the nothing whatever...

Aprendiendo Espanol Parte Uno

Before I begin this post, let me just clarify the tangent I am taking.

According to my previous post, this post was meant to be about the route I took to get to Puerto Escondido, which took me through Indonesia and, thanks to a delicious bacteria infested red fish curry, back home, to Australia, which is kind of surreal when I think about it now. The fact that I haven’t written about any of this yet can really only be attributed to laziness, but I also have the excuse that my computer is on its last legs with the battery only lasting an hour or so, forcing me to have it constantly plugged in. This is bitterly disappointing as it means that, if I am to continue writing, I am confined to choosing locations that will have an available outlet, which are few and far between. Besides, I don’t really feel like spending my time within my small, cramped room in front of a computer screen, as that is exactly what this trip is meant to be escaping.

To add to this, I have been intent on teaching myself Spanish using a smattering of free online resources, and that is taking up a large chunk of my time. One thing that I am progressively discovering is that travel is just as much about people as it is about locations and events, if not more. It is the people who give everything its meaning. And, by not being able to effectively socialize with the citizens and travelers of Latin-America who cannot speak English, I am restricting the amount of bonds I can make, the amount of ideas I can exchange, and the amount of perspectives I can understand. It also would be a good career move, opening up a plethora of jobs that would otherwise be unattainable in locations that would otherwise be unlivable. Plus, being bilingual would be pretty fucking cool.

So one day when I was lying in my hammock doing some serious relaxation, flicking through my Spanish flip-cards in my phone and feeling a slight pang of guilt when remembering that my blog hadn’t been updated in about a month and a half, I came up with the idea of blogging about what it is like to learn a new language. It is a desire for a lot of people, and even now, in the early stages, I am finding it so amazingly interesting what it is doing to my brain. I have previously had a look online for something similar to what I am going to do in this space, someone blogging about their progress in learning a language, looking for a yardstick on which to measure my own progress. I came up short, so perhaps this is a fairly niche topic. My own little area of the internet.

So, let’s begin at the beginning.

The first thing I assumed was that I was going to somehow learn Spanish by being around Spanish. This is only partly true, as you need to communicate on a basic level to get something remotely close to what you are after, be it a cheap taxi ride, a coffee with milk, or a private bed, and these things can be learnt by repeatedly encountering the same problem. Call it laziness, call it naivety, call it a misconception of how the brain operates, but I didn’t want to believe that such clinical repetition could be effective. I, on the other hand, decided to take a few Spanish lessons with a private tutor while I was in Vancouver, about three 2-hour blocks, just so that I could nail these basics. My intention was that I was only going to learn how to get through the Mexican border and to a hostel “cerca la playa” (near the beach), and from there I would gradually, somehow, become fluent in Spanish like I would become brown from the sun.

After two months in Mexico I still had virtually no grasp of the fundamental syntax of the Spanish dialect. Sure, I knew how to ask for a coffee with milk (quiero un café con leche por favor), I knew how to tell a cabbie that his price was very expensive and I needed it to be cheaper (muy caro, necesito más barato), and I knew how to ask for a private room (quiero una habitación privada, por favor), but what was glaringly obvious to me was that as soon as conversation drifted ever so slightly from the well-maintained road that I was trying to etch out, I was floundering, and, worse still for me, they were floundering. It became obvious early on, the moment somebody asked me if I wanted a bag for my bottle of water.

“Que?” (what?)

“Una bolsa, para su agua?” (a bag, for your water?)

What ensued was an awkward laugh and lots of looking around for help, as though we were two entirely separate species forced together by powers and motives neither of us necessarily agreed with, but had to reluctantly put up with. I hated that feeling the first time I felt it then, and I have hated it the subsequent hundred times I have felt it since. It is alienating for both parties, it is dehumanising for both parties, and when I experience that void in understanding, that free fall into the abyss of misinterpretation, I have no way of knowing where I stand in the eyes of the other person, and that makes me feel ill at ease. But, even still, that wasn’t what convinced me to dive head first into this endeavour to become fluent.

What inspired me to learn were some of the people I was hanging out with, a French couple who Pete and I originally met in San Blas that happened to be working in a hostel in La Punta, the opposite end of Zicatela. They spoke Spanish and English fluently, along with their own native tongue, and were able to converse intelligently with people of virtually every race, color and creed. They would fist bump the locals, exchange details with Argentineans, laugh hysterically with the Australians, and tell secrets in French. Jokes were like butterflies fluttering about over my head, so close but just out of reach. And then, when they would translate it to me like the patient people they are, the joke would be replaced by the sound of one man laughing. The butterflies were already dead.

