Habla-vous Duolingo?

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The week has passed, for us at least, Spanishly.

There was a moment, a couple of days into our Granada trip, when I could have sworn our waiter showed signs of understanding what I’d just said to him. But it was no more than a fleeting look of anguish on his face, and might equally have been indigestion.
Too late, it occurred to me that there’s a world of difference between satisfying a digital owl and making yourself understood in the real world.

Learning languages used to be so straightforward. You endured five years of enforced ‘je suis tu es il est’, forgot it all for a couple of decades, then crammed the words for ‘two beers please’, ‘where is the cathedral?’, and ‘I’m English, we don’t do foreign’ into your head two days before your trip. A quick refresher course, in which you had to work out the local for ‘this isn’t the car we reserved – it only has three wheels’, using nothing more than the glossary at the back of the Berlitz pocket guide and a rudimentary vocabulary of hand gestures, and you were good to go.

But now we have Duolingo, the world’s most popular language-learning tool. It’s free, it works, and it’s populated by cheerful Guess Who? rejects with a nice line in the bleedin’ obvious and the frankly surreal.


‘Yo soy un hombre’, says the cartoon bearded man. ‘Mi elefante no come perros.’

Enjoyable though our stay in Granada was, it was undermined by the paucity of opportunities to reassure people that my elephant wasn’t going to eat their dog.

I’m not bad with languages. Nowhere near as good as I should be, but not bad. French, German, Italian, Russian – all have at some stage submitted to my scrutiny for one reason or another. And all have been driven from my brain by the potent combination of fecklessness and stagnation. I have also, at some point, been asked why I speak each of them so atrociously, a badge of honour I wear with ill-placed pride.

In the case of German, it wasn’t so much a question as a dismayed statement, issued by the poor man entrusted with the task of dragging me through my German A-level, his already Sisyphean undertaking rendered impossible by the immoveable mass of my teenage indolence.

Twenty years later, the question of my incompetence in Russian was put to me by an acquaintance of that nationality. He assumed from my Armenian name that I was raised loyal to the Mother Country and therefore fluent in Her all-pervasive tongue. I chose to pat myself on the back for having, after just two months of Russian lessons, understood his question at all. My explanation that I was born and brought up in England and that not all people with Armenian in their ancestry were necessarily subservient to the Soviet Union was met with blank incomprehension. Self-centred nationalism works like that sometimes, I don’t know if you’ve noticed.

I was unable to give such a convincing answer to the trilingual 12-year-old who once asked me why my French was so ‘affreux’. On that occasion I made do with a clip round the ear.

But I have yet to formulate a convincing riposte to the inner nagging voice that occasionally asks me why, after a lifetime of opportunities, I have yet to learn Armenian, my father’s native language. It seems it’s one thing to be a proud half-Armenian when the national football team scrapes a 2-2 draw with Italy, quite another to knuckle down and actually learn to converse with your compatriots.

This linguistic handwringing would be rendered unnecessary if I just got on with it and learned the languages properly. But it’s a repeating pattern: initial burst of euphoria at discovering a new world of communication – perpetuation of euphoria as I realise I’m quite good at it and get all enthusiastic with flashcards and so on – a blissful month of impressing people with my (relative) brilliance – the trickling away of interest as irregular verbs and gerunds and such like get a bit much – stagnation as I get daunted by the next stage, the bit where you learn how to communicate properly and make jokes and have real conversations rather than ‘yes in England we have many vegetables; my favourite is the carrot’-type efforts – the point of no return, when you realise it’s going to take more effort to resurrect the language than it did learning it in the first place – and finally the twilight years, during which I reply to any attempt at engagement with a sad smile. ‘I once was to be have spoken it, but however this day with sadness talk I it very unoftenly.’

With Spanish, my efforts were too lackadaisical, initiated too late. Sure, I kept the digital owl happy, but digital owls are notoriously easy to please. Much more so than a befuddled Granadan waiter who only asked if you wanted a menu but then has to stand by your table in confusion as your inability to make yourself understood makes you break down in a welter of incoherent self-loathing.

I suppose I was lulled into a false sense of security by my borderline competence in Italian, and didn’t give Spanish the effort it needed. Too easy to assume that the two languages share enough common ground for you to muddle through. What actually happens is you end up churning out a sort of pidgin Spitalian, inflicting wounds on both languages from which they’re unlikely to recover. The resulting embarrassment can make your brain shut down altogether. At one point I even forgot how to point at things. It was that bad.

The nadir came in a cafe. I’m a perfectionist, preferring to converse in complete sentences wherever possible. Sadly, the effort involved drove every vestige of Spanish from my head, even the comparatively intuitive word for ‘coffee’. Into the empty space surged a snippet from a French essay I wrote in 1983 about Jean-Paul Sartre. Such is the nature of the weird network of alleyways and barriers the brain constructs when confronted with a moment of stress. I stood at the counter in slackjawed silence, my brain blinding me with the French for ‘these phenomenological concerns coloured Sartre’s ontological account of what it is to be human’, when all I wanted was the Spanish for ‘two coffees, a pineapple juice, and three chocolate croissants.’

The simple truth is that as long as people worldwide speak English as a second language, we will continue not to bother with theirs. It’s easier, and people are lazy.

But I find it embarrassing. It feels so rude to visit somewhere without having the courtesy to at least try and communicate with your hosts in the way most natural to them. Sometimes I think the first words I should learn of any language, rather than ‘does the room have a Corby trouser press?’ or ‘I urgently need the lavatory’, should be ‘I’m English, I don’t speak your language, and I’m terribly sorry about that and a whole host of other things.’

Respite was to be found in a day’s walking in the Alpujarras, those criminally picturesque hills nestling in the shadow of their flashy big sister the Sierra Nevada. There we encountered a miraculous golden oriole. No language skills required, unless we count (if you’ll forgive a momentary descent into the nauseatingly whimsical) the universal language of nature, in which lingua franca we could all be better versed.
It was sitting waiting for us. Unusually, for a notoriously shy bird, it was perched atop a dead tree, like the world’s most incongruous Christmas angel. The sight stopped me in my tracks.

‘Hello,’ it said as I stood in a different kind of slackjawed silence, ‘I’m transcendent beauty birdified. Get a load of me.’

A breathtaking sight, and (unlike the Russian for ‘please can you locate the strange rattling sound emanating from this water heater?’ something I’ll never forget.

Version 3

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  1. Amen! Am the daughter of a man who spoke 4 languages, but I ignored the opportunities to learn from him. Now, doing the Duolingo French lessons. Apparently, am 17% fluent. That owl really is easy to please.

  2. Oh dear! I really had to laugh my way through this or I would have cried. I am even worse. My “day job” involves working with multiple different languages – note “with” and not “in” please – and far too many people assume that I am fluent in at least a dozen. Sadly, English is the only language in which I can claim to have any fluency.
    But you speak “music” and that is universal!

  3. “Spanishly”. Nice.
    Are you learning Spanish?
    I ask because I am. I mean, not because I exist (because I’m not too sure about that) but that I am asking because I am learning Spanish and if you are, too, then that would mean we both are.
    Nice blog, Lev. Do keep it up. Will you tell twitter whenever you post a new post?
    Felicitations, Pip

    1. Hi Pip, thanks for reading and commenting. My Spanish-learning started specifically for a half-term trip to Granada, and I swore I’d continue afterwards…and I will… As for the blog, this is a bit of a resurrection – after a long fallow period I’m aiming to post weekly, and have managed to stick to that for a month now. And yes, everything appears on twitter. There’s also a button somewhere on here that you can click to get them sent to you. By email. All best, Lev

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