Spanish DIY and some thoughts on language learning...

The past few weeks have seen some dramatic changes in our flat!

For those of you who don’t know, my partner and I bought a property last year and it was a doer-upper. I mean: new walls, ceilings, floors, electrics, pipework, boiler kind of doer-upper not just "I fancy a new bathroom."

Our hallway when we moved in... nice carpet!

It was a whole year between moving in and getting a fully fitted kitchen, for instance. We spent 4 months cooking on an electric hob in the spare room and a further 6 months using a desk and a bookcase as kitchen furniture after the oven was installed.

This month we took another major step forward. This time, our attention was on the bedroom and hallway, both of which suffered from severe wonky flooring as well as an about-to-collapse-at-any-moment ceiling (and, it turned out, wall).

The work involved entirely removing the lath and plaster ceiling and offending wall, adding insulation and fixing plasterboard. All the old floorboards were removed (don’t hate me - they were unsalvageable), the joists were levelled (a full 4 inches in places!!), and then the chipboard was fitted.

This means I can now go to the toilet in the middle of the night without a) ripping my feet apart on sticky out nails b) falling through the numerous holes in the floor or c) waking up my partner with the squeaky floorboards.

A death trap in the middle of the night

All very good news!

And the super fun bit of it all, from my perspective, was that my joiner was Chilean and had very limited English so I got to practise my rusty Spanish!

As someone who hardly ever uses their Spanish in their daily life, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on this unusual opportunity and here are some of my observations:

The little formulaic expressions are the hardest!

Living in Spain for a little while after university, I did know this, but I had mostly forgotten. If you give me five minutes of uninterrupted time, I can speak Spanish no bother, but it’s the little “yes, exactly.” “oh, is that right?” “Gosh, I had no idea” expressions that really challenge me.

I resorted almost entirely to “mmm” with varying intonations and facial expressions and I think I got away with it.

I’m not a big ‘teacher of fixed expressions’ in my classes but this experience has led me to question that a bit and I don’t think they’re as easy to pick up as I might be guilty of assuming.

A recent question from a student about the difference between “No worries” and “Don’t worry about it” really highlights how so many of these phrases, particularly for lower-level students, are not instinctive at all.

It gets easier the more you do it

Our joiner was with us for 9 days in total, plus a couple of meetings to talk over the job beforehand and at the beginning I couldn’t speak a word. He even introduced me to the guys helping him on the first day by saying “she doesn’t speak much but she understands a lot” which sort of shocked me - I do speak Spanish! Or at least, I thought I did.

Over the course of it all, though, my fluency returned.

I realised that much of what I was saying was similar every day - “what’s the plan for today?” “I was talking to my girlfriend and she was saying…” (I blamed all complaints on her) “OK, so you see this bit here, can it be…?” and non-stop talk about beams (vigas) and joists (viguetas) and flooring and plaster and levelling.

This repetition gave me the opportunity to develop my language every day. Whereas on the first day I was caveman-esque in my pointing and saying unconjugated verbs in a doubtful rising intonation, by the time he was finishing up, I was correctly using the subjunctive to ask him to fix something over there.

Interestingly, this didn’t necessarily translate to a change of context though. On our final day, we got chatting about something entirely unrelated to the job at hand (God - I have a degree in Theology, he comes up more often than you’d think) and I was back to the listening and mmm-ing along.

In teaching, I think there’s a lot of pressure - sometimes from ourselves, often from students - to keep doing new things. “But teacher, we did this last week.” The past 2 weeks have shown me both sides of this: I made real gains when I repeated and repeated the same task, but I also couldn’t assume that those gains would translate to a different context so it’s important that we do challenge our students and not stick to the same formulae time and time again.

When the stakes are high, I can do it.

This was a big job. And it cost us a lot of money. Therefore, there was a real need for me to understand and to be understood. This quickly overtook my embarrassment at not catching something or not being 100% confident I followed. It had to be clear because we couldn’t afford for it not to be, so I felt fine asking for him to repeat himself again and again until I completely got it. It was the same with my speaking - he understood the importance of the job and pushed me to clarify myself when I wasn’t making sense.

A big job - look at the height added!

This idea of the importance of authentic communication is pretty well discussed in ELT circles but this really highlighted for me how bloody impossible it would have been to replicate this in a classroom setting. I can imagine the role play - I can even picture some kind of task where the two participants have to negotiate to a good price or something. But it would be nothing compared to actually having to actually fork out a few grand on a potential mistake!

My memory is horrendous - I need to see words written down.

I often hear of research which says learners of English should hear a word before seeing it written down in order to remember it (or something?) and while this is very likely true for English because of our god-awful relationship between the written and spoken language, holy crap is this not true for me and Spanish.

I cannot tell you how many times the poor man used the word “zócalo” but every single time my response was “huh?” and he had to try and get his mouth around “skirting board.”

New ceiling! New floor!

It can be frustrating as teachers when students seem not to remember things we were talking about five minutes ago, but this was a nice reminder for me that some things just take longer to stick.

Spanish is fun - and I’m good at it!

There’s nothing like a little success to bring the fun back, is there? Not only did I remember how much I enjoy speaking Spanish and how satisfying it can be to remember a long-forgotten word just when you need it, but I also got a new floor, wall and ceiling in the process!

I don’t know that “working with a joiner to fix the random problems in your absolute mess of a flat” would have been on my list of objectives in a Spanish class ten years ago, but nevertheless, it is an aim I have achieved! Go me!

I think both learners and teachers can take something from that - successes can come in all shapes and sizes and they are worth celebrating wherever you find them.

So now we’re back to the DIY drawing board - we have paint colours to choose and a nice raised frame for our wardrobe to construct (this latter task means buying not one but TWO new saws which has me positively giddy!) But I hope this little injection of energy into my Spanish means I find space to use it a little more in my life moving forward. But even if it doesn’t, I now know all I’ll need to do is replace the living room ceiling and it will be back in no time!

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