It's easy to look at someone who already speaks a second language and just think that it comes naturally to them.
Perhaps if you see something like the video of me sharing my salsa learning experience in pretty good Spanish, you might think that speaking Spanish was just my destiny. I'm “naturally talented” with languages and the pieces of the puzzle just always fit together to make sure that my life would go in this direction.
In fact my “destiny” was to never speak Spanish. The universe told me in very clear ways, many times, that it just was not my path. My stars were aligned, my luck was forged and the fates had decided that I'd be good at Mathematics and computers, but not languages.
If you think I'm exaggerating, please read on.
The destiny excuse comes in many forms; “it's just not meant to be”, “it's genetic”, “no matter how hard I try, I'll never be able to do it”. Today I want to share with you some of the “signs” that the universe was giving me for many many years. You know the story has a happy ending, but until today you don't know the full story.
It's important to share this because I know many of you have your own struggles and it can actually be demotivating to think that some people “have it easy”. Trust me, I did not have it easy.
Not the best start: Speech therapy
One reason that I don't smoke, eat healthily and don't drink is because I spent the first years of my life very sick and was admitted to hospital for some time. Now that I'm in good health I don't want to squander it. One unfortunate consequence of that time however was that I developed a difficulty speaking.
It was so bad that I needed speech therapy – I had particular problems with my R (not the rolling one, just the standard English one). My brother still teases me that my favourite TV show was “Stah twek”.
The consequences of this still linger somewhat – since I learned to speak a little slower and had to get private lessons to do it (which were obviously tailored towards speaking as correctly as possible), my English was not as natural as it was for others around me so I don't have a very strong accent of where I'm from. People never guess that I'm from the part of Ireland I am from (Cavan), and foreigners tell me that I have a very understandable English.
Having a delay in starting to speak English well was not a good prerequisite for speaking other languages!! I still have to think a bit more than most people would when I talk and it still doesn't feel that natural. So no, I'm not talented with languages.
Interest in Spanish piqued, but no encouragement to practise
Even though my interest in languages really took off in the last decade, I was actually genuinely curious about speaking Spanish in my teens! A group of students from the Canary Islands would come and spend July in my town several years in a row and I got really friendly with them. They loved me – my English was the easiest to understand in town without me even trying!
But, as many people do when abroad with those from their homeland, they spoke a lot of their mother tongue with one another. I tried to ask what something meant, and even printed out the “La Macarena” lyrics to speak it aloud to them. But they were having none of it! They had travelled a long way and their parents had paid quite a lot to have them immersed in English, so they'd at least do that with the locals all the time. My purpose among them socially was made clear and any attempt to learn a word or two of Spanish was met with “don't be silly” retorts.
Obviously I gave up trying – what's the point in learning a language if my feeble attempts are just going to annoy them? I spent four or five summers with them, but never learned more than “hola” and wouldn't even dare try saying that to them.
The academic conspiracy; if at first you don't succeed, fail, fail and fail again
In Ireland (at least while I was in school) you have to have studied a third language (the first two being English and Irish) to get into university. Making a choice was easy in my school – it's not like they were offering the exotic characters of Chinese, or the musicality of Italian to you – it was French or German. Like it or lump it.
I actually went out of my way to ask if I could possibly take Spanish? Not a hope – we didn't have a Spanish teacher in my school. German it was. 5 years of barely caring, getting a C and then not even being able to ask directions (the one thing we HAD done repetitively over and over again) when I first went to Germany.
My abysmal results in German just reinforced the idea that this whole languages thing really wasn't for me…
But I had another chance! We don't have “majors” and “minors” in Irish universities, but mine was offering free evening classes in languages, and Spanish was available!!
Every year I went to the cultural talk that tried to encourage people to take on this optional extra class, and I was the first to hand in my application every time. I didn't need convincing, but that was where you had to apply.
And every year, they didn't accept me. The class filled up too quickly and there were no slots left. The first time I got turned down I was just annoyed and accepted it. By my third year I was determined and despite getting turned down again, I actually went to that first class and begged the teacher to let me in. I could see an empty seat!
