Sunday, May 6, 2007

Qué tal?

I tried this post once before, but the ghost of Washington Irving had apparently taken over my brain, with evil results. (While I was sick during the week, I'd been reading "Tales of the Alhambra", in which nobody is old, instead people are "stricken in years", all "damsels" are "buxom", you get the picture). I swear, the phrase "robust quinquagenarian" showed up in the earlier post. Washington Irving will do that to a person. I've since moved on to Dorothy Parker.

Anyway, before coming to Spain, I had worried a little bit, in an abstract kind of way, whether or not being 50 would make it harder to learn a foreign language, or even - God forbid - if there would be certain key aspects that would remain beyond my grasp. You may remember, there was a fairly broadly-publicized study a few years ago, involving functional mRI (magnetic resonance imaging), or whatever the latest flavor of brain scanning was at the time, purporting to show that certain neuronal (neural?) pathways, key to the acquisition of language, were closed off permanently around the age of 8. I'm undoubtedly mangling the details, but the gist of the conclusions was clear enough, that acquisition of a new language becomes progressively more difficult, the older one gets.

So it was a great relief when, a couple of weeks ago, my facility with Spanish took a quantum leap upward. I've had the experience before, with other languages - if reasonably totally immersed, there will come a point, often around the 5- or 6-week mark, where everything "clicks". Things begin to make sense in a way they didn't previously; you start to be able to connect new words to those already in your mind, and - most importantly - you suddenly go from speaking like an 8-year old, to being able to express ideas that are at least approximately what your adult self wanted to say.

The best illustration that this had happened was last Sunday morning, when I found that I was able to maintain a reasonable conversation with the taxi-driver during the entire 25-minute ride from Granada city center to the airport. While starting out on relatively safe, weather-related, ground, we touched on topics such as modern Spanish attitudes toward marriage, morality, and the church (generalized mistrust, because of the perception that the hierarchy was far too hand-in-glove with el Caudillo, to the point of violating the sanctity of the confessional and turning people over to the authorities, according to the driver), corresponding recent changes in Ireland, and differences between both countries in intra-familial relationships, and the role of women.

The details are perhaps not so important - my point is that I was able to hold my own in an adult conversation about topics of general interest. This might seem like small potatoes to my readers. But, let me tell you, after six weeks of classes, six hours a day, you take your victories where you can find them.

I can only hope that my recent virulent head-cold hasn't erased the progress of the previous week. Phlegm is a substance truly best appreciated in its absence.

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