for me and let me speak haltingly back to her, and we managed to do all the necessary admin, including me beginning the conversation, understanding all her requests, providing my passport and phone number, and understanding and repeating back to her the times for breakfast.

In the town, I managed to mostly understand menus and order in Spanish, and ask for drinks and the bill in the language. There were of course times I didn't understand, but it was really great to learn the words by using the English version of the menu (a simple form of parallel texts), as well as hearing and then retaining things said in context by waiters and other Spaniards around us, and things just generally coming back to me during the week.

There were times I had to resort to English - I had no idea how to ask the receptionist if it was possible for us to leave our bags on the last day (not knowing the word for leave or bags), and occasionally waiters would just go back to English if I was clearly struggling. And in Barcelona later in the week, I found that people will often just speak English to you as a matter of course - particularly after an ill-fated attempt at pronouncing Catalan!

But it's those little victories that mean a lot to me. Checking into the hotel. Successfully having a small conversation with a waiter where I clarified I wanted still water, not sparkling. Removing a misunderstanding about a restaurant reservation. Sorting out a very confusing conversation with another waiter regarding how many more tortillas de patatas we wanted.

And there's a further lesson in all of those, but particularly the last one. I asked for another potato omelette, then a moment later another one, since my friend wanted one too. I clarified I wanted 'one more for me, and one more for him'. I'm sure I messed up the grammar completely - I said 'Uno más para mi, i uno más para el'. I knew immediately it should have been 'una', and either 'mi' or 'el' must be wrong, and possibly 'para' too. But it didn't matter. I communicated successfully, and both my friend and I did get a tortilla de patatas.

Success :)

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