Sunday, 30 September 2007

Learning a new language – create time of exposure

With the possible exception for the English, Europeans in general seem to be interested in the language of places they visit. It is therefore logic that many of our friends back in Sweden see the language in itself, rather than the nice weather or the Spanish culture, as the biggest opportunity my family and I have when living here. The world has changed, however. Thanks to the Internet, it is easy to create a Spanish media environment in your home, although you live in another country and if you are a committed learner you ought let your target language come alive in everyday life. To increase the time of exposure is a crucial factor for success.

Originally I was planning to write a text on the first books I have read in Catalan. Since I prefer to study languages by myself, starting to read books in a new language is like reaching a first and very concrete milestone. From that point, everything gets easier in a self-reinforcing positive spiral. The two interconnected reasons for this are time and motivation, and they both merit some reflections before I start commenting on what I have recently read. I will start with time, since this is the factor I judge that most people underestimate.

When adults complain about their difficulties to learn languages they often blame it on grammar. How unfair! Grammar is an intellectual challenge and ought to be just as rewarding as the crosswords and sudokus which so many people enjoy in their spare time. It is not rare that the same people claim that children have a fundamentally different capacity to learn languages than grown-ups. I consider that to be a wrong conclusion from a correct observation.

Children are better than adults in achieving a nativelike pronunciation in a non-native language. This, most likely, is due to the fact that they are more open-minded to unexpected sounds and tones which the brain of a typical adult has learnt to filter out. However, when it comes to learning vocabulary, which I dare to claim is the key element of any language, adults theoretically have a huge advantage over children in identifying concepts for which there is a need for words. So why, after some time in a new country, do the children of most immigrant families excel over their parents, not only in pronunciation but also in vocabulary? I am confident that the time spent exposed to the non-native language is the answer.

Under no circumstances do I want to ridicule people who invest time in taking weekly classes of a foreign language, but I do think that they should ask themselves what they aim to achieve. If the main reason for their studies is to have some social time, they by all means do the right thing. However, if they truly strive to learn a language they had better stop. Low-intense language learning is only discouraging for adults, since we tend to remember the amount we have paid for courses and the number of years we have studied, but do not admit what a small fraction of our time we have in fact spent on the new language. It is relevant to make a comparison with children. My two little sons pay attention to, repeat and explore language throughout the whole day. How many grown-ups come anywhere close to that? Is it surprising that children learn so well while we do not?

From a learning point of view, it is this exposure time which is the main advantage of living in an environment where a language is naturally spoken. Since many of my daily activities, like taking the children to school or to the doctor, doing the shopping etc, have to be carried out in in Spanish or Catalan, I spend time with these languages even at times when I would prefer to speak my mother tongue.

At the same time, do not be discouraged by the fact that you do not live in the country where your target language is being spoken. Unless you can find a job where you can make use of the language which you are studying, you might not be able to switch the language of daily life. However, if you really want to learn, I am confident that you will find some extra hours in your daily routines if you scrutinize the time you spend on entertainment. In the beginning, to watch a movie or read a book in a new language will not be relaxing, but I can promise you that you will soon pass that threshold and once on the other side, you will have gained additional hours of exposure to a non-native language.

Entertainment is where I put my focus since that is often the only pool of extra hours which adults have available. It has the additional advantage of being fun and what is fun does not require much motivation. Motivation, however, is so important a topic that I will come back to that in my next text.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Restaurants in Vilanova: Pika Tapa – the Mediterranean as we want it

Tourist traps are an interesting phenomenon. Very often they are easy to identify – establishments with a lot of natural traffic, usually charging premium prices since they offer a nice view or are located close to interesting sites. The beach promenade at Vilanova is an area where any seasoned traveller will start to look for advice on which restaurants are good and which you had better avoid.

I always feel a bit stupid when I take my family to a restaurant where we could have foreseen that either the food or the service or both would not live up to our expectations, but every once in a while end up in that situation. What do you do when you come to a town which you do not know and it is already well past the children’s lunch time? What do you do when all places where they seem to know how to cook look boring and deserted? At least my wife and I tend to take a chance and head for a place which is busy and easy to find. This probably reveals that our buying behaviour is first and foremost social and not very rational.

