Do I get to go to Spain for a year?

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I was working on the Open Day yesterday. For my foreign readers… I feel quite strange writing this because I write under the expectation that this blog does not have many readers, but anyway… For my foreign readers, an Open Day is a fair in which some of us, students and lecturers, wait behind standardised stands in order to answer questions from the prospective students. Its purpose is to attract students and to help them clarify their choices if they come to our university. So their #1 question this year became the title of this blog post.

I must confess that I am quite impressed by this year cohort. I am regularly asked: ‘Is Spanish difficult?’ – which is a question that has provoked many a joke among my students and colleagues. We cannot help but wonder if astrophysicists or German teachers get the same question, for that matter. Still, I am not utterly convinced that the absence of this question yesterday is a matter for celebration. It could simply be related to the fact that ‘Spanish is easy’ became an unquestionable belief in Ireland. I would love to meet the teacher that originated this assessment and also to congratulate the German teacher that spread the opposite rumour.

So here is the news: Languages are not easy, lads and lasses, at least not for the majority of us, adult learners. I could even argue that languages are not easy for children either. Have you noticed how long it took you to utter your first word? And how about a sentence? Do you realize that the motivation of a child to communicate is probably the strongest urge we, humans, feel when we want to communicate something; almost comparable to the urge to eat or go to the toilet? So here is the thing: Do you feel that urge to learn a foreign language?

And that was the question that I wanted to ask students yesterday at the Open Day stand. It is the question that I never ask because we need students, just like a local company needs its clients. It is the question that I keep to myself and now I share with some of you in this blog because if I ask new students -young, innocent, fresh and happy- I would be considered unfriendly, harsh and unappealing. I would be accused of painting a grim picture, albeit a realistic one.

My intention is not to deter anyone from the task of learning a language, ANY language. I believe it is a beautiful enterprise to take on. I am a non-native speaker of English. It became the obsessive subject matter of my English Philology degree, which guided my choice of country of residence: first Ireland, then England, then Canada and back to Ireland. My daily experience has been filtered through English for the last fifteen years and I still fail at producing native structures sometimes; my pronunciation tends to flag my foreign status; even if it does not flash in flaming colours the origin of my accent.

I have tried to learn French, German, Portuguese, a bit of Polish and my new endeavour is Gaeilge; so I hope to be praying what I practice. I am by no means fluent in French, German and Portuguese. I left the study of those languages in Spain and Brazil and never came back to them. At the time, when I started to learn them, I wanted to read the classics of French and German literature. I know, ambitious, but it was enough of a drive to keep on going for two or three years. Then working life took over. I was sent to teach in a Brazilian university and then the imperious need to learn Portuguese engaged my survival instinct in the shape of language learning. Polish was a different matter. I fell in love with a Polish man and my learning process ended up as soon as the short-lived relationship ended. Irish (called Gaeilge here) is my new target. My motivation is quite different in nature compared to the motivation I had to learn the above mentioned languages. I started to learn Irish out of curiosity. This curiosity was fuelled by a professional realization: the fact that it aids in Spanish teaching and learning in terms of the similarities between some of the structures in the two languages. Now I simply like it and I live in Ireland; and although I am not in a rush to reach a native-like performance and I do not have the urgent need to use it every day, I consider it one of my brain workouts every week or even a way to keep my perfectionism under control.

What do I mean by that? Why does language learning keep my perfectionism on its toes?

Well, have we ever told you that language learning requires hours of vocabulary memorization? Have we explained to you how to research for rules and grammatical explanations that you may or may not find in a teacher or a native speaker? Have we pointed out that you will need to practice these rules and do endless and needless to say, boring drills to master the grammatical aspects of the language and its exceptions? Have we showed you where to find extensive reading materials at your level so you can deduce these rules by yourself? Have we mentioned that you need to try and compose sentences, paragraphs and even just thoughts using these rules by yourself? Have we recommended to you to spend some time talking to yourself in the mirror to get used to sounding like a babbling idiot? Have we ever mentioned the frustration of turning on a radio or a T.V. and understanding only one word every hour? Have we told you about how much you are going to need to expose yourself in order to practice this new language? Have we talked about how difficult it can be to get native speakers to talk to you in their language, regardless of the level you are at? And most importantly, have we ever mentioned that you will fail at speaking many times? Have we alerted you to the fact that you will make mistakes constantly?

