Friday, 4 July 2014

Disappointment and learning Spanish - or - doing something that turns out to be really hard work and sort of regretting it...but not really.

Dear all,

The world cup quarter finals are almost upon us and we have witnessed some great football. I wish I could enjoy the drama without having to think about how bad some of the losing teams are feeling though, there have been so many last minute winners, the obligatory penalty controversies as well as the dreaded penalty shootouts…great stuff for the fans but must be murder for the players. I keep thinking about all those dodgy moments in my life that have caused me sleepless nights and I wonder how many weeks of sleepless nights I would have to endure before being able to live normally again should I be one of those that misses a penalty…

I could write an essay on England here of course, ahhh that sweet taste of disappointment, I wish I could say I missed you but, well, I can’t. I hate the feeling of disappointment. Not just in football that is, I don’t wish to beat up the lads. The first games against Italy and Uruguay were the best football I have seen them play in a long time (in my humble opinion of course) so I personally believe they have a huge amount to take from this competition and there is definitely hope for the future. Best not to mention the Costa Rica game I think...

No, I’ll move swiftly on from football, it was just that it reminded me (and coincided with) feelings about the general disappointments in life that we dwell on too much, or take responsibility for when we shouldn’t. Without sounding too much like the cry baby I am, it’s a feeling I am very accustomed to and I thought I would write about one facet of it. Before I do, I want to say that it can be a positive factor in one’s life if you use the emotions disappointment generates to better yourself. It’s hard to do sometimes but it can be a great motivating factor in working hard. So it’s not all about feeling sorry for yourself because this or that didn’t work out (and let’s make sure we are both talking about the same thing here – I mean when we work hard for something that then doesn’t work out, i.e. professional footballers who are paid fantastic sums and can put a penalty away with their eyes closed normally but then miss when it counts most, the sort of disappointment that no amount of money can rectify, you can’t buy winning the world cup (ahem…) so that’s disappointment, translate that into situations you know of, perhaps friends have tried to run businesses that have failed, or have not achieved the promotions they thought they would get, etc. I’m not talking about the disappointment you feel when you don’t win the jackpot on a scratch card!)

No, as you may have guessed, this being a blog about writing and all…I’m talking about the life of a wannabe writer.  Disappointment seems to be a constant. To further define, I’m not talking about not getting an agent, or not getting good reviews, and all that stuff either, I’m talking about the stuff way before that. I’m talking about always being disappointed in two specific areas – not producing enough work, and not producing the quality you want. It sort of boils down to those frequent moments when either mentally or as loud as you bloody well dare, you scream: ‘I can’t do it!’

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That sums up the last two weeks of my life, a pathetic mix of tiredness, anxiety, stress, fear and laziness. I hit a wall and instead of picking myself up, shaking myself down and getting on with it, that lost feeling of surrendering to disappointment consumed me. However bad that feeling is there is a positive slant to it and in a way I enjoy the fact I feel disappointment because it shows that I care and that I am striving for more.

So in true self-absorbed egotistical self-reverential writer style I will tell you about it...

The number one reason for my slump is that I allowed fear to over power and overcome me. I hit a moment of despair thinking I would never progress with learning Spanish and over the course of an afternoon a number of compounding factors exacerbated that feeling until I was left entirely bereft of strength. Now I know what you are thinking, and I am thinking it too. I wasn’t actually lacking strength…I just thought I was. It was all in my head, but once that goes, you are screwed. And you may be wondering why I am talking about learning Spanish when I have just said that I was disappointed with my writing?

This is how it happened:

  • I feel frustrated at having a bad time remembering vocabulary.
  • I feel upset that if my vocabulary is bad then what must my grammar be like as I haven’t even started that properly yet.
  • I drink too many beers to comfort myself.
  • Because I’m hungover I don’t go to the gym in the morning.
  • Because I don’t go to the gym I feel guilty and unhealthy.
  • Because I feel rubbish and guilty, I end up having a bad writing day.
  • The next day through sheer laziness I don’t go the gym again.
  • Things feel worse because I allow my laziness to stretch over a few days.
  • A couple of incidents back home in the UK reach me and I get upset that I’m not there to help (not that there is anything I could have done anyway, it was more the principle.)
  • I don’t write, or exercise, or do anything productive for several days.
  • I lose all confidence.
  • Then one day I manage to get an hour of writing done, I get some sun, I go for a good long walk…
  • I wake up the next morning and the world is a good place again and I’m ready to watch the Brazilians show us all how football is meant to be played.

