Attempting Spanish.

I’ve started learning Spanish.

I should have started months ago, when I decided to come to Spain in the first place, but you know: procrastination.

Actually, I did start, but fell off the wagon and failed to get back on for about three months.

By the time I arrived in Madrid, I’d dutifully packed all my Spanish language textbooks and learning materials, but part of me wondered if I’d actually manage to learn anything. Then, to my surprise, I found that both my friends in Madrid had super high expectations, and were definitely not going to let me slack off in this area. For which I am grateful. Truly.

So I’ve hit the books again, and for most of the past week things have gone surprisingly well. I worked really hard on my pronunciation at the beginning, and so long as I’m only saying one word at a time I can usually get it pretty well. (Somehow, when I try to string more than one word together my accent falls apart.) Also, I’ve been surprised while reading my textbook how readily I understand the exercises. Like, I’m reading Spanish! How can this be! I only just started!

I even had a mildly successful interaction in the grocery store a couple days ago while trying to buy bread yeast. As this is one of the more difficult items to track down, I approached one of the store employees and declared (because I don’t know how to form questions): Yo deseo levadura, por favor. And then I smiled, because otherwise I thought that came off as rather imperious.

I thought I had told her “I would like some yeast, please,” but my Spanish friend informs me that a more accurate translation would be “I desire yeast.” Imperious indeed.

I’ve often heard that Spanish is a much easier language for Engish-speakers to learn than, say, German or Russian. I’m not sure if this is actually the case, but I have definitely breezed through my lessons so far. I’m not sure if it’s because my prior experience learning languages makes it easier for me to absorb grammar rules, or if the method I’m using actually does work, or if I just haven’t gotten to the hard part yet. I assume the last, and for most of the last week, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Today, I think it did. It’s not that Spanish suddenly got hard so much as my brain feels saturated. I’m on the verge of overloading my memory, and I need to start putting more of my grammar and vocabulary to use so that they’ll move into long-term storage and stop burdening my short-term memory. It also means I’ve run head-first into the absurd and unachievable pace I set for myself, and it’s time to back off and make sure I’m learning things properly.

This also means I’m now at one of the most frustrating parts of the language-learning process: I know a few hundred vocabulary words and the rudiments of sentence formation. It’s just enough to feel like I should be able to make some sentences, but every time I try to say what I want, I instantly run into a knowledge gap. A missing preposition. An irregular declension.

I often compare languages to music: you have families of instruments just as you have families of languages, variations in style and dialect, literary cannons and composers who define genres. When people suggest that the world would be better off speaking one common tongue, my standard response is to ask if the world would similarly benefit from only one instrument.

When you learn music, you learn notes, which are like words. Then you learn phrases, which are notes strung together. You create melodies out of sentences, layer them together in compositions, build paragraphs and harmonies.

Only right now, I feel like I’ve been given a sheet of music, and I’m learning all the notes out of order. And there are thousands upon thousands of notes, and I have only the faintest inkling of how to link them all together.

In the past, when I’ve hit this point, I’ve pressed ahead, focusing on the things I understood and falling into a lazy habit of repeating comfortable sentence constructions in order to keep my head above water. This time I’d like to do it right, and that means focusing more on the written word. Which is all the more painful, given the ease with which I write in English. I simply hate trying to write anything in another language. But I largely believe it’s because I’ve never disciplined myself enough to work at it. We’ll see how I do this time.

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