Wednesday 14 September 2016

Ingles, not so much

Things move on . . . and so do folks. Last weekend, Young Bolivar, jack-of-all-trades except grammarian, shifted his duff to the Republic of Cork. Actually, I shifted it in the Little Red Yaris. We had our final road trip on Saturday morning. Since early April the business model has been that we will get him up to speed with his English and he will make himself useful round the farrrm.

The latter half of this devil's bargain has been been fulfilled in spades. The evidence of his tidy mind, attention to detail and skilled hands is at every turn. Field stone walls round the base of the wood-shed; the wood-shed!; a field stone gate-pillar; a clapper-bridge across a drain and steps up the ditch; a field without thistles; doors on the polytunnel; boxes for bees, bats and birds; shelves in the tool shed and a system for keeping it tidier.

The learning English? Well, not so good. If you're over the age of 14, learning a new language is hard. I learned Dutch only by total immersion at work in a zoo in Rotterdam.  All my work-mates m'n makkers, although they left school at 16 because they loved animals, were fluent in English and either French or German or both. I made a pact with those who worked most closely with me - bedankt Yvonne! - to only speak Nederlands on the job. There are therefore a lot of technical terms - bak, dekruit, schoonmaken, water verversen - that I've only used in Dutch and seem clumsy when translated into English. I'm sure Dutch has verb tenses and I may have used them, even used them correctly, but I never bothered with nederlandse grammatica. I've mentioned before how, on an earlier sojourn in Gelderland, I'd bought a Dutch translation of The Hobbit and a dictionary: that helped.

For Portuguese, I had formal one-to-one lessons courtesy of the Portuguese Government, who unaccountably paid for an delightful young woman to occupy an office in my English University and spread Portuguese language and culture. I never opened a book on Dutch grammar, but was compelled to struggle through Portuguese verb endings for the subjunctive,  conditional and imperfect tenses. But I also had an hour a week for many weeks talking Portuguese with a woman who was easy on the eye and not too brutal in her corrections. Later, I enrolled in a Portuguese Conversation evening class which helped cement some of the lingo with other lusitanophiles.  Even when I was In The Field in Portugal, the Atlantic Islands and Cabo Verde, it wasn't really total immersion. I was either walking up the coast, largely solitary, or gathering genetic data with at least one other anglophone. Nevertheless, I was the go-to-guy in our party when haggling with taxi-drivers or asking for directions. And I could comfortably read the newspapers in Portuguese.

Young Bolivar was far too old to learn a foreign language by total immersion and too orderly in his mind to be willing tp make mistakes. He didn't really have the aptitude to have formal lessons either. It's all very well being orderly in a carpentry workshop, but it requires work to apply rules and relationships to words. I found, learning German for a year in school, that writing down and learning off lists and lists of German vocabulary was a skeleton on which I could hang the grammar. But I was good in school with the old rote learning - that's why I'm still pretty good at Pub Quizzes. YB never really enjoyed school except things like art and technical drawing. I printed out pages of pictures of tools and materials with English labels, but that didn't seem to hook him. Hanging out in the middle of nowhere with a elderly couple whose eSpanish was even worse than his Ingles, was not the optimum way to get fluent. Even stacking shelves in Lidl will require an exponential increase in his language skills: the fellow workers are likely to be Poles or Nigerians who have not a word of Spanish and no interest in South American politics. And the manager is almost certain to be a monoglot who will expect his/her instructions to be acted on correctly and quickly.

One big difference between learning a foreign language in the 70s and 80s rather that in the 10s is that immersion used to be easier because that''s all there was. Now we have social media youtube and skype available in your native language. If you're lonely and isolated, it requires supreme self-discipline to switch off the snapchat and engage in the alien but physically present environment in which you find yourself. In my 9 weeks in Wageningen NL in the Summer of 1975, I think I made two phone calls home. YB spend several hours a day watching, listening and speaking Spanish which cannot have help drive the learned English deeper into his brain.

I've no doubt YB will make some employer very happy and he'll have a social life living in the centre of one of the hoppingest small cities in Europe. Thanks for everything and best of luck in the future!

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