Sunday, 16 December 2012

Lost for words

I had meant to write about gloom this week. We drove round the outer ring road in Madrid in a dim, almost disturbing light, as if the sun were shining through dirty glass - the sort of light that makes it hard to know whether cloud cover or Madrid's notoriously poor air quality is to blame. Then, in the bar of the Ibis at Móstoles, I read an El País editorial demanding that the government request a rescate. Which, if it happened, would not only mean further and unending disaster being heaped on an already-disintegrating country, but this happening with the consent and support of the government and the last left-of-centre national newspaper in the country.

I had meant to write about gloom this week. There was plenty of gloom to choose from. But then Ed Miliband appeared, with his own dark thoughts about immigrants and language-learning. On which subject I am an expert, by dint of my own status as an immigrant and my own absence of expertise in speaking Spanish.

I quite like Ed Miliband - more, certainly, then at least his last three or four predecessors, and more than any probable alternative - but it is difficult to be comfortable with him, when I am what he is singling out. Because I am the immigrant who has failed to learn the language of the country where I live.

I am not proud of this - rather the opposite - but it does mean that I know more, and can explain more, about why this might happen, than most commentators. One suspects, naturally, that most commentators, and for that matter most people, don't give a stuff about reasons. But reasons there are, and I am in a position to write about them.

How bad is my Spanish? How bad for somebiody who has lived here for seven years next March? I can hold a conversation, sort of, slowly and unsteadily, provided it is one-to-one, face-to-face and we both have patience. I can go shopping and I can deal with customers on our bookstall. I can answer the telephone, though if they do not hablar más despacio I cannot expect to keep it going long. I can follow the brief introductions to the music on Radio Clásica. I can read a book, if I have a dictionary. I can follow a newspaper story. I can write an email.

But, after nearly seven years, I cannot fill in a complex form, have a proper conversation with several people, follow the news without captions or subtitles, or understand the dialogue in a film or the lyrics of a song or the commentary to a football match. Sometimes, especially when nervous, or when dealing with fast-talking or impatient people, I can neither understand nor make myself understood at all.

This is embarrassing and upsetting, for all sorts of reasons. For the past fifteen years I have worked with words - as a writer, a librarian, a bookseller, a storyteller - and to be without words, when words are what I understand and live with, is distressing. Distressing and humiliating.

But naturally it's my absence of language, as an immigrant, that conerns me most. An immigrant who has been here long enough to be fluent, to expect fluency of himself, to have fluency expected of him. Instead, I understand almost nothing unless it is said slowly, or at least twice, and most things I never understand at all.

I hadn't meant it to be like this, though I emigrated at short notice, without time to try and learn any Spanish before I came. I wasn't too concerned: I wasn't going to be working for a while and expected to get up to scratch quickly enough in all the free time that that left me. I was actually working on some ill-conceived theory that having spent seven years learning French to A-Level, on a few hours' study a week, I could devote a few hours a day to learning Spanish and become equally proficient in six months. (I also have an O-Level in Latin. I am not scared of languages, or so I thought.) And so I started off, learning to read by reading Buñuel, learning to speak and listen by having conversation classes in which I swapped half an hour of English for half an hour of Spanish. So it went for three months, and so it went OK. At that point, however, real life intervened.

Real life intervened in the form of our flat being repeatedly and destructively flooded by corrupt and incompetent builders, working on the roof and neglecting to keep it covered during rainstorms. The consequent nightmare, of packing everything we could into the one dry room and being woken in the early hours, many times, by rain inside our flat, lasted several months. But the subsequent bureaucratic nightmare, of trying to get compensation out of two corrupt and incompetent insurance companies, lasted eighteen months. During that time, when we were being cheated by everybody who had the opportunity to cheat us, I hated Spain. I hated everything. I didn't want to see, or speak to, anybody.

There is a joke here about immersion, this being the best way to learn any language (and the reason why languages are not, normally, best learned before you come to a country). The immersion is supposed, however, to be in a language, and not in repeated floods of water through one's roof. That kind of immersion has the opposite effect. The lessons and the reading stopped. And when, after eighteen months, we had our laughably small cheque for compensation, I was working, and though I learned when I was working, I learned much more slowly than I would have done otherwise.

That's half the story, and a personal, particular half at that. But the other half is more generally applicable: and that is, mostly, that I am in my forties. You do not lern easily, in your forties. You do not learn as easily as you did when you were young (and doing, for instance, French at school). You do not learn easily. You do not learn in the same way.

