Without Spanish, I’ve wondered, where would I be? Without Castellano, I know, I’d be without nearly a decade of accumulated experiences, small and large, which in their totality amount to a significant part of my very self. Learning a language, then, is to embark on a process of self-transformation and expansion through communication and cultural accumulation.

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Communication, much more than words

You start out by wanting to communicate, by wanting to know how to say this or that, learning to understand someone or another. You learn the basic tricks, then you stumble your way into more substantive communication, on the way feeling like a child again: incapable of expressing something simple, feeling ‘dumb’ amidst the presence of adults. But then, all of a sudden, you find yourself surviving in your other language, using it in your responsibilities, in friendships or in love. It is then, you will know, that you have arrived.

Your new language, you might find, will form a kind of mosaic, a mosaic made up of a thousand images of a thousand people you connected with and places you stopped at along the way. Specific words will take you back to the moment when you learnt them, your vocabulary becoming, literally, a mind map of the road you’ve been down.

But you will never really arrive, of course. You will only progress, digress, regress, for few can ever really learn a language in its entirety, even native speakers will constantly learn new vocabulary, create new metaphors, experiment with expressions and lingo. Nor will you, or can you, ever fully learn the culture of your chosen language; culture being both infinite and indefinite, not something which may be consumed, and nor can it be – never – codified. But when you seek to satisfy your culture thirst you multiply the self-expansion already provoked by the communicative element, taking in new ideas, learning new skills, understanding other perspectives.

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Communication, much more than conversation

 

For me, the road to learning another language, the road through the Spanish speaking world, has been marked by a few key moments among the way, amongst many others. I can remember the broken, brief conversations with a ninety year old priest in the Andes. I remember both the brief and long friendships formed in Mexico City, the sound of salsa, the steps of Sevillanas, the scent of Sherry, the city of Jerez. And along the way I’ve learnt from an old flamenco maestro and listened to a weary revolutionary, but it is the relationships you form, in all their emotional array, that are the real rewards of a decision taken years ago to try and learn a new language.

That new language, you might find, will form a kind of mosaic, a mosaic made up of a thousand images of a thousand people you connected with and places you stopped at along the way. Specific words will take you back to the moment when you learnt them, your vocabulary becoming, literally, a mind map of the road you’ve been down. Dylan knew this, he wrote it in his song Spanish is the Loving Tongue: Spanish is the loving tongue, he said, soft as music, light as spring / it was a girl I learned it from / Still I say her love words over / mostly when I’m all alone / mi amor, mi corazón..

Exploring Lives and Times?

In the Scenes from Jerez section you can read short dispatches from the city which taught me Spanish, Jerez de la Frontera.