From Average, Ambitionless Student to World-Travelling Language Lover: How High School Spanish Class Changed My Life

Posted on 15. Sep, 2014 by in Language Learning

Guest post by Sean Duhaime, one of our trusty Quality Assurance Testers and our go-to Hispanophile here at Transparent Language.

Before I started learning Spanish, there was nothing concrete about me.  I was a wayward child with a C average and a vague ambition to become the next singer-songwriter-sensation.  I was eleven years old when I began learning that most beautiful of Romance languages, though I didn’t love all of it right away.  I loved the learning of vocabulary, especially the weekly verb quizzes. I loathed, as most do, the prescriptive instruction of grammar.  I’ve just never really been a rules guy.

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That’s me on the beaches of Malaga after a storm, November 2007.

The learning of Spanish began to spread like mint in a garden, until it began to suffocate all other puerile pursuits, not the least of which was my ephemeral rock star dream.  Throughout high school and into college, I nurtured it.  I read Katherine by Seton.  I listened to Juanes.  I had dueling Spanish professors we affectionately called BLo and Babs.  Their styles couldn’t have differed more except in efficacy.  Spanish finally found its rightful place in my heart when I read a book halfway through college by the name of For Whom the Bell Tolls.  For anyone who hasn’t read it, the story centers on an English expatriate who is fighting against the fascists in the mountains of Spain.  I became that Englishman for the space of a few hundred pages, and it was then and there that I first realized I was going to Spain.

It was never a hurried dream.  What dreams are when you are twenty-one years old?  I just knew that it was something that would eventually happen.  I considered studying abroad for a semester, but that seemed too pedestrian for me.  I wanted something grander.  I wanted the loose and wild conjecture of buying a one way ticket, with absolutely no idea where I would go, knowing only that I would return when my money ran out.  I also knew that I would go alone.

College ended and there was that great vacuum that Stephen King calls “the last major convulsion of childhood,” and he is right.  I knew nothing of what I wanted to do with my life for a career.  I had majored in Literature, because it was my first love, but I had no idea what to do with it.  Spanish gave me a purpose.  More truly, Spain gave me a purpose.  I began to think about it day and night.

On November 1st, 2007, the day finally came. That first journey around Spain can’t be put into words, except to say that it was the most difficult and most perfect thing that I have ever done.  I watched other tourists being handled and taken for money because they didn’t have the language skills I had, and I began to finally see the value of all those years of studying Spanish.  Learning a language that seems to be slowly consuming the entire western hemisphere, I had elected wisely.  I realized that the world was open to me because of Spanish.  I spent a week with a Spaniard remodeling his new restaurant, and was given free use of his taxi service afterwards.  I spent that first Christmas with two natives that became family to me.   Memories that would never have been if I had not spoken the language.  Most importantly, I didn’t have to go to a call center like so many of my friends.  I could go to any Spanish speaking country and I would be welcome.  And I did.  After three more trips to Spain, all around Europe, South America, and beyond, I can’t ever thank those early teachers enough for giving me the keys to open the entire world. 

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Me with my English students at I.E.S. Manuel Reina in the town of Puente Genil in June 2013.

In addition to these keys, the learning of languages gave me something else that is even more important.  It painted a picture where before there had been nothing.  I was no longer a mediocre student with a vague dream, I became that person that was good with language.  My studies of other languages improved my knowledge of my native tongue of English, and enabled me to teach English abroad in multiple countries.  Lately, it gave me the new gift of inspiration for my first novel, something that I had always wanted to do but had heretofore had no cause.

I know that Spain hasn’t finished with me, but that it is something that will follow me into my future, influencing even the smallest of decisions while I yet live.  I will never be the same person as I would have been if I hadn’t pursued foreign languages.  Especially today with all of the violence of the world bred from hate, which comes from fear, which comes from not understanding, the idea of learning another people’s language and consequently about their way of life, could not be more important to the preservation of our world and our species.

How have languages changed your life? What surprising paths did you take because of your language abilities?

Why We Need to Stop Idolizing Polyglots

Posted on 10. Sep, 2014 by in Language Learning

Image by -macjasp on Flickr.com

Image by -macjasp on Flickr.com

Think about the people we idolize—actors, musicians, models, authors, and, for some reason, the Kardashians. (I don’t understand it either, friends.) We put these celebrities up on a pedestal because we are in awe of what they do and perhaps want to be like them. But there’s also an element of idolatry that comes from believing our idols do something we simply cannot. They are achieving the impossible, and we love them for it. So, what happens when we begin to give polyglots this same treatment? When we put them up on a pedestal, are we giving people the impression that they themselves can’t become a polyglot, too?

