Out of a Learner's Mouth by Rosemary Westwell - Read Online
Out of a Learner's Mouth
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In a series of amusing anecdotes a determined language learner shares the trials and tribulations of learning Spanish. The book is an essential companion for those contemplating learning Spanish, or planning a holiday in a Spanish-speaking country, and for those in the language learning, researching, and teaching and teacher-training businesses.
Published: Rosemary Westwell on
ISBN: 9781458027368
List price: $6.99
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Out of a Learner's Mouth - Rosemary Westwell

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I am in my late 50s. I have to admit it, I am no longer a young student fascinated by learning anything and everything. Learning is becoming harder and harder. I am now old enough to think about retirement, ready to settle down, relax and be sensible.

My father dies and I inherit a house in Tasmania. It’s a bit far to go for holidays so maybe I’ll try to ‘swap’ it for a place nearer to the UK.

I telephone my brother in Tasmania.

What do you think I should do?

Oh definitely get something in France, my friends tell me that is the only place. My brother was clearly well informed.

So I ask our local French chef, Dominic, who runs a lovely café in Ely:

Where would be the best place in France to get a flat?

Carcassonne or Perpignan. He, too, is absolutely sure. I quite fancy France. I learnt French at school and I have always been fascinated with the sound of the language – so smooth, so sexy. I can see myself now raising a glass of soft red wine to a suave bachelor over a lengthy meal of exotic food smothered in tasty sauces and maybe afterwards...

I book a holiday for a couple of days at Carcassonne. I look around for the handsome young locals to chat up. There are none. The only local people to talk to are even older than I am. They are sitting in the town square. They tell me winters are cold here. So what’s the point? I can have cold winters in the UK.

Back in the UK I get out a map of the world. Which place has the best temperature all round the year? I see a note on this map that a place called Torr... (can’t pronounce it) in Spain is one of the healthiest places in the world and the temperatures are good. It is also next to the Mediterranean Sea and on the mainland. I have had enough of the insular, island mentality of the islands of Tasmania and Jersey. So, Torre-whatever-you-call-it in Spain it is.

I book an inspection flight with a small company saying I want to have more than one estate agent show me their places for sale. I have to pay a bit more towards the week. I fly to Alicante and am met by an English person who delivers me to a hotel right on the outskirts of Torre-whatever-you-call-it. There is no chance of having a quiet wander about the city to see how it ticks.

The first estate agent comes, a brassy blond who has sold properties for years. She sweeps me round various English compounds showing me old houses and dilapidated flats within the price range but rife with mould.

The second estate agent, a slim young lad obviously new to the job, drives me like a maniac to some more properties until I feel quite car sick. He is adamant that I should buy near the golf course, but I don’t play golf any more. I despair.

I find an interesting restaurant near my hotel. I have never seen the food still alive, moving about in the restaurant window before. I decide not to have crayfish or crab or anything else I can see moving. I sit alone and ask the waiter in English and with various gestures to suggest what I should eat and drink. I raise my glass. Next to me are a bunch of chaps obviously enjoying their night out. I soon join them and am introduced to a tasty liqueur that sounds like ‘cwahrentay trayth’. I resolve to buy some to take back to the UK.

Back at the hotel, I relax with a coffee and hear a young couple talking earnestly to a man with a white tie about properties. What have I got to lose? I go over to them.

If you are selling properties, I might be interested.

Their authoritatively voiced companion says I’m returning to Belgium, but my colleague Pedro will collect you tomorrow and show you round our properties if you like.

Yes please. –Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I decide not to think of the screaming headlines that have been in the press recently about various murders and fraudulent and broken contracts regarding people buying properties in Spain.

The next morning I climb into a beaten-up dirty old car driven by a rather round and non-too-clean workman who scrapes the gears into action and speeds across the unsealed roads. He does not speak English very well. He pulls up at a pile of rubble.

No, ‘completo’ –whatever it is in Spanish, I bluster. We eventually come to a spanking new building. He shows me a flat on the ground floor. I look at the window. The gigantic mouth of a digging machine meets me. I shake my head.

Finally we go upstairs into a similar flat. I go on the balcony. The sea stretches before me, the waves roll gently to the shore and a few seagulls soar above and close to me. The sun streams in. I must have it.

This might do, I say, trying not to show too much enthusiasm. I suffer more neck-breaking driving to an office, somewhere in the centre of town. Pedro speaks to the assistant and looks at a plan. There are a lot of red dots on it. He points to one without a red dot – and places a red dot on it.

I am handed a ten-page document. I do not understand Spanish, but I pretend to read it. I ask: Fridge? and, muttering a Spanish word, they scrawl something in.

Washing machine? I ask, frantically searching my mind for what else I need.

I hand over my credit card to pay a huge deposit. (YOUR CREDIT CARD! I hear my friends screech. You do not even know these people!)