We tend to leave out that the main abilities that you need to learn a language have nothing to do with your cognitive profile and much more to do with your emotional intelligence. There are three main things that you will need: You are going to need self-discipline, resilience and courage.

So, I want to come back to the issue of failing. Language learning is a lifelong process. Very few teachers tell you about interlanguage. Interlanguage was a term coined in 1972 by Selinker in order to describe every imperfect linguistic system that the language learner produces throughout his or her life. Every level of interlanguage has its own mistakes and that is okay. We all know by our experience in a foreign country of whose language we know nothing about that you do not need to be fluent in any language in order to communicate, you do not need mistake-free sentences in real life, only in exams and assessments. And because I am not writing about passing a language course but about language learning, I am reminding you of the need to be all right with making mistakes if you ever want to learn a language. In fact, I encourage you to involve others in noticing your mistakes and asking them to point them out to you; and if you feel generous enough, you may do the same with them.

But let’s come back to the title of this blog post. The eyes of the lovely people that came up to me and asked this question were glimmering in the imagined sunshine and relaxed life style that they were anticipating. Their taste buds were already savouring tortilla, paella and sangria in the sun. But here is the grim witch again ready to drop a grey cloud over this dreamlike experience.

Erasmus schemes or year abroad placements are programs that FOCUS on academic or professional experience, most likely away from the South-East coast or insular locations that these students had in mind when asking this question. I recently saw a documentary on the myths and realities of Erasmus experiences produced by Laura Cabello & Sara Cerrada as a requirement for their course (see http://youtu.be/t5G8zchfBFs). Erasmus is a unique experience based not only on the differences between the Host University and university of origin, but also based on individual differences.

When I came as an Erasmus student to the university in which I teach now in 1996, the ECTs system had not been implemented in Ireland or Spain and my classmate and I had to find courses that were equivalent in terms of content to our subjects in Spain. Spanish universities have a very curricular approach to degrees, making sure that all the basics are covered and that your progress within the degree is incremental, unlike Irish universities. The validation nightmare turned out in a special provision for us to be able to register for fourteen UCG (University College Galway, it was called then) courses in a year and an exam for English grammar when we came back to Spain in June in order to pass that course that we were unable to find in this university. I was on a government grant and if I failed anything, I would not get it and I would have been unable to finish my degree the following year, because my parents could not fund the relatively low tuition fees (compared to what Spanish or Irish students pay now). We spent most of our time in the library or writing and I still enjoyed the year immensely but we did not have a lot of time or resources to gain access to the local people or culture.

Some of our Spanish Erasmus peers had more time and easier class schedules and still found it very difficult to engage with Irish people. We used to complain about how unfriendly people here were, until we realized that we are exactly the same when we are at home. Newcomers to a place tend to forget that people living there are already busy in their lives without their presence. So as a language learner, you need to make yourself attractive enough, interesting enough, helpful enough, and so on, especially at the beginning of your relationship with local people; and that requires time and courage… and a certain kind of insistent personality too. Am I saying that language learning is just for extroverts? No. Although a lot of research on language learner abilities points in that direction. I am saying that immersion experiences, like the Erasmus programs, need students to go out of their comfort zone and walk the extra mile to establish meaningful relationships with local people.

The Erasmus year in Spanish universities is a reward for Spanish students. In other words, there are limited places and people compete for it and get a placement according to their grades. Not everybody goes. First of all, it would not be feasible to make it compulsory because the cost of life in some of the countries of offer doubles and triples the cost of life in Spain. Still, students that stay back and students that go abroad are expected to have the same level of language (B2/C1) in their final year in college. How do they manage? Am I saying that Spanish students are more responsible than Irish students? That would be a blind generalization; but what I am saying is that Spanish students have normally more at stake in terms of their achievements while abroad. And I don’t know why. It may be the economic situation or the stricter university system. It may simply be our outward kind of culture or our common national vice: ‘envy’.

Most Spanish students understand that there will be parties and kissing foreign boys and girls while on Erasmus, but they also acknowledge that they will be lost in class, experience inclement weather, awful food and will have to develop strategies to cope with different teaching methods and a language that they thought they knew until they landed in Dublin. Many Irish students are not ready for that challenge. In fact, I think that many of them do not envisage any challenge – albeit an economic one for some of them- in the life that they imagine they will have in their third year in Spain.

I blame all of us for not being clear enough about what is going to be expected from students in their university degrees and their university experiences. After all, Spanish is easy, Spanish people are friendly and life is very relaxed there, ain’t it?

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