Monday, June 14, 2010

The ups and downs of learning a language.

"I. cannot. believe. it. It's June. it seems like yesterday was February... where did the time go? I'm currently sitting outside Javier's dibujo class, with some lollies, Jamie Cullum, and you, my diary. How is it already June???"

These past couple of weeks, have been crazy, I don't know where they've gone! It's been a lovely few weeks though. It's Monday, today, and instead of being at school, I'm sitting in my living room, writing this, because I'm on holidays!!!! Quite exciting :)

This week has been especially fun for me, as I've had yaya (grandma) stay with us. I have temporarily moved bedrooms to upstairs, and she's taken my bedroom downstairs. It's been fun, to have her in the house, and get to know her a little better. Yaya (or otherwise known as Carmen) is 79 years old, and is the cutest, most typical Spanish grandma I've ever seen. She is the cutest little old lady ever, with her cute little waddle of a walk, her wild white hair and her crazy Spanish. When she first came, at the beginning of last week, I could not understand one word of what she was saying. It would be like, "hugjskd a;lkdsjfaiwe rjisod f jkls e comer alksjfiefje" (comer meaning to eat). So I would just smile and nod. Only, most of what she would say wouldn't be a yes or no answer. Haha, the life of an exchange student! But, now that it is Monday, I am proud to say, that I understand a lot more. I still nod and smile, bewildered most of the time, but I can converse with her! She talks to me, telling me interesting (often random and irrelevant) pieces of information. Yesterday, she went for a walk and said, "I almost walked a kilometre! Do you know what a Km is?" I nodded, and told her of course. She continued undressing, and replied, "If you know, you'll know that its... 1000...?" I quickly replied with metres, which made her happy. She is a very interesting character. On her left hand, she only has four fingers. I asked Ana (my host sister) why that was, and she told me that when Yaya was young, she was making bread, and she cut her finger off in the process. I feel like everday, I'm learning a little bit more about yaya, the fired up lady, who still believes she's 29, rather than a frail, 79 year old. Two years ago, she was like Peg from Woy Woy, she was around 5 foot 5, walked everyday, played tennis occasionally, but has really deteriorated over the last two years. She still has that fire in her, and it's lovely to watch her determined to do everything by herself. When I first met her, I was a little scared because I just didn't understand anything, or who she was. Now, I am enjoying her company, I look forward to our little conversations where we both act out things because we don't understand each other. She knows I'm not perfect at Spanish, and that's fine for her. It makes life a little interesting, for both her and myself.

For me, I find knowing someone's accent is really important in understanding what they're saying. I struggle to have big conversations with people that I haven't really met before, if their accent is unusual or different. It takes time to get used to how they talk, and once I'm used to that, I can understand a lot more. My lengua teacher, Mari Carmen is from Andalucia, (down in the south of Spain) and speaks incredibly differently to the people of Navarra. Sei is seis, cua is cuatro, ta lugo is hasta luego... completely different, and in the beginning, impossible to understand. But now, I can understand a lot more of what she says, because I have gotten used to her accent, and now I can understand what ta lugo means.

I am really enjoying understanding more of this language. It seems strange and unusual at times, and I often don't understand what is going on at all... but, that's fine by me. It almost feels normal to be sitting down, surrounded by language, not really getting what they're fighting about or discussing. I'm content with just letting the words, their passion, the way they use words to waft around me, soaking in the wonder of this language, and get to know it a little bit more. But then, on the other hand, I often am sitting there, not really listening, when I realise that I'm understanding what they're saying. I was talking to Juventud y Cultura, my exchange organisation and María Antonia, my host mum, about how I often I feel like I'm not learning, not speaking Spanish well, and about how frustrating it is to feel like I'm not improving. But they both told me that in the beginning of the exchange year, you will experience a great growth in language, you'll feel like you're learning all the time, and you'll notice the improvements you are making. Then you get to the stage where I'm at, where you've had the big growth of language, and now the improvements are much slower. You will continue to learn, everyday, you'll be learning more, but it won't be that big growth you've experienced before. It definitely gets frustrating, always feeling like you're not learning anything. But then you get those moments, when you're sitting down, understanding the conversation, talking to people about day to day things, understanding all of a T.V. show, when you realise just how far you've come. So, to all other exchange students reading this, or to-be exchange students, don't worry... you are improving! It will be extremely frustrating. Very frustrating. But, you will get there. Before I came to Spain, I had studied Spanish for two years. I think I came to Spain, expecting me to be fluent, knowing everything already. But, I came and was completely overwhelmed by everything. Everything was faster, harder, and just completely different. But in saying that, studying the language has been excellent, because I already know the grammatical background of the language. That helps a lot!

