To finish this series on traveling in Spain – a reflection on language learning. When we first crossed the border into Spain I was hesitant to plunge my head back into Spanish. I have studied Spanish off and on through the years and traveled numerous times in Spanish speaking countries. Having spent these past months in France, however, I was afraid of what that would do to my command of Spanish, and worse, what that would then do to the progress I had made in French. I feared making a complete mess of any Spanish that came out of my mouth, peppering it with French to the point of rendering it completely incomprehensible. My plan was, therefore, to stick to English and save myself for French.
The problem was I understood the test questions and responded accordingly. Test questions are those asked at the beginning of a conversation, often at rapid fire speed, to test your ability in the language. This determines whether they continue the conversation in the local language or switch to English. For example, the server in a restaurant might ask you the equivalent of, “Do you want a drink before you order?” If you don’t understand the question he’ll switch to English. If you want to practice the local language it is extremely important not to hesitate when answering that first question. Better to guess, even if you are off a little. Once you show that you can function in the local language it is OK to ask for clarification or for something to be repeated.
I was surprised that I could respond to the test questions so easily, almost automatically. The months of listening to French seemed to only enhance my ability to understand Spanish. More remarkably my Spanish vocabulary, which I thought was pushed way down inside my brain under a thick layer of French, rose to the surface by the second day or so. Certainly I was rusty, but still quite functional.
This experience has led me to rethink some of the finer points of language learning. When you learn a second language what exactly are you learning? On the surface you are learning grammar, vocabulary and new sounds. However on a deeper level you are learning ways of comprehending written and oral communication that was previously unintelligible. You have to listen more attentively and pick out meaning even when you don’t understand every syllable. You begin to comprehend foreign sounds faster and render them into something comprehensible.
I think we become lazy when listening in our native language. We understand everything so there is no reason to work at it, listening in a second language is a much more intense kind of listening that requires a higher level of concentration. It’s tiring at first but like any form of exercise becomes easier with practice. This more focused manner of listening and oral comprehension is a skill that can be transferred across languages, making that second second language just a little more manageable.