So one day, when the surf was flat, I decided I had had enough of the dead butterflies. I loaded up my phone with repetition based language learning apps like Memrise and Duolinguo and Ankidroid and Google Translate, I added Michel Thomas to my iPod, and I spent about 4 to 5 hours a day in the hammock listening, learning, testing, adding words to my vocabulary, testing syntax using Google Translate, flicking through flip card after flip card after flip card. I borrowed an exercise book from another Australian, a 21 year old girl who was also learning Spanish and was learning it at the speed that a 21 year old learns...fucking quick. I wanted to see my own progress, to somehow be able to tell that things were getting better, and I thought that by steepening the learning curve I would then be able to compare the before and the after more easily.

The first thing I was determined to learn were the “connectors”, the words that are in between the words. From the outside looking in, spoken Spanish doesn’t bear any semblance to English. Yes, when the words are printed out on paper or when they are spoken in isolation, you can tell that both languages are derived from Latin, and that there are a significant amount of overlaps. But as a native English speaker listening to Spanish being spoken colloquially, it is just too fast to comprehend. Sentences, paragraphs even, all sound like one word spoken without breath, and I would sit and wait for the dreaded ending, hoping to god that it didn’t have the subtle upward inflection that would render it a question. To learn it, I was approaching it like a jigsaw puzzle. At the very beginning (unless you look at the box) you know absolutely nothing about the entire puzzle. It has zero meaning. It’s just a jumbled, confused mess vomited out before you. But, what you do know is that the straight pieces must go on the edges, and must surround the things that give the puzzle meaning. I began to learn the “of”, “what”, “some”, “when”, “like”, “how”, “although”, “even if”, “because” and the “however”. All the straight pieces.

And, after only about three or fours days, I was noticing some things happening to my brain. Strange things I had never experienced before. Fundamental things in the core, in the very kernel, that were being played with. It felt like I had wound the clock back on my vocabulary and my grammar, and, to be honest, it was quite disconcerting. I mean, I have been an English speaker nearly all my life, the very basis of all my communicative thought is in English, so it would stand to reason that the English language is embedded very deeply within my subconscious. I began to wonder what the actual effects were of learning a new language, and whether, by trying too hard to learn Spanish, I could accidentally adversely affect, or even erase, the English.

So I did what everybody does when they think they have something wrong with them. I Googled the symptoms.

And what I found was both good and bad; good because I wasn’t imagining things, and bad because my suspicions were true. My subconscious is being tinkered with, and apparently it is being tinkered with heavily.

According to a paper entitled “Representation of colour concepts in bilingual cognition: The case of Japanese blues”, by learning a new language “you're also unconsciously learning a whole new way of seeing the world”. In order to prove this, they conducted an experiment using Japanese and English speakers, along with the colour blue. The words for dark blue and light blue belong to two different linguistic groups in the Japanese dialect, that is, the two colours are not described as just light and dark versions of each other. The Japanese word for dark blue is “ao”, for light blue it’s “mizuiro”. Obviously, in English, we describe both colours as “blue”.

As a result of this differing interpretation of where to slice the colour wheel, they found those who spoke only Japanese determined that the colours, not the words, but the actual colours of light blue and dark blue themselves were less similar to each other than those who spoke English. And this doesn’t just apply to people who are fluent in both languages. According to the paper, the more you speak a foreign language, the more your perspective changes to match those who also speak the language, the two blues imperceptibly distancing themselves from one another until they are as similar to blue as they are to green and to purple.

Without going too deep into the similarities or differences between other words and their affect on how we interpret the world around us, to me it seems the possible ramifications of simply seeing the colour blue differently - on art, on dress, on the perception of beauty - are incredible. And when you think that the leaders of differing countries often require translators to make decisions that will affect a significant portion of the world’s population, the fact that two leaders may be existing in entirely different worlds could possibly explain some of the conflicts we see today. And the fact that the bridge between these worlds may be language is what makes my endeavour all the more interesting.

Even though my question hadn’t really been answered, reading this only stoked the fires of my passion to be a polyglot. I kept at it, sometimes isolating myself for five hours a day and simultaneously listening, reading and writing Spanish to simulate the sensory overload you feel when somebody is speaking in your direction at five hundred miles an hour. And after another few days, slowly but noticeably, to my relief and intrigue, I was feeling my brain restructuring itself away from language entirely. Sure, I still had the vocab of a five year old and the grammar of Lil’ Jon, but instead of thinking in English, I could feel myself thinking of dialogue in blocks that were compatible with both, or not even as words, but as metaphysical concepts.