Whether you think I’m being a total wuss weak idiot who should just get a grip and bloody well get on with it, or whether you are just as easily thrown into a sense of failure and can see yourself in this pattern I guess the point is we all have our moments when self belief simply disappears and we are left wondering what the hell we were thinking in the first place.

In my case, all it took was a bad day of learning Spanish and it set me off. It was the philosophical aspect that hit me, learning a new language has highlighted the flaws of an important aspect of my life: my ability as a communicator. When trying to express myself in Spanish I go through two thought processes (sorry to all you bi-linguists out there, I’m sure you think I’m talking like a five year old) the first being what is it I want to say in English, then how do I say it in Spanish – or more specifically, does it require a literal translation or do I have to understand how they say it in Spanish therefore ignore the normal instinct to simply translate word for word. Two very simple examples would be something that anyone who has taken a beginner Spanish class would understand. In English, we say ‘I am thirty four years old’ and ‘my name is Rob’. In Spanish you could if you wanted to, literally translate those but that is not how they speak conversationally, so it would sound odd, even if you use the correct grammar and structure it will still sound odd. They say, ‘I have thirty four years’ and ‘I call myself Rob’. Me llamo instead of mi nombre, and yo tengo instead of yo soy. Now that's very basic but imagine escalating that into more complex sayings and phrases? When discussing the vast array of expressions both languages have, it is sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly why we use this word for this saying and that word for the other, what do all these sayings mean! When you examine them to explain them they sound ridiculous! I have no idea of the origin of most phrases and slang I use and trying to translate can turn into a bizarre conversation. Have a quick go at thinking of some informal language you use amongst friends and then try to pick apart the words for their individual is not as straight forward as it sounds. I hope I am not boring you to death here, stick with me, I’ll get to the point soon! (Or you could just read the last two paragraphs)

To state the bleedin-obvious, as a writer I have an innate wish to express myself in words. In order to do that, as a writer I try my best to master the language I am writing in and that involves developing a commanding vocabulary and then developing an individualistic method of using that vocabulary in order to create a style of my own which is hopefully pleasurable, interesting, perhaps demanding, but most of all enjoyable to read. Those two elements can take a lifetime of work and I’m not saying it’s easy but if you have a desire to write, are willing and able to put in many hours of work then there is a chance you can at some point call yourself a writer. However I have been (ultimately for the good, but at the moment it's quite unsettling) flung back to the beginning of my life to the times of pronouncing the alphabet and looking at picture books of animals, etc. This may strike you as ridiculously obvious, and of course it is, I know there is the odd video or book on learning new languages in lightening quick time but in the main no one expects you to be fluent in a new language in six months so you have to begin at the beginning. What it has done though is really make me question my ability to express myself because the whole point of learning a new language is to communicate with people and suddenly I am questioning everything I say, not just is it grammatically correct, but is the meaning as I intended. And the good and bad thing that I am trying to get at is that it makes me doubt myself in both languages!

BEFORE I continue, let me just say a few words about my well wishers…

Where are all the “you’ll just pick it up” people huh! Where are all these “Oh, I was fluent in a year” people? Where are these people who say, “Just learn a word a day and you’ll get there in no time!” WHERE ARE YOU! I demand to know! HUH. HUH! I want to cross examine you , I want you to be in front of the inquisition, (erm, the Spanish inquisition), I want to attach electrodes to unmentionable places, I want wild horses to drag you around the plains…I want you to come over here right this minute and look me in the face and tell me where I went wrong!