The beach promenade in Vilanova i la Geltrú is truly precious and, as all tourists desire, there are plenty of outdoor restaurants to choose between. From personal experience, however, I want to draw visitors’ attention to the fact that only some of these have a regular clientele among the local residents. When I take my family for lunch, most tables at Pika Tapa (Passeig de Carme, 21; phone: 93 815 12 84) are occupied by foreigners, usually a clear indication that you are about to enter into a tourist trap. However, remember that the Catalan and Spanish culture is deceitful in this regard. For inhabitants of Spain it is perfectly normal to have their meals about two hours later than we do in the Northern Europe.

Pika Tapa is located right in the middle of the action and offers light tapes as well as full meals. We have been here for lunches and for dinners, with as well as without our children, and always been satisfied. The paellas (€ 13 per person) will not win culinary prices but are served in a traditional way from the pan and always are very tasty. Competition close by advertises paellas for lower prices, however, those places do not cook by themselves but merely reheat precooked dishes. Caveat emptor!

Pika Tapa has indoor facilities as well, which means that it is open for business all the year around. Having said that, just like the town Vilanova, in summer it is at it's best. Here you find the Mediterranean feeling as you want it – offered at a very reasonable price. The restaurants close to the beach still have their terraces open. Take note of this recommendation in case you want to have another lunch at the seaside. The season is not over yet.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Swedish – Catalan: 4 – 0

One of the advantages of living abroad is the opportunity to learn new languages. Although possibly of a different magnitude, in this area my wife and I share an ambition for perfection. The objective is not to be a good foreign speaker but to reach the level of those who have the language as their mother tongue. If our whole family would one day speak Catalan, I believe that we will be quite unique. Is it worth the effort? And, if so, how far have we come?

Let me be honest about our background. It was not an interest in Catalan culture that made us move here. A work opportunity was what drew our attention to this place and a desire to learn Spanish combined with the nice climate were factors which made the decision easy. On the contrary to what many Catalans seem to believe, like many other Swedes we were fully aware that there existed a unique Catalan language, but felt as motivated to learn it as most Catalans feel about learning Swedish, i.e. close to zero.

This perspective changed dramatically once we arrived here. Although this is a bilingual region, I consider that learning Catalan is a necessity for anyone who is interested in what is going on and who wants to be integrated in local society. Possibly, you can avoid it if you live downtown Barcelona and get your local news through Lavanguardia - for historical reasons edited in Spanish - but not in the outskirts of the province, like here in Vilanova i la Geltrú. We have moved here with the intention to stay, to build a new home. It is Catalan, not Spanish, which our sons learn at daycare and in school. With this in mind, we have accepted the challenge to learn not one but two languages.

So here we are, a family of four, all with Swedish nationality but quite different backgrounds. In this blog, I plan to follow and share our experience in gaining access to the new language. Twice a year, I will establish which is the preferred language of each family member. At home we speak Swedish, so that language has a home ground advantage. However, it is Catalan which dominates street life here, so it will soon be given a tough match.

Swedish enjoys a strong backbone in my wife and me. We have now spent more than seven years outside our native country, but were both born, raised and educated there. In fact, I do not only believe but also hope that our mother tongue will remain our preferred language forever. Having said that, through our children Catalan will play a stronger and stronger role in our lives. Fairly soon, our sons will be given homework to write and I take it as my personal responsibility to be up to speed to help them once that day comes.

Our four-year-old is the true dark horse of the game. He was born abroad and thus has never lived in Sweden. However, Swedish is very firmly his first language, since it was the only language he brought with him when we moved here. In the future, when he starts to learn English, we will be able to tell whether his early exposure to that language has left any lasting marks. I doubt that we will ever be able to check the same thing with Thai, since the probability that he will want to learn that language is quite low.

Due to the long Spanish summer holidays, our oldest son regularly receives what I could call special injections of Swedish. For the third consecutive year, he has spent more than a month with his grandparents in Sweden. We can not help taking pride in the fact that he has such a rich vocabulary and sense of correct syntax that he is at least on par developmentwise when compared to children of the same age who have grown up in Sweden. This week he was very nervous about going back to school in Catalonia and blamed it on the language issue. However, that might well be a rationalization of a more general fear of having to leave home. My impression when talking to him after his first day back in the class room was that he enjoyed taking part in the activities, in spite of the language barrier.