Interestingly, being a developer, I can understand, or more likely hypothesize, why this might be the case. When creating a maintainable, expandable and robust web application, the idea is to abstract away the complexity, to readjust the architecture so it not only solves the problem at hand, but also solves the same problem easily in the future. And after all, our brains are nothing more than biological supercomputers. It’s kind of a scary feeling, this readjustment in your native thinking patterns, the feeling of your subconscious desperately trying to create reason in the fact that an onion no longer just equals “onion”, it also equals “cebolla”. So, what it seems to be doing is abstracting away the complexity, adding an additional layer that is used entirely for referencing, a layer where an onion is not called an “onion”, nor is it called a “cebolla”. It is something that exists independently of the name it is given.

By abstracting away the complexity and by separating the object from its name, this not only solves the problem of an entity having two names, it also solves the problem of it having three, four, or five names, as it becomes a case of just adding another dictionary to the bookshelf. And with that in mind, I hoped it also might mean that any additional languages would be easier and faster to learn, my mind having already established an architecture that is extensible enough to be able to accommodate new dictionaries. This thought spiked my interest enough to conduct a bit of research. There was an experiment in Israel using 6th grade children who were all attempting to learn English. They were separated into two groups - those who spoke Russian as their native tongue as well as Hebrew, and those who only spoke Hebrew. They were then tested on their ability to pick up English as a third or second language respectively. The results?

“After comparing and merging the results of these tests, the researchers were able to conclude that those students whose mother tongue was Russian demonstrated higher proficiency not only in the new language, English, but also in Hebrew.”

Additionally, the study suggests that by learning a multitude of languages and re-architecting your brain, the languages actually don’t compete with each other, rather they compliment, refine and assist one another -

"Gaining command of a number of languages improves proficiency in native languages," Prof. Abu-Rabia explained. "This is because languages reinforce one another, and provide tools to strengthen phonologic, morphologic and syntactic skills.”

My findings were more promising than I could have imagined. Ironically, by learning Spanish, I might finally be able to become reasonably adept at English. Grandma will be ecstatic...or maybe not. She seems to enjoy correcting me all the time.

When hanging with the Frenchies I had often been involved in conversations where they would begin in English, then someone would respond to a question in Spanish, be it deliberately or accidentally, and it was like a school of fish or a flock of birds changing direction, a supernatural connection, everybody simultaneously twiddling the dial in their heads and tuning in to Spanish. The follow-up question would fire straight after, but would be in Spanish, and then so would the response, and before I know it I am watching this conversation tumble away from me like a barrel down a hill. And finally, when the conversation would end, I had the strong feeling they thought I had understood, as though they didn’t even realize they had twiddled the dial.

The thing that baffled me most about it was the smoothness at which they were able to switch syntax. They were able to fix that problem in microseconds, leap across a gap that, for me, seems to be the size of the grand canyon.

But what I have found is that, when learning a new language, it isn’t just one side of the grand canyon that is moving.

And, suddenly, after about a week of intense, grueling, soul-crushing study (in my hammock by the beach), it began sounding like this...

“...and then after de que él bebía su beer la night anterior, se deslizó una y fue tan divertido..”

...not enough to really give the puzzle the full meaning, but still able to give it some kind of context. The “and then after” indicates that they are probably telling a story. “Beer” probably means it is a fairly recent story. “Night” tells me it is happening in the night, and it can’t be tonight because, if they are telling a story, it is in the past. And I know that last night, one of the guys slipped over and spilled his beer all over himself, so I know they are probably recounting that story.

But the amazing thing about it, the thing that I didn’t expect when looking at the daunting, verbose, enveloping task of becoming a fluent speaker of a new language was not that I could finally distinguish some kind of sentence structure in the puzzle vomited out before me. It was that I could feel the lightening pace at which these conclusions were being reached and these assumptions were being made. I could feel the majesty of my own cognitive biology, the mind being so good at searching for causality and for pattern that it can find it even when it isn’t there.

Before I started, I was probably of the same mindset as a lot of you reading this. I hadn’t backed myself in because I thought that it was going to be an uphill battle for my brain. But I was wrong.

The search for meaning is all downhill.