Language learning

Fans, Uruguay Cathedral Museum
Fans, Montevideo Cathedral Museum

I’ve been thinking about learning languages. While the learning is a generic thing I’m mulling over my particular approach and the approach of all the grammarians. I know there are countless theories about learning languages, but I’m not really up to sharing them here.

Let me explain.

I live in a country that is primarily English-speaking and although some Māori words are part of our vocabulary few of us speak the language. (See Macalister (Ed) A dictionary of Māori words in English ).

In the 1960s we ‘all’ learned French at school.

In the 1980s there was a surge of interest in things Māori and like many I learned some basic te reo Māori. So I can now follow along and get the gist of a speech on a marae and exchange one or two greetings. Most importantly, however, is a renewed understanding of the land and terrain in which I live. Close friends have shared their knowledge with me. Working in the museum world and a local polytechnic helped improve my understanding of the culture. It’s been a valuable and emotional experience. I learned through workshops and by attending some lessons. A memorable event in one lesson is when an ‘older’ woman asked “Is that an adjective or an adverb?” or a similar grammar question. The tutor rolled his eyes, sighed and made some passing explanation. The key was we didn’t try to transpose English ideas of grammar onto te reo. I can still do the basics relatively easily but wouldn’t attempt an in-depth discussions about politics.

Prior to this I lived in Greece where as one of about 4 English speakers (but the only non-Greek) in a small town I needed to learn the language really fast. The words and phrases I used daily still spring to mind even when I’m in Spanish-speaking worlds. I’d describe my Greek as “communicable but poor grammar; lack of depth and slow reading ability”. I did learn about the recent history of Greece including the junta, and learned to love the music of Theodorakis and the writing of Kazantzakis and Seferis.

Amongst all this are smatterings of greetings in other languages. Enough to be friendly.

And now Spanish. I first learned some travellers’ Spanish. Enough to order food and ask where I was. People recognise my limitations. Last trip I had a few more words and some tenses. People thought I could speak more and shared their thoughts on politics, class systems and art. Ok…….The interesting things is that French began popping up. My Spanish teacher told me that the Spanish lesson had done wonders for my French ability. Romance languages and many similar words, slight changes in pronunciation to effect the Spanish are the key. But the dilemma for me is more about grammar. I have been taught but not necessarily learned, a heap of grammar. So much so that mid sentence in Buenos Aires I stop to wonder in English if I need a subjunctive in that sentence. I’m asked to speak in English. People murmured an inquisitive “Que?” at my pronunciation as I heard my NZ vowels slide and my English phrasing miss word emphasis. I need to learn grammar, and clearly all those French lessons at school were about grammar (Latin of course also comes into play). After some immersion in Buenos Aires I felt defeated slightly and reverted to English when I could. The taxi drivers were fine (apart from the all important pronunciation of street names) but………

The exciting thing, however about learning some Spanish, is that a whole new world has opened up to me. One of which I had only passing knowledge through writers (mostly fiction) and an understanding about colonisation. I’m realising that the colonisation of Latin America was far more brutal than that of New Zealand where the British, arriving later and bringing Protestantism had an arguably more benign influence than the Spanish in Latin America. And yes, I do know about the wars, the loss of land and culture.

I wish my learning and knowledge didn’t feel so superficial.


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