Learning Spanish: Simon
To some extent (other, perhaps, than the fact that he did Ancient Greek at school) Simon Sheffield (right) is fairly typical of the students taking Spanish courses with us in Barcelona.
Like Simon, quite a lot of people take our two-week intensive Spanish course, often starting from absolute beginner level.
"Actually, I did know a little Spanish," says Simon, "as I'd travelled for a month in South America, "but I'd forgotten just about everything I'd picked up." Simon did a Computer Science degree in London, and had worked in IT, also in London, for three years before coming to Barcelona.
"Why Barcelona?" Well, Simon wanted to experience living in another country and, having visited Barcelona several times, had seen that it had an awful lot to offer, with the lifestyle - taking time out to enjoy life, eating and drinking and just living, rather than just working, like in London - being the big attraction.
"And why learn Spanish?" was the next question we had for him. Well, the plan is to do a TEFL course, also here at IH, and getting some Spanish just seemed like the sensible thing to do, and besides, just learning another language, that was something he really wanted to do. Why? "Oh, not for any practical reason... It's just that when you meet people from any other country except Britain, it's humbling that all they speak foreign languages - particularly English - so well."
An intensive four-hours a day
Ok, and what about the course itself? Well, it's quite hard work. There's homework every day, with the first half hour of class or so spent correcting it. After that, there's quite a lot of pair- and teamwork, with a lot of interaction through games and so on.
"Wasn't that difficult at times?" we asked. Like Simon, everyone else in the class is a beginner; didn't he feel a bit self-conscious stumbling around in Spanish? "Well, no, not really," Simon says. "You're pitched in with everyone being the same standard and because everyone is in the same boat, it doesn't seem to matter".
Another thing that helps is the fact that Anna Fraile, the teacher, is very patient. "She corrects us in such a way that no-one feels bad about getting it hopelessly wrong," Simon says. "She's also good at spotting when our attention span is beginning to lag, and switching to a fresh activity."
So, it's pretty intense, is it? Well, class starts at 9.30, and goes on to 1.30, with a twenty minute break. "Yes, it's quite intensive," Simon finds. "You're constantly learning new words and new ways of saying things... but I suspect that after many more hours, it would just cease to sink in. And, anyway, another thing that is nice is to have time to go out in the afternoon and practise what you've learnt in the morning - in shops and bars and things."
A difficult language?
What was the hardest part about learning Spanish? "Listening," Simon says, without any hesitation. "To us, at least, Spanish people seem to speak quite quickly and right now I need a lot more vocabulary in order to be able to follow what they're saying."
Did he find - from what he'd seen so far - that Spanish was a difficult language to learn? "No, it seems quite logical and has few irregularities. Knowing some French has helped - it means that you've got a sort of bridge that helps you work out words you don't know."
What other learning strategies has Simon employed to help in the process of learning Spanish? Well, he's tried watching TV, which is hard at first, but seems to work. You've got pictorial aids and context that obviously helps with understanding - "I can pick out words and phrases, and just about get the gist," Simon says. If you've ever felt guilty about watching too much TV, try learning another language: the more you watch, the better, it's the way to get over that listening comprehension hurdle.
Apart from exposure to the language, there are good habits you want to pick up when learning. Making opportunities to try out what you've learnt is one (you ever needed an excuse to go for a beer?) and Simon carries round a little Teach Yourself Spanish book and looks up what he hears or sees when he thinks "I should be understanding that". "I also know that carrying round a vocabulary notebook would be a good idea," Simon adds, "but I've not got round to organising one yet". Hey, give the guy a break, he's here for a holiday, too!
Does Simon think he's a good learner of languages? "Yes, I think so, reasonably good," he says. "I was always quite good at French... and Ancient Greek, too!" Anna, his teacher agrees: "He's interested, he asks lots of questions - not just when he doesn't understand things but about Barcelona and so on," Anna says. "He's someone that has definitely made progress". Being curious about the language, now that's a characteristic of a good learner.
"So how much Spanish do you think you've learnt on the course?" we asked Simon. "I'd say a lot of foundation things, a lot of the basics," he says. "I'd say probably about 50% of what's necessary for basic conversation. I've still got a lot to learn, obviously, but I'm on my way."
And had the course been fun? Yes, it certainly had. "One of the nice things is the mix of people from all over the world," Simon says. "In my group, we're all mid-20s to mid-30s and it's great meeting them and sharing experiences and so on."
Simon's group comprised a Swede, a Belgian, Dutch, a Ukrainian, two Italians, two Dutch, two Brits and two Americans... "Yes, that's a fairly typical group," says Rosario Fernández, head of the Spanish Department.
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