On love, loss and language-learning

Oaxaca Weeks 7-8.

On love and loss

My seventh week in Oaxaca was characterised by the loss of a relationship with someone I love. It's the first time since creating my user manual and articulating the specific behaviours which - based on previous experience - are deal-breakers for me personally that I've actually had to face the loss of a person I love as a consequence of maintaining these boundaries.

I daresay in the fullness of time I'll know I did what I had to do, but for the moment I'm mostly just feeling exceedingly sad. As always I'm grateful for my people, for helping me trust myself in the face of someone else's story.

Something else that happened in week seven was I dragged myself out to the annual village party of one of my teachers. It was very sweet of her to invite me but the party was a good deal bigger than I expected, I arrived foolishly late in the evening, couldn't actually see my teacher, and frankly wanted the earth to swallow me up. So I listened to the band for half an hour while trying not to be noticed and then left with my tail between my legs, which unfortunately caught the attention of the local stray dogs one of whom bit my calf while I wobbled away through all the puddles.

On language learning

This week - my eighth in Oaxaca - was about trying to push on, and specifically trying to muster sufficient mental clarity to decide how to 'do' weeks 9-12 of my Spanish-learning journey.

Weeks 5-8 were arguably even more frustrating than weeks 1-4, for four reasons:

  • I specifically moved to a more orthodox language school in order to experience the energy (and other benefits) of group classes. Not a single other student at my level materialised until the final three days of the month, in spite of repeated assurances that the promised classmates would be along at any moment.
  • Once again no-one took the time to engage with me about my short- or long-term aims, or to give me any kind of framework for my 60 hours of classes at the school. Perhaps some folks are happy to turn up each day and follow the whims of a poorly coordinated teaching team, but that doesn't work for me.
  • In my grammar classes I was fed far too much, far too fast. No sooner had I finished copying all the rules for the complicated 'subjunctive mood' off the whiteboard, we moved on to passive sentence constructions and complex conditional forms. These last two are absolutely not priorities for someone at my current level of second-language production (beginner!).
  • In my conversation classes I was fed far too little, far too slowly. Our conversations were often enjoyable up to a point, but ill-prepared and aimless, with very little input and often no sense of the linguistic rationale for reading the lyrics of the Oaxaca state anthem or whatever it was.

Perhaps to compensate me for the classmates that never materialised the school did find me a nice 'intercambio' (language exchange person), which I'm glad about. I need to do a bit more research about how to make the most of that opportunity.

I have now made a decision about how to do month three (and beyond). I should perhaps have taken this approach from the start. I am going to determine my own 'curriculum', using a range of materials I've bought online but particularly Olly Richards' Fluent Spanish Academy. I'm going to ask if one of my previous teachers can spend 90 minutes/day with me:

  1. For conversation practice, but using materials I will provide/ topics I will determine
  2. To get me out of the house

The Fluent Spanish Academy offers three main things, all of which are useful to me:

  • Custom materials for learning Spanish in context through reading and listening, such as short stories that emphasise specific aspects of grammar such as pronouns or the subjunctive mood
  • Tons of intelligent resources about how to learn. This appeals massively to the side of me that's as fascinated by process as content
  • An online community

For example, October's special 'challenge' is to analyse the language (especially the tenses) in the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech of Colombian President Santos. This is just SO much more interesting to me than filling in the blanks in random sentences, though I accept the latter activity has its place.

'One learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.' - Toussaint and Langenscheidt

Olly says you can't be taught a language. His (well-publicised) approach to learning a new language is:

  • Be interested (check)
  • Get a decent grammar book (check) and things like podcasts for exposure to the language (check)
  • Learn vocabulary in high volumes (um...)
  • Find people to talk to (I find this hard, hence the decision to pay for a further month of daily conversation til I feel more confident talking to strangers)
  • Read a lot (this will form the bulk of my curriculum going forwards)

He also says the keys to success are: motivation (check), exposure (see above), GOOD NOTICING (I think I'm pretty good at this), time (check) and opportunities to produce (see above).

So hopefully it's going to be quite a different month. Wish me luck.