I’ve taken a breath now, it’s okay. I know deep down those people are actually probably right, I think that had I come here with the sole purpose of learning the language I could be far more advanced than I am now so I am only expressing frustration at my lack of progress. If I had spent more time practising, say four hours a day, then I know for a fact I would have a better command than what I have, however that is impossible because I have other things on my to-do list. I don’t want for one second to sound like I am complaining about the situation I am in. I ‘chanced it’ and I am more than happy with how my first six months have gone. So let me apologise to all those who had the best of intentions when they oh-so-casually implied that if you just walked through the streets of Spain long enough you would somehow end up speaking like a native…I have many more marathons ahead of me if that’s the case…but to anyone reading this who may be on the verge of trying to learn a new language, I’ll let you in on my experience – IT IS HARD WORK! Don’t let anyone fool you! If you are doing it on your own as self study then you have to be very strict with yourself. You will need a lot of time so don’t get despondent if you don’t progress as quickly as you want. The challenges of writing are different to the challenges of listening and to the challenges of speaking. It is harder than I imagined but possible, so just stick with it.

So anyway, as I was saying, I am doubting my ability to communicate and that affects how I write. If I can’t say the simplest of sentences then I certainly can’t explain some of the more complicated ideas (it may be of benefit that I can’t make jokes, they were bad enough in English).

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However, through that frustration I realise that I am aiming very high and that's where the positive aspect comes in. I want to communicate well and that can only be a good thing no matter how upsetting it is when you fall short. That directly relates to my writing because it makes me strive for more, I want to express myself with more purpose than ever before because I have a new found respect for language and what it can offer. Yes, it means I feel (and probably will feel for many years yet) my skill level is below par but that is only because the bar has been raised so much higher.

If you have the time here is a video playlist from TED; a selection of language related talks: 

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Attempting to learn a new language has made me appreciate the complexity and beauty of language in such a wider context. Some people who know me will laugh at me saying this but when I was eighteen or so I half heartedly tried to learn Finnish. I didn’t put the energy into it as I should have done and I don’t mind admitting it was out of fear and stupid youthful arrogance. However, I do remember really wishing I could speak it because the sounds were so different (and it would have really come in handy now learning Spanish as I’m sure I would have mastered rolling my r’s…) Since then I have marvelled at the ability we have as humans to express ourselves in such vastly different elegant ways and that feeling has only increased over the years as I have met many people from different walks of life, German, Swedish, French, Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, Romanian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Russian, Italian, Belgian, Brazilian, Columbian, on it goes…how beautiful and wonderful each language is. The term ‘poetic language’  has never been so important to me as of now.

I have such a respect for people who speak multiple languages and I don’t care what the reason is. Should people be fortunate enough to be brought up in a household that has parents who speak different languages and therefore as part of your upbringing you learn two instead of one mother-tongue, or whether you try later in life to have new experiences and you go through the pain of starting from scratch. I don’t care which way it is, if I had my sombrero on, I’d doth it in honour of your ability. I think it is amazing, I think it is wonderful and it is a shame that as someone who represents a fair proportion of people from London we simply don’t appreciate it young enough as we know all too easily that English is such a universal language and we can get by in most cases. So many of us at school are too young to be able to comprehend the opportunities it can give us later in life. That is probably a blog topic for another time so before I digress as I do far too often let me wrap up.  

I have no idea if I will ever master Spanish, or even if I do will it ever allow me to experience new things, for instance I may never leave England again, or perhaps I may move to Bolivia and never come back, who the hell knows. What I do know, is that the importance of learning another language is more than just an enabler of physical actions, getting from A to B, being able to order food and drink in a restaurant and so on. It is a deeply personal expression of our common humanity, and I hope that the pain and anxiety I go through helps me to remember that having the freedom to express myself is not a right that is given to all people around the world and that the joy I have in the battle of self expression is a privilege. How amazing that I have the freedom to write! Being so fortunate I feel compelled to do it to the best of my ability and that is where frustration will always lay because it is very seldom that we ever reach the best of our ability. So even though I have regressed in confidence because I have been made aware of how limited my ability to communicate is, and how terribly underdeveloped I am, it has made me more hopeful than ever, and more in love with language than ever, and in turn more in love with writing and I hope that will translate (terrible pun so maybe not) into always wanting to be a better writer.

Take care everyone,

P.S: I was just checking the BBC while uploading this and saw this article, what good timing J 

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