Friday, 10 February 2017

Me and the 7 Me's

If you're reading this you have almost definitely learnt a language at least once.

As an English speaker, who has spent most of my life thinking I could leave the language learning to everyone else, I had forgotten all of the trials that come with it. The frustrations of not being understood and the tiredness that comes from struggling to understand. 

However, if you've ever been an adult trying to learn a new language, then you can probably sympathise with the toddler that points to the plate and shouts "SPOON!" only to be laughed at.

In my late twenties I started learning Spanish and I discovered that a child learning to speak and an adult learning a new language have a lot in common. Both mimic and imitate those around them, neither is capable of saying anything particularly interesting and yet both of them are probably much smarter than the contorted sounds they make imply.

Yet, there is one issue I find myself facing as an adult, which I didn't have as a child. The pain of having already done this once.

I didn't notice it until I no longer had it but I've been living in a very warm and cosy comfort zone in my first language. In English I'm not just speaking and saying words, I'm effortlessly communicating who I am. I use hundreds of little nuances to express my personality. It's fun, I like it and unfortunately the thought of collecting these nuances all over again sounds like a real pain. 

But I didn't get to choose these nuances the first time round, this process was entirely subconscious. 

What I say and the way I say it is mostly the result of a combination of habits that I've learned from my surroundings.

So, although I no longer have all these quirks to hand, I've actually been given a unique opportunity. An opportunity to do away with these pointless old habits of the past. Things like repeating what someone has just said to me back to them, simply to prove I've been listening. 

This time round, I can consciously decide how I wish to present myself in this second language, which habits and nuances to adopt. 

In turn this selection process might allow me to form a whole new personality!

So move over Andrew Hammond, English speaker,

 and enter Andrés Jamón! Spanish speaker! He's confident, he's tanned and he has amazing hair!

Or at least, that's what I'd like to believe. The truth is probably much less flattering.

I've spent some time considering how people may perceive me in Spain and I've narrowed it down to seven characters. Seven new versions of myself that have been brought to life by being surrounded by people I don't fully understand yet. 

Which of these people am I glad to become and which will be tossed to the side?  

Allow me to introduce you to the 7 new me's:

STUTTERY - In English I consider myself to be quite confident. This same confidence, however, quickly gets me in trouble in Spanish when I leap into a sentence completely ignoring the fact that I have no idea how to say what it is I want to say. 

I suddenly feel the pressure of having called for everyone's attention only to make them wait while I struggle to speak. The confident man is gone and in his place is a confused and frightened little chap who realises that he has nothing worthwhile to say, but does appear to garner some sympathy.
SMALL TALKY - In English I generally try to avoid small talk. I will either aim to steer the conversation down a direction that I find more interesting or I will look for a quick getaway. 

Yet I've discovered that in Spanish, without the vocabulary or nous to do anything else, small talk is my wheel house! I don't perform well in groups so in a party setting I will trap you in a one and one conversation about what I had for breakfast or where the library is.
BRUSQUEY - Being an awkward Englishman who is at times slightly afraid of his own opinion I tend to use way too many words to express myself. It will take me a long time to say what I mean and when I finally arrive at what I want to say I will balance the point I've made with a counterpoint showing I understand both sides. 

In Spanish this is not possible. Things are either good or bad, funny or sad, I like them or don't like them. There's no nuanced middle ground and no explanation.
QUIETY - I will usually talk to fill awkward silences. If a group of friends get together that don't know each other I will manage the situation by speaking loudly to everyone at once and trying to find some common ground. If that doesn't work I will just keep talking. 

However, in Spanish, awkward silences are a friend to me. They mean I am not panicking, fumbling with verbs and conjugations or trying to guess if the right response to a question is "si", "no" or "Miercoles". If I'm sitting in silence, please don't spoil it by trying to get me to talk.

SMILY -  When I'm sitting in silence and unable to contribute, it appears a smile is able to do the job I used to use 1001 words for in the past. In order to make people feel comfortable with me and to go away thinking that I'm a nice person, it turns out it's much easier if I keep my mouth shut. 

Meeting some Spanish relatives of my girlfriend the first few times was tricky. I was only able to say a couple of words so all I did was smile and with that they went away saying what a nice guy I was. If only they knew... maybe I should rethink this whole learning Spanish thing altogether so that they never will.

HONESTY - Much like Brusquey but with a more vulnerable edge. I'm now at a point where I'm trying to make friends in Spanish. I've run out of small talk and I've found that, seeing as I'm not able to be funny or interesting, I better at least be honest. 

It's made me realise that when trying to make new friends in English I might use a whole host of techniques, when in actual fact all you want is to make a connection; to understand and to be understood.

LISTENY - A combination of all of the above and probably the most useful thing I've learned. Since being a part of many, many, many conversations that I've not had the capacity to contribute to I've learned that what I was trying to contribute doesn't really even matter.

If I'm just sitting there waiting to be able to make my next point I will be waiting a very, very long time and completely miss the rest of the conversation, which will have completely changed subject by the time I'm able to interject with my slow and bumbling point that no one cares about. 

It's better that I just sit and listen. It's amazing how little I'm missed.

It's clear to me now that in English I feel some responsibility to talk more than I need to. So what is my conclusion from learning a new language? Talk less.

Around 95% of the things I want to say while sitting quietly during a conversation in Spanish are said by someone else anyway. So why bother? I've decided to stop trying to force every useless, inane thought I have into the conversation. Instead it's better to save them all up and write them down in a blog.