Learning a Language? Immerse Yourself

By Frank Bolger - Last update

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Learning language specially Spanish wasn’t an option in secondary school – it rarely is in Irish community schools. French is first choice, German’s a flagging second and Spanish an indulgence at some particularly well funded schools.

But I’ve learned Spanish. Not in a secondary school or university classroom, but in the plazas, bars and cafes of Madrid. Following an ambition to learn the language, I moved to Madrid and worked there for a year and a half. My vocabulary was frustratingly limited before getting to Barajas International Airport but I’d done some spadework with cassette and textbook kits so the sounds were at least not alien to me. Two years later, I’ve left Madrid but took with me the accent and confidence to speak Spanish (quite) like a local.

Madrid was incomparably good at teaching me Spanish. One of the EU’s more traditional lands, Spain and its people have held to their language tighter than multi-lingual northern Europeans like the Belgians and the Swedes. Few locals speak fluent English so ex-pats here can learn the language or sink into frustration at local restaurants and markets. I was getting lots of value added in my daily dealings with Spanish friends and flat mates, plus I was taking out the text book a few hours a week to straighten out grammatical bottlenecks which were holding up my progress.

Key to success was deciding to share an apartment with some locals my own age. Most of them couldn’t speak English, thus my ultimate motivation, even if it sometimes became a little exhausting to work at making oneself understood all day every day. Eventually, of course, it became easier.

Madrid was not only a place to pick up an authentic pronunciation of Spanish. I also became a student at the Goethe Institut’s intermediate level programme to refurbish my house of German. Goethe-Institut is the largest organisation promoting German cultural and educational policy abroad. Every Tuesday and Thursday evening I was kicking and scratching my way through the four German cases for two hours. But that’s not how I started at the Goethe.

I dropped by one day after admiring the facade of this enormous building down on embassy row, by the Castellana. Inside, I found leaflets guiding me to weekly cinema, photography exhibitions, musical recitals and political debates, all free and all happening in one space or another of the four floors. A few Internet connections, a decent caf and a huge notice board completed the feeling of cultural frenzy and I vowed to come back. The leaflets I picked up at the door had me back in the classroom the following month, attempting to fix my German grammar and prove Mark Twain wrong. (Twain was so exasperated by his attempts to master the language that he wrote a whole essay about his failures. Maybe he’d have fared better at the Goethe in Madrid, because they don’t do a bad job. )

Language-learning opportunities were ceaseless in Madrid. Considering it’s the bridge between continents and civilisations and the city that sent out the conquerors of the Latin world, Madrid should have a goodly share of cultural interchange with the world. And so there’s the Casa de America, an eccentrically beautiful building offering a full capacity load of Hispanic art, cinema, debate and exhibitions from Latin America. The Casa’s location in Madrid is appropriate and it’s an immeasurably valuable facility here. It was a cost-free house of immersion for a Spanish learner like me.

But other cultures, European and Latin, are represented by their own institutions too. These places however also typically double as language schools. Thus, the Goethe Institut offers German classes, the Instituto Frances provides a year-round French learning programme while the Caso Brasil and the Instituto Italiano offer Portuguese and Italian classes respectively. With a great, sunny climate, great food and a great nightlife – all at some of Europe’s lowest prices – Madrid is a wonderful location for a language-hungry cosmocrat who can afford to take a few months out or who’s lucky enough to get a job transfer to the city. Either way, if you want to master a language, being in situ in a country that uses that language as its mother tongue is indispensably effective, and there’s no substitute for making that move.

Frank Bolger

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