That’s why I vote we stop looking at polyglots as fascinating, silver-tongued specimens, and start looking to them as our companions on this crazy journey called learning a language. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had a number of polyglots contribute to the Language News blog, and I respect and appreciate each one of them. But polyglots will be the first ones to tell you there’s nothing special about them. In fact, this post was inspired by the well-known polyglot Benny Lewis, who insists that learning a language is not impressive at all. According to Benny,

“Being impressed is a spectator sport. This is not something I care to promote. I’ll be happier when speaking a language is a run of the mill thing, like anything else many people learn such as driving a car that it only ‘impressive’ to those who have never tried.”

I say, preach, Benny, preach! What’s impressive about polyglots isn’t the fact that they have learned numerous languages, but that they’ve put in the time and effort required to do so. Just like any other activity that seems out of reach for us “normal folks”, be it running a marathon or writing a novel, learning a language is actually entirely within reach for everyone willing to put in the effort. There’s no special gene or super power involved, it’s called hard work, which is something we’re all capable of.

This train of thought is particularly relevant for language learning. To a monolingual just beginning their language journey, watching someone seamlessly slip from one language to another may seem like sorcery. But monolinguals are actually in the minority. A recent study (albeit an imperfect one) from Stockholm University estimated that 80% of the world’s population speaks 1.69 languages. In many parts of the world, bilingualism (or beyond) is the norm. In regions in West Africa, for example, switching amongst two or three local dialects is not only commonplace, but necessary for daily life. No magic, just reality.

Polyglots don’t want to be your magical idol, anyway. They want to be your inspiration! Sure, you should look to them for advice and motivation, but you should never have to look up to them. Every polyglot that I’ve met promotes their abilities not to shove in in your face like sucker, but to show you that you can do it, too. It’s time we shift our collective thinking from “I wish I could do that.” to “If they can do it, I can do it.” Ask questions, take their advice, and, well… do it! With some time and persistence, you may just find that you’ve impressed yourself more than any polyglot ever could.

What do you think: are polyglots valid idols? Does polyglot worship make multilingualism seem less achievable? Do you find polyglots inspiring or discouraging?

Romantic Languages: Not Necessarily Romance Languages

Posted on 08. Sep, 2014 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: Fearfully YoursToday I’m going to completely disagree with my own comic.

I made the above strip a while back and thought I could mine some easy chuckles from a common stereotype. But now that I’m older, wiser, and more proficient in all of the above languages, I’ve come change my tune. Not only that, I’m going to crusade on behalf of those languages which I believe have been wrongly maligned by simplistic labels and bad first impressions. Any language can be romantic—not just the so-called romance languages!

Of course, the “romance” in the term “romance language” doesn’t refer to how effective it is in attracting members of the opposite sex; rather, it just means it’s a language rooted in Latin, the language of the Romans (it’s embarrassing how recently it was that I found this out myself). Yet there’s this pervading opinion that French, Italian, and Spanish are the world’s prettiest-sounding languages—apart from my own unscientific questioning of friends and relatives, the Kings of Romance seem to dominate most of the top-10 lists I can find on the web as well. They’re cited as being “melodic,” “flowing,” “cheerful,” and “easy on the ears.”

At the bottom of most lists, grumbling and grouching, are usually German, Russian, and the other Slavic languages. (Strangely, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese tend to vacillate on people’s lists between ugliest and prettiest. Not sure what that’s about.) They’re cursed with being “guttural,” “harsh,” and “like someone is choking on potatoes.”

Now, apart from this being a completely subjective topic, I believe it’s unfair. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most of this is just the influence of popular culture. Paris, Barcelona, Venice: these are routinely cited as our planet’s most romantic cities. Italian and Spanish men are well-known for being aggressive pursuers of love, while the women are widely regarded as fiery and passionate. Thanks in no small part to Pepé Le Pew, the French are stereotyped as smooch-heavy seducers. All this, in my opinion, leads to romance tongues’ reputation for romance.

In fact, while these languages certainly can be romantic, they can just as easily not. French talk radio (like talk radio anywhere) reminds me of someone trying to swallow marbles. The pitter-patter of Italian can quickly become a nagging, fiery rat-tat-tat. And Spanish has so many accents across the world that I’m sure each one occupies a space on someone else’s “ugly” list.

German and Russian, on the other hand, can be mightily sexy. This all depends on what game you’re playing, of course, but there’s something to be said for those commanding tones, don’t you think? And I’m sure if we could find Looney Tunes cartoons in Serbian, Pepé Le Pew would sound just the same.

Any beautiful person with a winning smile and a killer line can seduce you, it doesn’t matter which language they’re speaking. Confidence, assertiveness, charisma, and humor play a much bigger role in attracting the opposite sex than whether your tones are nasal or guttural.

Likewise, if a large, nasty person with a bad attitude and a bone to pick is verbally assaulting you in a so-called “romance” language, you’re not going to place it very high on your list.

Okay, fine, let’s hear it: what do you think are the most and least beautiful languages around? But more interesting, perhaps – have you been seduced by German? Have you been turned off by Italian? Where have you seen the stereotypes inverted?