Cartoons are a great way to learn the language. They speak in more simple terms, about simpler situations and is in general less complex than real life, and is much easier to understand. Now, when I watch cartoons, I understand it all, which is really fun. I do still have to concentrate hard to understand them, but the main thing is that I understand them. When I first came here, I barely understood anything. Something else that is extremely helpful, is watching movies you've already seen in your host language. I love re-watching all of my favourite movies with my host sisters, but in Spanish.

I'm currently reading Harry Potter in Spanish, and I'm absolutely loving it! I can understand so much more now, so it's more of a relaxation, a joy to read it, than a piece of homework. It was through reading that I understood, that when everyone said 'A ver', they weren't saying 'Haber' (pronounced the same way, as V is pronounced as a soft B)... this had frustrated me incredibly, as it had been about two and half months of not understanding why they kept saying 'Haber' ('to have') at the beginning of every sentence. Then, I read 'A ver' (Let's see) in Harry Potter, and it all made sense!

The downsides of immersing yourself in another language, is forgetting your mother tongue. I have only been here for four months, and this is something I struggle with so much! I sometimes sit here, writing this blog, or talking to friends, having to think sometimes for actual minutes about what the word is. I have completely forgotten the different their, they're and there, and often have to write them all down to figure out which one is best. Same goes for you're and your. This absolutely upsets me because it was something I hated people to get mixed up on (Josh Abbey!) and now I'm one of those people who gets confused! I'll often have to act out words that I can't remember, which often gets me funny looks from my family or class mates. It's exciting to think that I'm losing my language, as well as a little frightening. I have also fallen in love with some Spanish words, that I just in general prefer to use than English words, like pues, entonces, vale, pero, porque y por qué, lots of just joining words that just flow out of my mouth naturally. I love them!

Did I think that my language would be better by now? Before I left, I thought that by June, I'd be fluent. Exchange is so completely different than I expected it to be. I have to speak English to my host siblings, so there goes a large amount of my speaking time, there's an exchange student (Adjowa) in my town, whom I speak English to, my class wants to speak English rather than Spanish to me... all of the factors make it incredibly difficult to speak all the Spanish I want, meaning that English is still my dominant language, even though I'm in Spain. Frustrating? Yes, incredibly. Lot's of tears, frustration, whining calls to parents, and desperate prayers to God. But, God has placed me in this position, where I am for a particular reason. I may not learn Spanish as quickly as I thought I was going to, but I am learning, and not just Spanish. I'm learning about honesty, patience, prayer, about giving everything over to God. I can pretend to give everything over to God, while I'm here on exchange, but honestly, without God, I don't know where I'd be. I am learning that without God, nothing is possible. It is through his grace that I am here, it is through him that I am able to experience this opportunity, and it has been excellent so far. Challenging? Yes. Exciting? Yes. Unforgettable experience? Definitely.


  1. I had a laugh Laura when you were describing your forgettfulness of English. This is exactly what MS has done to my language skills....& I like you used to be proud of my use & knowledge of English vocabulary...It definitely makes for a more humble being LOL

    I think as we all get older most of us are exactly like your little Yaya....we are still that little child inside with a body on the outside which doesn't match. I guess the analogy here is that before God we are all children :D

    Lots of Love
    Aunty Lois XX

  2. Without God, everything is possible. I think it is illogical to say that a belief in God is needed to achieve goals or tasks. It is irrational to base the idea of success on the belief in superstition. This is in no way trying to tear down your own beliefs as I come from a Christian background too, but to say that nothing is possible without God is silly...