Our work - until Olli Rehn and a rescate closes us down - is storytelling and selling books in bilingual schools. These are schools that give much of their tuition, in several subjects, in English, often from the age of three. Kids learn easily, and naturally. I see it every day, in my work. The middle-aged do not. I see that every day, in myself. (For people older still, it is very hard indeed. There is no point in expecting someone in their sixties to learn English or Spanish to anything more than a rudimentary standard. You may as well expect them to learn chess to master level.)

In your forties, however, you can learn. But slowly and with difficulty, for it does not come naturally. When I was a teenager, and we had family holidays in France, after a few days I would dream in French. After nearly seven years I have never once dreamed in Spanish. It does not come naturally, nor does it easily stick.

Just last week I found myself looking up loro. It means parrot (or "parro", if you believe my Collins Gem). But I have known this for years! Not only that, but I am regularly reminded. When we perform From Head To Toe, which we do several times a week, the kids shout "loro!" when I show them the parrot. Several times a week - but it doesn't matter. I still had to look it up last week. It doesn't stick, and the frustration of having to look up, over and again, something which you know you know, adds to the stress and difficulty of learning.

What I am trying to get over is that difficulty in learning a language is not to be confused with disinterest. For sure, anybody is free to condemn. Free to assume. Did you fail at something? You should have tried harder. Are you struggling with something? You just couldn't be bothered. That is how our bullying, kiss-up-kick-down societies function.

It is easy to say - easier by far than learning a language - and it is a very contemporary way of addressing other people's problems. Unemployed? Should have tried harder to get a job. Country in financial trouble? Must be their fault for overspending. Immigrant with language difficulties? Can't be bothered, can they. You know what they're like. It's a struggle. Well, life is a struggle, but it strikes me that we get through it more easily if we recognise one another's problems rather than condemning them.

Should I have done better, in the time I've had? I certainly think so. I expect, and I expected, better of myself. But what is Spain entitled to expect of me? What is Ed Miliband entitled to expect of immigrants to Britain? In principle, provided I pay my taxes and obey the law - something society expects, theoretically, of any citizen - is there actually any good reason to insist that an immigrant becomes proficient in a language that is not their own? What proper reason would there be for that?

My Spanish is, at least, rather better than the spoken English of several kings of England. And it is better than the written English of much of the UK's population. It is not, however, remotely good enough. And though I have, in fact, worked in a shop here, I wouldn't employ me in a job where I had to speak with the public. Then again, how many people are employed in circumstances like that? Next to none?

What are you going to do, if immigrants struggle with your language? Punish them? Make them uncomfortable? Condemn them? Are you going to give them time to learn? If you are, what time limit are you going to put on it? Are you going to vary that time for age? Education? Opportunity? Is there, in fact, much specific you can do, to make people learn, that is not going to be perscutory or absurd?

I do not think there is. I do think that there is an obligation for the immigrant to try and learn the langauge of their adopted country, and it is partly because I have not fulfilled that obligation that I feel ashamed. But it is a social obligation, not a legal one. It is the sort of obligation that we feel, one that arises out of shared humanity and the fact of living alongside one another, not the sort of obligation that needs to be imposed by law.

Or indeed, which can be imposed by law, because the purpose of such law is to make the immigrant feel unwanted, and hence unhappy, and nothing, absolutely nothing, makes it harder to learn than being unhappy. To really learn, you need immersion. For immersion, you need to socialise. To socialise, you have to feel comfortable.

That's the reality. But we do not, necessarily, live in a world of realities. We live, in part, in a world of imagined enemies, and the more insecure we feel, the larger those imagined enemies will loom. If anybody wants to have a discussion about immigrants, and language learning, then they must do so. But are they going to be talking of realities, of the real problems (which are considerable) in learning and the real problems (which are small) if immigrants do not? Or are they going to be playing to an audience, an audience which just knows that immigrants who do not speak the language are sponging off the rest of us and laughing at us all?

Real concerns are frequently unreal. I am a threat to nobody, sitting here, in my village, typing in English, wishing my Spanish would improve much faster than it does, dreading, until then, every conversation that I have. It is not good, but it is not a serious problem for anybody but myself. Spain does not need me to speak Spanish. England does not need all its inhabitants to speak English. Those that do not, are not dangerous. The ones who are dangerous are those who would have a hue and cry.

Which may well happen. In England and in Spain. For this is dangerous ground. And these are dangerous times.

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