Monday 22 July 2013

Learning about learning Spanish

I'm back. And my feet are itchier than ever. That's the problem... One would thing that by scratching an itch (going to Argentina to learn Spanish) that the itch would be scratched. But no. It is worse than ever on my return and I've spent my awake-at-4am-with-jetlag mornings working on all kinds of schemes to get myself back there. My next aim is to pick up a six-month writing job in Argentina to really get this language sorted!

I bet your question is, "Can you speak Spanish?".

My answer. Yes - and no.

One-on-one, I'm doing ok. I had a good conversation with the guy sitting next to me on the plane - he couldn't believe I only had four weeks of Spanish. That made me feel really good. The rest of the time I feel totally inadequate. When listening in to conversations I'm not getting the whole conversation but definitely understanding more words and starting to get context. I can recognise the words and the tense of the verbs, which is good progress. But, if someone just starts to speak to me, catching me unaware, then I'm a bit clueless and I have to stop them, focus and then continue slower.

My experience at the Spanish school in Bariloche wasn't good and I wouldn't recommend this school, La Montana, to anyone! While I totally understand the concept of being spoken to in Spanish, the classes lacked structure and material.

In my first week, I had a language meltdown by the third day. Extreme disappointment after only two days! I was in a class with an American lass (similar level to me) and an Italian lass (higher level than us) and it wasn't a good mix because the Italian lass would chat away to the teacher and understand everything going on and we'd be sitting there with teeth in our mouths... Fortunately after this third day the Italian lass was moved to her own class. She was lovely but it was difficult for us having her there and way too slow for her being with us.

For my second week I was changed to one-on-one two hour sessions - with the same teacher - after the American lass returned home (her grandfather died). My teacher was sweet and what I liked about her was that we played interactive games, which I enjoyed for the practical opportunities. I think I made a little progress.

The third week was the worst. I got a new teacher and two classmates - an Australian woman (similar level) and a young Brazilian guy (better than us - had been doing Spanish in school for three years). I was back on to the four-hour group sessions. This teacher spoke non-stop, completely bombarding us with Spanish - full speed too. If we asked a question, we got 10 minutes of explanation - in Spanish - in words we didn't understand. It was just too much. Speaking more doesn't make people understand any better. The whole point of these classes is that we speak too and on some of these days I'm sure she spoke for three of the four hours (with 30 minutes break for tea). I felt like a bucket of cement had been dumped on my head.

And, even worse was that we were doing the same material that I did the previous week - only where I had it quite nice and clear in my head she totally messed it up for me. I pretty much shutdown. My mind just couldn't cope with the bombardment - and ever growing disappointment.

On the third afternoon I went skiing with Ella (the Australian woman) and I asked her what she thought, as she has done lessons in various South American countries (she travels to Sa.Am. every year). She said she'd never quite encountered this before and wasn't enjoying it either. She wasn't planning to go to the next two days (she ended up coming the next day - weather wasn't great - but not the 5th day). She said that she thought I was looking quite 'fragile' in class that day.

I spoke to the main woman from the school, Veronica, on this morning (after only two days with the new teacher) and asked to be moved - but it wasn't an option as there were about 30 Americans at the school on this week so all the classrooms and teachers were assigned and committed. I'd only get to change the next week. I have next to no notes for this third week - very little from the teacher and even less written down.

For my final week I'd requested the teacher who took us for an additional grammar class in the first week and I was back to one-on-one two hour classes. On the Monday morning I was in a state - before class had even begun - and I told her that I wasn't interested in learning anything new and that all I wanted was to talk and to practice and to construct sentences... So, we did this.

I'd read a newspaper article for homework and we'd talk about it the next day and we'd talk about all kinds of things. By the end of this last week I was feeling far more confident and was actually starting to speak. The American lass returned and was in my class on the final day and what was nice about this, for me, is that I could gauge my improvement.

I had a sit-down with Veronica to tell her how I'd really not liked the lessons. Considering that I booked in December to spend four weeks with them, I expected more progressive structure to the lessons. We didn't even go over basics in the first lesson to see where we were in terms of understanding...

A better approach may have been to focus on present tense in the first week - verbs, sentences, speaking, games, conjugations, vocabulary... I haven't got a single sheet of verbs or vocabulary lists from the school! Criminal!

Then, to focus on perfect past tense in the second week, imperfect past in the third and future in the fourth. All with vocab lists, drills, interactive games... I'm never going to command the entire Spanish language in four weeks but at least each aspect could be cemented instead of all of this - plus other aspects - in nine classes.

At the airport I had a good chat to another Australian lass who was at the school in my final week, but not in my class. Her perspective on the school was just like mine! She had done two weeks of Spanish in Costa Rica a few weeks before and said their learning material was superb and that classes were well structured.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing... but at least I now know what I expect from classes and I can request it. I had no idea beforehand.

I have already been to see my old beginner-Spanish teacher, Slade, about continuing classes. He has a teacher returning to SA in mid-August that he'll put me in contact with to keep up lessons every week or two. In the interim, I'm continuing to work on learning new words, reading articles in Spanish (great for new vocab) and working through songs by my new favourite group, 'No te va gustar' (I bought two of their CDs!).

This trip was a big thing for me - something I'd wanted to do for seven years. As a freelancer, I don't have paid leave and while I did a little work remotely in the first couple of days, I specifically planned not to work on this trip. And a good thing too as I found it difficult to be focused on learning Spanish, speaking to non-native English speakers all the time in slower and more simple English and then trying to write professionally in properly structured English.

I was also exhausted by bed time from spending the whole day 'living' in another language.

And, of course, there was the whole expectation of finally taking this journey.

Bariloche is divine and I loved being in this town. Hostel Achalay was very much a home-from-home and I got in a lot of running. I've love to return in summer to hit those hiking trails through the mountains. I also thoroughly enjoyed Buenos Aires and it felt very, very different from the city I visited 10 years ago. While the city has very definitely changed, it is probably me who has changed more.

I enjoyed meeting so many people over my five weeks in Argentina and made a number of friends that I look forward to seeing again in years to come.

All in all a good experience and I hope that I'll be back in Argentina in the very, very near future. If any of you have contacts in Argentina that may require the services of an English-language writer for a couple of months (and yes, I'm looking into TEFL courses too), please drop me a note.

Don't cry for me Argentina - I'll be back.

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