For the past nine months I've been studying Spanish. It's been partly out of interest, but primarily out of solidarity for a close friend who's partner is from Spain, and who enjoys this kind of study far less than me. The experience so far has been an interesting journey for me emotionally.
I've taken language courses in Swedish, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and now in Spanish. The ritual of learning new words, grammar and pronunciation is pretty much the same across all of these, barring the occasional sidetrack for those that need a different script. I don't have trouble with grammar, and pick up new verb constructions easily, but the sea of new words to learn is as endless as ever. Learn one, learn a hundred, there's always more you'll never know.
There's something both comforting and unsettling about this problem being the same, no matter what you try to learn. I even experience it in my work, using new programming languages, where the thing that takes the longest is learning enough building blocks in a new language that you have them instantly, thoughtlessly at your disposal.
For the first time, my goal is not to learn as fast as I can, but rather to keep pace. To start with this was quite difficult, since languages draw me in and soak my attention. I'm used to immersing myself, to feeling the thrill of foreign sounds rolling over my tongue, the amazement that flawed as they are, they're coming from me. The excitement of matching a foreign word to rare English counterpart (a cognate), or discovering a new metaphor, a new way of seeing the world (in some languages, the past is in front of us, since it is known).
Learning this way is healthy for me. I've written before about the difficulty of maintaining languages. This is the perhaps the first time I've studied one with realistic expectations, i.e. without subtle underlying dreams of fluency.
A close, or a start?
In a few days I will fly to Spain, my friends will marry, and the most pressing reason for studying Spanish will slowly dissipate. Will I find something in Spain, a cultural wonder to drive a new dream of fluency? Will I find, as has happened before, something jarring enough that I no longer want to learn more? Or will I continue my study, slowly and methodically in some sustainable way.
Time will tell.