After a sleepless night, I buy an English paper and find a Spanish–English lawyer, explaining what I have done and handing over the Spanish document I had signed.

You did what? You must be joking! His penetrating black eyes search mine. I blush. I wonder where he learnt his English. I must remember how useful the phrase ‘you must be joking’ must be for foreign students learning English. The room is electric with expectancy. I hold my breath. I can feel my heart getting agitated. The wait is excruciating.

I know this builder, – oh no, if a lawyer knows a builder, there is usually something fishy about them – and he’s all right.

I let my breath go. Thank goodness for that.

The day comes when the flat is mine. I have caught a lung infection on the plane. Coughing profusely I stagger towards the flat. The door is open. I stumble in, ready to lie on the bed-settee, to find a workman still fiddling with the wiring. He speaks to me. I do not understand a word he says. I shrug my shoulders and leave him to it while I stagger to the bedroom.

There is nothing for it, I have to learn Spanish.

Day 1

I return to the UK. I cannot afford a proper Spanish course at a language school. Besides, I doubt if I could behave myself well enough in a class. If things didn’t go exactly the way I wanted them to, I would soon let everyone know. If some learners were slower than me, I would not have the patience to wait for them, and if the class moved on at a faster pace than I needed, I would be furious. No, a class is not the answer.

Ah, the library. You can borrow books and maybe even courses from the local library for free. I go into town and once in the library, I finally draw myself away from the latest fiction and find the shelf with language resources. Some of them are ancient. I grimace. They are all in black and white and with quaint pictures of people in hilarious fashions. It is language I am studying, not fashion. Persuading myself to continue my search, I select: Teach Yourself Spanish: a complete course in understanding, speaking and writing Spanish. I could tolerate this one.

Back home with some trepidation I settle myself down in the armchair and start. I know I should sit at a desk and look as if I mean business, but then I do not want to. I look at the title page. If the course is ‘complete’, does this mean that when I have finished it, I will be fluent in Spanish? – mm, we shall see. I look at the first page. OK, so I can see the Spanish words but there is nothing here to tell me how you pronounce them. Is ‘llama’ pronounced the same as one of those rather disgusting animals or is the ‘ll’ in Spanish pronounced differently? Where is the pronunciation guide? I flip through the pages. There is none. I sigh and dump the book down on my chair.

Why doesn’t the author of the course understand how I need this pronunciation guide? Does the author not know how insecure I feel? I feel so ignorant. I know nothing of the language, absolutely nothing, so the author should understand that I need my hand held every step of the way.

I go and search the house for a Spanish–English pronunciation guide. I eventually find a small pocket book in my holiday books pile. It is the Collins Spanish–English Dictionary.

Picking up the course book again, I check each syllable of the first few words with the pronunciation guide and begin to mouth the words. At least most of the letters are pronounced as you would expect.: Take the vowels for example: ‘a’ as in ‘bat’, ‘e’ as in ‘pet’, ‘ i’ as in ‘machine’, ‘o’ as in ‘cot’, ‘u’ as in ‘rule’– nearly the same as in English. Of course there are exceptions, but I’ll worry about those later.

The postman cycles by the window and the metal letter box clangs loudly as he drops the mail into it. My dog, Bramble, barks. It is very tempting to abandon all and go and see if someone has written me a chatty letter. I wonder how things are in Spain? No, this will not do, I must do a little more work first.

I look at the list of consonants. They seem to be pronounced in pretty much the same way as in English too, except ‘c’, ‘z’, j’ and ‘ll’. Why are there always exceptions? How many exceptions does it take to cancel the rule?

Okay, okay, concentrate, I tell myself. I note that ‘h’ doesn’t seem to be pronounced at all. No wonder foreigners keep leaving off their ‘h’s. I remember breathing heavily to exaggerate the ‘h’ for my foreign students. I even got a candle out once, lit it, and in true Professor Higgins’s style made the students blow at the candle until the flame moved. But when they could actually pronounce the ‘h’, they still continued to insist on leaving it out of the words that needed it, and putting it in the words that did not.

Back to the pronunciation list: ‘c’ and ‘z’ seem to be like our ‘th’, and ‘j’ seems to be pronounced like the German ‘ch’ a sort of breathy choke in the throat. I think of the tall, thin, egg-headed German teacher in my secondary school in Devonport, Tasmania who managed us teenagers far better than I realized at the time. He appeared to relax and joke with us and not really teach us at all. It is only now I realize that it is his teaching that is helping me at the moment. He showed us how to pronounce the German ‘ch’ by saying ‘sh’ and then grinning.

I look towards the mirror on the wall. I hate looking at myself in the mirror – reality can be very upsetting. I make my poor singing pupils stare at themselves in the mirror to study the way their mouths are working, so I guess I should be able do the same.

I look at the middle-aged woman that is supposed to be me and I try to do what I was taught in school so many years ago. I curl my tongue behind my front teeth and say a long ‘sh’.