I have been reviewing the content of this lil’ blog, and came across a few posts that now show how far I’ve come in my life in Spain. I still struggle with language, both English and Spanish on different levels and for various reasons, but still, just the other day, I accidentally told the waitress at a restaurant that they have the best cock in Madrid. For clarification, read on:
Xavi spends 80% of his waking life correcting spoken and written English. And yet, he has found lately that he has been speaking his first language like an 8-year-old. And it should be noted that currently he also speaks his second language like an 8-year-old —well, an 8-year-old arthropod, without eyes, vertebrae or functional brain. It is ironic.
If one looses his language, what has he got left? Fashion sense and a positive attitude? His health? Sense of humor? The abyss of second language acquisition has gotten a bit more abysmal for Xavi. But, this is what he signed up for, perhaps in this case it is better to approach the situation scientifically and reduce it to general hypotheses.
Hypothesis #1 There is a correlation between Xavi’s language learning and that of a 7-year-old child. Mastering syntax is often not the first stage of fluency. As noted before, observing the mistakes and habits of budding English learners is a valuable window from which to learn one’s own second language.
In a local elementary school, Xavi has been helping a class of 2nd graders prepare for an oral English exam lead by a major British language institution. The following entries are samples of conversations between Xavi and his students.
* * *
“Fine, thank you. And you?”
* * *
What is your favorite animal?
Can you describe it to me?
Describe it, Pablo.
“It has big sharp teeth, two little brothers, one mouth, and she does not live in a flat.”
* * *
Where are you from?
“I am from Madrid”.
How old are you?
“I have 8 years old.”
And where do you live?
“My brother pooped in his pants.”
* * *
While it is often easy to spot the syntax problems in these examples, it is far more interesting to investigate why they happen. With 7-year-old children, holding concentration for more than 20 seconds can be a struggle. To hold the attention of Xavi for more that 20 seconds can also be a struggle. In both cases the conversational tangents can usually be traced to attention deficit. Hence Xavi’s constant, moronic responses of “Sí,” “mas o menos,” or “Vale” to everything uttered to him, like an emotionally disturbed Myna bird. But it is incredibly refreshing and encouraging to see how the children are so eager to learn, make mistakes, and laugh. Xavi must develop this habit.
Hypothesis #2 Mistakes are often the product of false cognates, or at least perceived phonetic similarity.
Let’s see examples of Xavi practicing his Spanish in a real world setting (translated for your convenience).
* * *
At an ice cream shop ordering an coconut ice cream in a cone.
“¿Me pones un coño de coca, por favor? Grande.” (Can I you give me a vagina with cocaine, please? A large.”
* * *
There are phrases that Xavi has learned to memorize. They are not learned because of their meaning, rather they are segments of language that Xavi has learned to apply automatically in certain social situations. Me pones / Nos pones are essential commands for ordering something in a restaurant or bar. Ya he pedido is “I’ve already ordered,” also very useful because often the only time anyone provides customer service in a bar is when it is unnecessary. But as with children, Xavi confuses words that are closely related in spelling, but very different in meaning. Cono is a cone, as in something that you put ice cream in and eat on a hot summer day. Coño is another word for vagina, and while these descriptions may overlap in a Henry Miller novel, the conversation will most often break down. Pollo is, of course, chicken. Polla is a vulgar word for penis. Even Xavi hasn’t yet accidentally ordered a polla asada con huevos y batatas fritas. But give it time, he’s only been in Spain for a few months. Those two words are dangerously close; one letter of difference between dick and chicken. The grammarians must have had fun with that one. One common tapa in Spain is called patatas alioli, a tasty dish derived from the Cátalan allioli, or garlic and oil. It is boiled potatoes, cut in squares, and put in a garlic sauce. So there was no surprise when Xavi orders patatas aeroli, and he nevertheless gets a plate of potatoes.
Hypothesis #3 Sometimes, 2nd language learners are proficient without even knowing it. Speaking is not cause of 2nd language acquisition, but rather a result of it. Again, an example from a 2nd grader.
* * *
Describe this picture for me.
“Oh, no! I don’t want to.”
“I don’t like spiders because they are scary and ugly and they live under the rocks at my grandfather’s house.”
* * *
One major difference between Xavi and a 7-year-old (again, there are few), is that the learning filter is very low with a child, and often higher with a grown-up Xavi. In other words, the amount of comprehensible input is appropriate for learning (linguist Stephen Krashen called this i + 1; not too much information, not too little), but the stress and intimidation level often is higher in the adult. Adults have all kinds of trivial things to worry about, like how they look, what they sound like, how they will be perceived by peers, what color socks to wear, whether or not the Pakistanis really knew where Osama bin Laden was. A child will talk and talk. (A cultural note here: it should be mentioned that this observed level of conversational ease varies by culture. A Korean student often will be less likely to utter a sentence in a foreign language unless he or she is fairly certain it is correct. A Spanish student, let’s say, usually has no problem whatsoever with making a mistake. Both have their advantages, but the job of the language teacher seems to be easier with a student who makes more mistakes more easily and more often). Xavi will not talk and talk, unless he has 4 or more glasses of wine in his stomach. Even when he decides, at a random time, to attempt to speak and make mistakes, unnecessary problems arise.
* * *
Xavi: “¿María, donde estan los cubiertos…no, las cubiertas…coberetas, el discubierta…no! espera… las cobra tetas! Eso! ?”
María: “You had it right the first time, Xavi. Relax.”
* * *
This second guessing is classic behavior of a highly stressed and intimidated language learner. He has, on occasion, produced perfectly understandable utterances, only to realize later that he had done so. This is merely the equivalent of a blind pig finding an acorn by chance. But he must continue to make a fool of himself if he has any hope of properly integrating into his target culture. While speaking does not necessarily add to language acquisition, it is a very good gauge of the level of fluency. A child accidentally utters a perfectly valid sentence without knowing it because he is not preoccupied with what he sounds like. And he will do it again and again. His speaking ability will increase as his knowledge and confidence grow, and the rate of improvement will not be hindered by social preoccupations.
No matter how discouraged he gets, Xavi hasn’t lost his determination not to be an ignorant, floundering expatriate, content to wander the streets full of signs of unknown meaning, and surrounded by people having unintelligible conversations. He will not be satisfied to mingle with small-minded, mono-lingual bar hoppers. It is a responsibility that he owes to himself and to his host country.