On Learning A New Language

3 minute read

Que sais-je? (What do I know?)Montaigne

On answering that famous question as it relates to my stuttering progress in learning Spanish, the result would have to be “La mujer tiene el perro grande azul” or perhaps easier “Not much”. My vocabulary is growing at about the same rate as my ability to butcher the syntax and grammar which I think is an asymptotic function approaching infinity. Nouns are easy but the correct usage of the nouns in a sentence that doesn’t involve me commenting on the sexual ability of the Pope seems to be a great deal harder. I haven’t ever looked into the acquisition of a language by the average human but I suppose this is normal. We relate to the things around us. Long before Will Shakespeare expressed the tragedy of doomed love, it made more sense to be able to yell “Sabretooth Tiger!” which I think in the colloquial Spanish I have acquired would be “Tigre diente grande comido Bob!”. I can look around the room and identify things but I’ll be damned if I could tell you to bring me 10 yellow apples. Using my Spanish as it currently stands would involve a killer game of charades.

I am starting to pick up the verbs and syntax necessary to find my way to the bathroom should I find myself in Mexico with Montezuma’s revenge but it is painfully slow. For example, I can now ask you “Who has the six blue bicycles?” and tell you “The doctor has the six blue bicycles” (leaving aside the unspoken question of why the doctor would have six blue bicycles which is better anyway since I have no idea how to ask that). I could probably order eggs and potatoes and sausage for breakfast (only because the guy who runs the deli in my building helps me with my Spanish) but the eggs would likely be sunny side up (“Huevos cielo upe?”) when I wanted them boiled.

To aid in my acquisition of the language, I bought a Spanish reader, probably fit for a four year old. It is fully of cute stories (I presume, they could be about serial killers for all I know) about chickens who walked into the woods and whatnot (“Un dia, es pollo entra en el bosque y estaba frito” which is either a cooking joke or a meth joke, depending on how you interpret it). But the reading part isn’t the hard part. I am starting to be able to get the gist of the story with only 40 or 50 visits to FreeTranslation.com but again, this is an artifact of picking up vocab much faster than grammar. The really hard part comes when Rosetta Stone decides it’s time to get me to write something. Then I have to try and pick my way through the words I know and start randomly throwing verbs into the equation, hoping to get the tense and masculine/feminine out of sheer luck or perseverance (or cheating, they will show you the answers if you beg and manage to hit the right button which saved me from throwing my laptop through the window several times in the last lesson). The fact that I’m thinking about masculine and feminine is probably a sign that I’m doing it wrong.

They say (who “they” are is beyond the scope of this essay but I like to think of “them” as “Those assholes who learned more than one language that didn’t involve Latin in high school”) that adults learn languages differently from children. This makes sense as if you’ve ever hung out with children much, they are less worried about whether the pelota is masculine or feminine and more interested in kicking the hell out of it. The trick to learning a language as an adult (says the guy writing an entire essay analyzing the struggles of learning a new language) seems to be to leave aside the rules and the internal critic. Trying to determine the rules is a losing battle as it leads to paralysis. Far better to dive in and kick the pelota amarilla and see what happens.