But rules are rules and I wasn't on the list. I presumed the random way they selected people just happened to not be in my favour at all, but when I went to the person who ran the cultural talk and asked them why I get turned down every time their answer was something that changed my view of “fair” forever: they simply took the first 15 (or whatever number it was) people in the stack of paper. Since I handed mine in first I was at the bottom of the stack.
My enthusiasm was actually the reason I wasn't getting into the classes!
Lesson learned: stop being enthusiastic and give up. Universe 1, Benny 0.
Finally in Spain! But don't think it's going to be that easy!
I didn't give up entirely though – I just waited until the end of my studies and applied for an internship for the summer after graduation. I had been working so hard to pass one of Ireland's most demanding university courses (with an incredibly high failure rate) that I felt I deserved a nice fun summer, so going to sunny Spain for the first time seemed like the logical choice.
I flicked through a Spanish course convinced that a few days preparation would have me at least muttering the basics when I arrived, but of course I wasn't expecting the expat bubble to be so strong!
An English-speaking Spaniard greeted me in the airport and brought me to an apartment with an English speaking Brazilian and German. Our work exchange program (IAESTE) had people from all over the world and they were my social group. English was the language spoken where I worked and when I went out.
I was starting to get the impression that nobody in the world ever speaks any language but English. All I could see and hear was English – sure the signs and products and TV were in Spanish, and strangers passing by spoke Spanish, but all my friends spoke English, that's all that matters really!
This is a trap that so many expats fall into it makes me sad. But it's actually bound to happen – why learn another language if it was just not meant to be? You were born language-stupid, just accept it! That's what I was tempted to think.
I considered taking on Spanish a few times over the months though – I signed up for a pretty expensive course for a few classes – throwing money at the problem was bound to solve it!
But I was the worst in the class. I felt worse after each hour as the other students answered whatever noise the teacher was making. All I could offer were blank faces when asked ¿Blah blah blah blah blah? After several attempts I was getting nowhere, and everyone else laughing and enjoying the class was just making me jealous and frustrated. It was time to give up… again.
SIX months living in Spain and I still couldn't muster together a basic sentence.
Destiny is all in your head
At 21 years old, with this background, how clear do you think “the message” was that it was just not meant to be? At this stage I could offer you many reasons why I would never speak Spanish. It was so tempting that I kept believing it for a time and my mind would be fixed on that idea.
But I had one trick up my sleeve that “bad genes”, speaking problems, unhelpful schools, discouraging natives, endless “signs” from the universe and frustrating irony could not knock:
I don't believe in destiny.
I don't buy that crap for one second. Destiny may sound pretty and romantic when talked about how couples were meant to be together, but its other forms (the modern one being an arseways understanding of genetics) are bullshit excuses and unverified self-fulfilling prophecies.
If you believe strongly that you are crap in languages, then that will be true. It doesn't matter which excuse you have randomly plucked out of the air – your commitment to it will make the claim true. Most of my work in trying to get through to people on this site doesn't involve giving amazing language learning “tricks”, but to break that commitment.
I don't care who you are – there is nothing stopping you from taking on the language learning challenge and succeeding. Yes, you may have to go through hard times, struggles and incredible resistance, as I did, but with persistence you will find a way that works for you. It doesn't have to be my way of course.
Nothing I have said in this post “proves” that my destiny was to not speak Spanish. It just shows that whatever I was doing at the time was getting me there. So I tried something else. I didn't want it enough at first, so I waited several years between attempts, but when I got serious about it, things changed dramatically.
This story continues with me really looking at what was holding me back and getting over it to finally be “good” at languages.
Persistence wins over destiny
Experimentation will yield results, both positive and negative. You can give up after experiment #1 turns out negative, or you can come out on top after experiment #37.
All you really know from success stories is what the victor decides to tell you. People who achieve hard things do it from being positive rather than whining constantly about their task. Because of that you got a filtered version of stories that leaves out the worst parts. Why include those details? They weren't relevant to success.
So stop complaining about how easy everyone else has it! I assure you, if you really ask people who seem to sail through life and stumble upon goals you'd kill for, you may just see that they have had setbacks much bigger than anything you could have dreamed up.
Sometimes success is actually due to being stubborn enough to ignore all the “signs” from the universe and to make your own destiny.
What do you think?