Blog Post

Learning a Language on the Wrong Side of Fifty

My adventure in Spanish started a couple of years ago with a promise I threw out to the audience at the Universidad de Cartagena. Feeling elated that so many students had come to my talk, I vowed—via the interpreter—that the next time I came to Colombia, I would speak to them in Spanish. 

For someone in his fifties, turning that quixotic gesture into a reality proved to be Sisyphean. As a student, I had spent many years in Canada learning French, improving my Greek and also I studied two years in Germany. Even in that age the treacherous German verbs that split into two parts, and the hyper-correct subjunctive in indirect speech were enough to dull my enthusiasm for German beer, pastries, and music!

With my past linguistic struggles in memory, I approached the task of learning Spanish with a strategic mind. First, I encouraged myself with the idea that I could read the alphabet. This is no small matter. A glance at my son’s Arabic book, for instance, convinced me that I would try a Semitic language only in another life or a parallel universe. Likewise, having heard that Korean is one of the world’s hardest to acquire as a foreigner, I told our daughter, Clare, (adopted from Korea), that paternal love had its linguistic limits.

Further, that Spanish being an Indo-European language meant it would be rich in cognates with languages I already knew. I took hope in easily identifying “estategias,” “aplicación,” “modernidad,” and “madre.”

An unexpected bonus was that Latin American Spanish had no separate form for “vosotros” (the second person plural); thus I decided to stick to the Spanish of the southern continent. So what if I never ordered paella in Valencia or visited the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I could easily give them up for the release from one part of a conjugation.

But I soon had to own up to the grind of language learning. For every “demonstración” I slipped effortlessly into, I bumped against words like “al azar” which it turned out was not a daily in Cairo but the phrase signifying “at random.” And there were hundreds like it, with their own heritages or etymologies that eluded easy recognition. I will spare you the (to me) seeming randomness and irregularity of the simple past tense. So many forms, so many roots, so little time, as the trip back to Colombia neared.

I relied on the encouragement and expertise of my teacher Paty from Quito, with whom I took lessons via Skype. She reminded me that direct objects involving people and animals always took the preposition “a.” To her dismay, I sometimes forgot to include the indirect preposition “le” in sentences after the verbs to give, answer, question, and the notorious “verbos de influencia,” a feature non-existent in other languages I was familiar with.

But what caused me to nearly overdose on antacids was the subjunctive. I was amazed that native niños could master what was for me ungraspable. It is no child’s game for you are playing three-dimension chess. Always in a state of hyper-vigilance, you have to be ready for the need of the subjunctive, while trying to remember the particular form and looking out for the tense of the main verb.

Quite often I had an existential crisis over the verb to be. I become amazed that a language had five different verbs to express this state: Am I hungry or do I have hunger? Is it hot or does it “make” hot? Am (ser) I in Ecuador or am (estar) I in Ecuador?

Two things made language learning hard in my age. The first was the feeling of helplessness and chaos of landing in a new world. As adults, we are less equipped to deal with the sudden and prolonged loss of control. Previous language acquisition may mentally prepare you for this but does not lessen the feeling of panic. It is like being ill. Even if you know that there is a cure at the end, you still suffer the anguish.

But there is no treatment for forgetfulness. Words and phrases come and go like temporary visitors in your mind. You begin to dread vacations because time away from study seems to wipe away the previous week’s efforts. You strain for the right verb that you were sure of the day before.

These trials give learning a language a certain finality. You come to realize that it is a challenge you won’t scale again. I know this. As I knew that we would not have more than three children. And I will never renovate another old house nor immigrate to another country! Experience may be, to quote from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” “an arch wherethrough/ Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades/ For ever and for ever when I move.” But I am certain that I won’t pass under the arch of another language, not having the energy or concentration for the prolonged task.  If language learning is a labor of love, my last fling will be in Argentina.

But there remains the exhilaration that you can learn new tricks even in middle age. And it was this delight (mixed with terror) that I experienced in my first seminar in Bogota. As I neared the university, I felt my shoes start to stick on the sidewalk. Another step, it seemed, would push me into the abyss. And when I finally entered the seminar room, I had the sensation of a toddler who, no longer holding onto the chair, suddenly finds himself standing for his first time—unsure and unsteady.

When I thought of where I stood, words seemed to fail me. But when I let myself go, I spoke—not fluently or with any grace and certainly with an accent. Something magical happened. Age may gradually rob you of the capacities to acquire a foreign language easily but it can’t erase your belief in the possibility of a conversation.

Gregory Jusdanis's picture
Gregory Jusdanis teaches Modern Greek literature and culture at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Poetics of Cavafy: Eroticism, Textuality, History (1987), Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (1991), The Necessary Nation (2001), and Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature (2010), A Tremendous Thing. Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet (2014). He is currently working on a biography of C. P. Cavafy.