Monday, 22 October 2007

Adult students depend on volunteers for practice

A popular method for learning a new language is to spend time in a place where it is naturally spoken. There, you usually do not help from the authorities to get verbal practice. In Catalonia, the regional government offers this service for students of Catalan. My own experience reveals that, unfortunately, it is needed.

When checking out the Generalitat’s services related to Catalan studies I was positively surprised to find the program Voluntariat per la llengua. In this, students are offered one-to-one conversation classes with native speakers and since the latter do this on a voluntary basis, the program is free of charge. Your only commitments are to only speak Catalan and to have ten meetings, preferably on a weekly basis. This summer, I finally had the time to join and last week did I have the tenth and last meeting with Ramon, with whom I formed my first, so called, linguistic couple.

Before meeting Ramon for the first time I was very nervous. Up to then, I had learnt Catalan through self-studies and had little experience of speaking the language. I did not need to worry, because he was fast to adapt to my level. Somehow we found ways to have fruitful discussions on everything from Catalan culture to history and local politics. Except for that, we explored Vilanova’s small neighbour town Sant Pere de Ribes, since that was where we used to meet. Looking back, I am very content with Voluntariat per la llengua and wish to extend my thanks to the Servei de Català of Vilanova for the fast processing of my application and, even more so, to Ramon for all his time and energy.

The fact that I have relatively few natural opportunities to practise Catalan frustrates me, and that is why I come back something which I have already commented on in an earlier blog entry. In my local supermarket, where the staff recognise me thanks to my sometimes not so quiet children, I have reached ideal conditions for language learning. The shop assistants answer me in Catalan, unless they see that I do not understand. When that happens, they temporarily recur to Spanish, but then return to Catalan for the rest of the conversation. However, still today this is an exception.

When I moved to Catalonia, my Spanish was poor. More than once did to talk to shop assistants who did not even try to conceal how bored they were to deal with yet another inarticulate foreigner. And I do not blame them. To communicate with people who do not speak properly slows us down and increases the risk for mistakes, neither of which is rewarded in a work situation. Still, since it was these people’s job to deal with my business they never had any alternative but to follow through with the conversation.

My Catalan today is far better than my Spanish was back then, but I meet with little patience when I use it. An incorrectly conjugated verb can be enough to trigger a switch to Spanish, although the people I talk to seem to prefer Catalan not only with other customers but also with their colleagues. This is quite discouraging for a person who tries to learn a new language.

When I bring this up with Catalans, even young people claim to have been taught that it is good manners to speak Spanish to non-Catalans. I question how it can possibly be considered poor manners to answer a person in the same language which he or she uses to address you and think that this is first and foremost a comfortable excuse for an example of the principle of the smallest resistance. My impression is that while many Catalans complain that their language is being threatened, surprisingly few of them take the opportunity to promote it to new speakers. There is no need to be a voluntari per la llengua to do so – all it takes is to answer the few Catalan speaking foreigners one meets in daily life in this language and not in Spanish. Admittedly, the risk for misunderstandings might increase slightly, but is it not worth that?

Returning to the program Voluntariat per la llengua, as of what I have heard, in Barcelona they arrange big get-togethers in order for the linguistic couples to feel that they are a part of a bigger community. Well, I think I got a better deal out here in Garraf, where there was nothing special about Ramon and me. We were another two people chatting in Catalan while enjoying a cup of coffee in the shade. Although I originally met Ramon in a formal way, it felt as if we were just like everybody else. Now, is that not what integration is all about?

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