PEPINO! Learning a foreign language will do nasty things to your brain

It will make you believe you are saying one thing, but are actually saying another. It will force you to realise just how little you know about your native language. It will drive your dream brain when you are asleep, and jolt you awake because you’ll be shouting out random vegetables using foreign words.

learning-spanish

A lovely pepino… Photo by Jim

PEPINO, CALABACIN, COLIFLOR.

It’s happened to me.

In short, it will mess your head up, but I’d still recommend the challenge.

There are many reasons to put yourself through this painful learning process. If you hadn’t guessed from my blog already, I speak Spanish. My abilities are a total mix though. My listening is probably C1, speaking B2, reading B2, and writing an A1, because all I do with regards to writing is scribble down shopping lists, and send the occasional sweet poem on What’sApp.

When I was doing a CELTA qualification, way back 13 years ago, I had a chat with a bloke who was going to live in Ecuador. It went like this.

“So why have you chosen Ecuador?” I asked.

“To learn Spanish.”

“Why don’t you just go to Spain?”

“I don’t know, I like turtles and I think I’ll have fun chatting with them on the Galapagos Islands.”

“I guess you will.”

“I’m going for five years, you know.”

“I do now. Why’s that?”

“Because that’s how long it will take to really master the language.”

“It will if all you’re going to be doing is chatting with turtles.”

I thought he was insane, but now I know he was right. Now and then I wonder if he’s still there, speaking to turtles, and if he’s got a C1 level now.

So, why should you learn a foreign language? Well, if you’re thinking of becoming an ESL teacher, or Expat, and you really want to enjoy your experience living abroad, then here’s exactly why you should make the effort, because there are plenty of people who don’t.

Defend yourself

If I hadn’t learnt Spanish and Portuguese while I lived in South America, I may have lost one of my major limbs. I was almost mugged twice in Quito, but managed to blag my way out of it. It was thanks to my dreadful Spanish that I could tell the incompetent fools trying to rob me that I had nothing. “No tengo nada,” was the phrase of the month.

The same happened in Brazil where I would often face abuse from local lads trying to get cash from me. I’d normally be able to mutter that I had no money on me, which I normally didn’t anyway at that point after living in fear after getting robbed in Rio de Janeiro.

In Seville I’ve been lucky to have only one ‘dramatic’ accident. I was able to defend myself against an old guy who was having a go at me for riding my bike on the pavement. By that point in my Spanish learning life, I managed to turn round the angry geezer into a rather friendly chap after apologising and explain there was just nowhere else to ride, and that to be fair I was only going at 5kph. I rode off and watched him for a bit, but our chat didn’t stop him shouting abuse at other bike riders.

Not be forced to eat dodgy food

When I was in Mexico City I was forced to eat hotdogs. Let me rephrase that. It wasn’t that one of those Aztec dudes was literally shoving hotdogs down my throat, but that I was too scared, shy, and wimpy, to grow some balls and go into a restaurant and actually order a decent meal. So, instead of being a man and learning the language properly, I just ate hotdogs for a week, because all I had to do was point, hold up two fingers, and hand over some cash.

I’d tried to learn how to order food in a restaurant, believe me I had. I rehearsed with myself during the day, but bottled it at night, even after a couple of beers. I’d just end up pointing to the menu and muttering something.

One night, I thought I’d ordered fajitas, but they turned out to be these horrible tasteless pancake things with a weird runny green sauce. Turns out the only places you can get decent fajitas in Mexico, was actually down the coast from Cancun.

This was at the start of my language career, but it took a while to grasp the concept of ordering food in another language, which was probably why I lost weight so quickly while I was travelling.

Learn jokes in other languages

When I started learning Spanish one of my aims was to be able to be funny in that language (because I’m not funny in my own one). The only jokes in Spanish I can really understand are the ones that my seven year old students tell me, and even then it’s after the 3rd attempt.

I’m not actually that bad, at least not anymore. Being able to get the humour, and jokes of my Spanish students and also friends and family here is a great feeling. I can say a few jokes and use cultural topics to make students and colleagues laugh.

My students love it when I imitate the accents of local people, like when you put on a Cornish or Geordie accent, just to have a bit of banter. It’s only a bit of fun.

I’ve tried to watch stand-up comedy on Spanish TV, but I’m still a way off that level yet, something to work on.

Know where you stand

When you first get to a new country, you know nothing, apart from what you’ve read in the lonely planet guide about the history or monuments, but who really gives a crap about the monuments? I hate it when people say they like a city because of the monuments. It does my head in.

Anyway, living abroad and knowing the language allows you to know your place in society. It enables you to spot the dangerous characters, steer clear of posh gits being abusive, or make your language more formal if speaking with a member of the royal family. Did I tell you I spoke to Prince Charles here once? That was in English though.

I still don’t speak much in public if I can avoid it, as I know I’ll be judged by my accent. I’m tired of being told “oh, you’re not from round here are you?” I’ve got quite a decent level, but I think I’ve hit a plateau and would like to improve more.

Saying that, it was only tonight that my wife told me my son’s teacher thought I was Spanish, and I’ve actually had conversations with her, no one has ever said that after speaking with me for more than five seconds before.

It’s definitely worth putting yourself through embarrassing moments, forcing your brain to adjust to different ways of thinking, and having to memorize useless vegetables vocabulary.

What do you think? Has it been worth the agony for you? How has learning another language changed your life?

In my next blog I’ll be covering tips on the best ways to learn another language. Until then.

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