It would not surprise me if he switches over and accepts the majority language as his preferred language as early as by the end of this year. He has already spent more than half of his life in here and currently is in a phase where he is actively exploring the possibilities of verbal language. If the talent which he possesses for observation and pronunciation of Swedish will be equally valid for Catalan, we can expect to see a remarkable development during the coming few months.

Finally, we have what from the perspective of the Swedish language is the weakest link of the family. Our one and a half-year old son was born here and has spent many hours in a Catalan daycare since he was only four months old. Fortunately enough for Swedish, his language development started to take off during these summer holidays. He now tries to imitate the sounds of more or less any word we repeat to him. It might well be that this interest came about once he felt that one language, in this case Swedish, started to dominate his daily life.

A special observation is that his passive understanding is far greater than his active use of words. For example, he never tells the names of animals, but happily imitates their sounds when we give him their names in Swedish. Neither does he name parts of his body, but is able to point them out when asked to do so. I believe this to be normal for children who grow up in a bilingual environment, since it must be easier to associate Swedish näsa and Catalan nas with one phenomenon, i.e. the nose, than to determine which of the two words you are select when someone asks you for them. Currently, our youngest son prefers Swedish for most basic words; nana (have a nap), godnatt (goodnight), glass (ice cream), äpple (apple), sko (shoe). However, his daycare teacher says that he is very active in repeating words after her as well. An interesting fact is that Catalan seems to have a strong grip of him at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Although he says mat in Swedish for food in general, llet and pa are the only words he has ever used actively for milk and bread, respectively.

To sum up the score, summer holidays has put a strong focus on Swedish and I trust that, to both our sons, this stability has served as a motivator in their language development. Although we have an au-pair who speaks Swedish with them at home, there will now again be a strong bias towards Catalan in their daily exposure to languages. Mid-September 2007, Swedish wins a 4 – 0 runaway victory over Catalan in our family. I doubt that we will ever see such a walkover again.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Els Segadors – a fortunate contrast between lyrics and national identity

During the summer, media has reported on the efforts currently being made to add words to sing to the Spanish national anthem. The aim is to create lyrics with a meaning to the people of Spain, something that is not easily accomplished in a state where big parts of the population prefer to present themselves as separate nationalites. One thing is sure – if they ever manage, the text will be very different from Els Segadors, Catalonia’s national anthem.

Today is September 11 and while the rest of the world will remember the appalling events on Manhattan in 2001, many Catalans will first and foremost look back at something which took place almost 300 years ago. Just before lunch today, I brought my two small sons to the Francesc Macià statue in Vilanova to let them take part in Catalonia's national holiday. Many national holidays serve to celebrate a victory or a major achievement, but here we commemorate a defeat which, on September 11 of 1714, resulted in that Catalonia lost its sovereignty.

Media usually focus on negative news so it is the nationalist struggles for a Basque Country independent from Spain which foreigners tend to know about. It is a sad fact that terrorist group ETA is again actively making use of bombs to reach their goals. For that reason, I want to point out that Catalan nationalism is peaceful and that the relatively high autonomy this region enjoys has been won through successive and democratic reforms. Interestingly enough, this stands in sharp contrast to the fight for freedom as described in Els Segadors, the national anthem.

Since the traditions of Catalonia receive a lot of attention in school here, I hope that teachers wait until children have reached a certain age before the start to analyse its lyrics. A modern interpretation can be that sickles are to be swung at any chain which restrict our freedom, but the text can easily be misinterpreted. Personally, I can not help it, but it makes me recall gruesome pictures of how the Hutus went about to allegedly liberate themselves from Tutsies in Rwanda in 1994. The lyrics of the Catalan national anthem should, as I see it, only be explained as a document of how people used to feel and act back in history. I hope that school will guide my sons to learn to solve conflicts without violence, and that teachers do not attempt to defend the ambiguities of Els Segadors only because it is one of the symbols of Catalonia.

Judging from the calm faces of our sensible fellow citizens while we were singing the anthem today, I have no doubt about the Catalan people’s non-violent approach in gaining further self-determination. As on earlier occasions, in his speach, local mayor Joan Ignasi Elena stressed this by encouraging people to make use of their Catalan identity to support the integration of newcomers and keep an open mind to the outside world. Having said that, I admit to be happy that my oldest son did not ask me any questions about Els Segadors. Already next year, when he will be five years old, I can expect him to be a lot less innocent. Before then I will have to find some good answers to what we are aiming at with the sickles.