‘So, you are going to Spain for the year?’ people asked when they heard about my career break.
‘Do you speak Spanish?’
‘Not mucho. I’m trying to learn at the moment.’
‘Ah sure, you’ll pick it up out there,’ they said, like learning a language was as easy as picking up a tin of beans in Tesco. I’ve been to Spain a few times and come home with – a Barcelona jersey, sunburn, a hat, a fridge magnet, stories; but Spanish? Not mucho. Yes the Spaniards were filling the air with their rapid fire dialogue but it was just background noise and after a while you could tune it out.
Despite what people said I knew learning Spanish was gonna take time, effort and concentration. However, with work and a part time course on the go, I lacked the first ingredient; time. I looked forward to the summer holidays when I could really get stuck into the language. I’d attend classes, listen to CDs, devour textbooks. Soon, long monologues in Spanish would issue from my mouth.
When the summer finally came about and the days opened up, I discovered that there was another factor preventing me from becoming a fluent Spanish speaker; being a lazy bastard.
Learning a language seemed so daunting a task. Wouldn’t it be easier to not start at all? Why don’t I just pick it up out there? – like everybody told me I could. No, success in Spain (wait, that’s too hard to define) –getting by in Spain would mean learning the language. So, I eased my way into it.
I decided I was gonna learn through song. Why not? I am more of an auditory than visual or kinaesthetic learner and music appealed to me a lot more than the pile of text books on my desk.
Devandra Banhardt, unknowingly, became my teacher. He was born in Texas, raised in Venezuela and sings in both English and Spanish.
Perhaps that wasn’t the best place to start for some honest, down to earth, man on the street Spanish. Devandra seems like the kind of guy who lives up a tree and dabbles in sorcery. Sample lyrics from his track Little Yellow Spider include;
‘And hey there little sexy pig
You made it with a man
And you’ve got a little kid with hooves instead of hands.’
But then youtube offered up a song that tickled the ear and delighted the eye – Brindo. After repeated listens the Spanish lyrics slipped into my head as if they’d been there as long as the prayers I learned as a kid. I was worried that what seemed to me like the most tender love song would turn out to be an ode to sexy pigs but, upon translation, these fears were nullified.
Brindo este amor un amor tan raro/Brindo este amor un amor tan claro.
Cheers to this love a love so rare/Cheers to this love a love so clear
Repeated listens were easy because in the video a gorgeous beauty is lounging around Devandra’s house (the rainbow house) in her white underwear. I learned new words. I learned a song. I was learning Spanish!
But, in fairness, getting by on pop music alone wouldn’t work. Imagine a Spanish person doing the same with English.
‘Well Pedro- where are you? You are late for soccer.’
‘Hello. I am slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball.’
‘Pedro. I have no idea what that means.’
‘Okay yes. In which direcíon I go after the wonder wall?’
I was looking for other doors to the palace of Spanish. My housemate told me to try the duolingo website. I signed up, for free, and began progressing through the levels. You listen, you type, you get points for every level you complete. With those points you can pay for bonus lessons like ‘Flirting’ – ‘No estoy barracho, solo intoxicado por ti’/ ‘I am not drunk only intoxicated by you.’ It breaks down the language into small, manageable lessons which aren’t very time consuming. The lessons are divided into categories like food, clothes, animals. It gives you the vocabulary; manzana (apple) Yo como ( I eat) and before you know it you gotta sentence; Yo como una manzana/I eat an apple.
I was learning Spanish but I wasn’t sure I would succeed in the thick of it. So say I meet a girl in a bar;
Brindo este amor un amor tan raro.
Cual? Tu estás barracho.
No estoy barracho solo intoxicado por ti.
What you want? My boyfriend is there.
Yo como una manzana.
Obviously I would have an apple with me, so as not to come across like a complete weirdo.
I got talking to a Spanish teacher. He gave me eight Michel Thomas CDs. Michel Thomas is a polyglot linguist and Nazi concentration camp survivor. His name had come up in conversations with other friends learning languages. ‘All you gotta do is listen.’ I put on the CD. Michel sounded like a learned middle aged man.
‘You do not have to write anything. You do not have to learn by rote. You do not have to revise. You do not have to revise mentally. You have to be relaxed…’
Michel – you are speaking my language.