I recently spent two weeks in Salamanca, Spain taking a beginner Spanish language class. You might wonder why I would do that since I am already studying two foreign languages (French and Italian). I was wondering the same thing myself just before the trip. My friend, Cathy, has been saying, for a few years now, that she would love to go to Spain to take a Spanish course. So I thought it would be fun to go together and have a “girls’ holiday”… Then after the reservations were made, I realised that this might entail sitting in a class and studying grammar. My enthusiasm waned, but I was committed.
I’m interested in languages and like to study them – well actually, I like to understand them and be able to speak a bit – the studying part is a lot of work and not much fun. I sometimes wonder why I bother. When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to take a Spanish course, she asked, “Margo why do you want to know all of these languages when you hardly talk”? That’s a fair question. I’m not very talkative – I normally prefer to listen. But I guess I’m just curious and I want to understand what’s being said.
It all started with French
I started studying French several years ago in the US. I took two semesters at a community college and then continued to study on my own. That mostly meant listening to CDs, as I didn’t care much for grammar exercises. When I came to France, I had a good inventory of nouns and verbs (although I rarely conjugated them correctly). So if people made an effort, they could understand what I wanted but when they responded to me, I didn’t have a clue what they said.
I remember my first day in France. Using my very best French, I asked for directions. The man responded to me in French saying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak English” – and I was speaking French! Talk about deflating my ego… But finally after various classes and two years at the University of Nice, I started to feel comfortable with the French language.
Time for Italian
I clearly remember the day when I was buying something and chatting easily in French with the clerk and I thought, “This is pretty easy…I think it’s time to start Italian.”
So off I went to Italy for three months to study Italian. The first month every time I opened my mouth, French came out. The second month, the Italian was taking root and by the end of the third month, I could no longer speak French and my Italian still wasn’t that good. Luckily it only took two days of being back in France for the Italian to give way to French again.
Studying Italian in French
I started taking a weekly Italian course… in France… with French people and I tried my best to keep the two languages separate. I allowed myself to think in Italian only two days per week, the day before and the day of my Italian class. The day before, I would do my homework, read in Italian, listen to Italian, and talk to myself in Italian. Then when I arrived at my class, all prepared to speak Italian, the other students spoke to me in French and threw me for a loop. This happened every week and every week I was taken by surprise. The professor, of course, taught in Italian, but then the students all discussed the grammar in French. It was difficult, but interesting.
Spanish in the future
I had thought that when my Italian reached the point where I could understand and communicate pretty easily, then I would study Spanish. But I didn’t feel right about making Cathy wait that long. She could have been left waiting for a very long time! So off we went to Salamanca.
My first pleasant surprise was that, never having studied Spanish, I already understood a lot of it because of its similarity to Italian. When we needed bus information and the man didn’t speak English, French, or Italian, I decided to try Italian anyway. I spoke in Italian and he understood me. He answered in Spanish and I understood him. That was pretty interesting. Then on the first day of school before we started classes, we had a tour of the city (in Spanish) and I was amazed that I understood almost everything. Of course she was talking about history and architecture, two things that I’ve previously studied.
We started in the beginner class – page one of book one. The class was relaxed, and not at all stressful. Understanding was easy for me, but speaking was a different story. It was difficult because I knew that the words were similar to the Italian words… but I didn’t know exactly how to turn them into Spanish.
Please stop speaking Spanish
The Spanish were a friendly bunch – except for one older man that we met in the street. It was day two of our Spanish lessons and Cathy and I were practicing our little dialogue we had learned in class: “My name is ___, I am from ___, I speak ___”. The man approached and apparently heard our Spanish “baby talk”. He asked (in Spanish) what country we were from. When I hesitated, he asked (in French) if we spoke French. I replied that yes, I spoke French. He looked at me without smiling and informed me that we should stop speaking Spanish and just stick to French. This hurt our feelings a bit, but undeterred we just continued with our “baby talk”.
We had class from 9:00 in the morning until 1:00 in the afternoon every day, then it was off to a long leisurely lunch. We found our favourite place to sit in Plaza Mayor, the main square (half sun for Cathy, half shade for me). And almost every day we had to have some helado, “ice cream”.
Salamanca’s old town, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is beautiful with honey-coloured sandstone harmonising all the old buildings. It’s been a university town since 1134 and had a very academic feel to me. It was a lovely place to study and it made me think that I might want to go back one day to study Spanish literature. If I do, I’ll be sure to take my binoculars so I can find that frog.
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