Do we learn language according to rules or in repeatable phrases that are trotted out to fit the occasion? To be sure, regular idioms fill up most of our day: How are you?, Good morning, Where is the bathroom? It’s cold out today, What did you do last night? See you later. They’re all familiar phrases, or word chunks, repeated over and over until the meaning sinks in, as comfortable to the language learner as a hot bowl of soup on a cold day.
Of course grammar is important, but the difference between the simple past (I ate) and the present perfect (I have eaten) is confusing to any new language learner. Disguised as pretérito indefinido and pretérito perfecto in Spanish,* it’s a mouthful. But the real joy in language learning is being understood as we fumble for subjects and predicates in correct number and tense trying to translate our minds to our mouths in reasonably engaging conversation. Chunks are essential: ¿Qué tal?, Guten tag, Où est la toilette?, Hoy hace frio, Was hast du gestern abend gemacht?, À bientôt.
A friend of mine living in Berlin once told me that the most important phrase one can learn is “How do you say?” From there, you can build all the language you need. Visiting him for a week, I took his advice, asking “Wie sagt man auf Deutsch?” over and over as I set out on my own rocky road to learning. Wie sagt man fork? – (Gabel). Wie sagt man spoon? – (Löffel). Wie sagt mann knife? – (Messer). Or, if your conversation partner doesn’t speak your language (and doesn’t get too annoyed by your persistence) “Wie sagt man dies?” und “Wie sagt man das?” with lots of pointing. This and that and lots of pointing got me through beginner’s German.
Backs of cereal boxes** help – wherever one finds the bites. Growing up in Ontario that’s where one learns beginner’s French, rather than in school with its excessive focus on grammar to the exclusion of all else. After 8 years, we could all parse verbs to pass an exam; we just couldn’t use any with confidence in a sentence. Studying at Alliance Française wasn’t much better, where the teachers seemed more interested in talking about their lives than enlisting students to talk about theirs. More correct usage followed on paper, without any real practice.
Most language learners like easy words and phrases to practice: Buenos días, ¿Qué tal?, Hasta luego, No te preocupes. And where better than the headlines of newspapers, magazines, and catalogues to practice – bold and chunky with pictures to add voice to the words? In Spain, there’s ¡Hola!, similar to Hello or a high-brow National Enquirer, with lots of large-print headlines and captioned photo-spreads about the lifestyles of the rich and famous to aid the more nimble. It’s Astérix and Obélix for the jet set.
There are oodles of pictures of model-like princesses and hunky princes (the heir to the Spanish monarchy the Prince of Asturias and his wife Letizia are in every edition***), and the learning is sugared with plenty of spoonfuls of less royal eye candy, though the excessive plastic surgery can be hard to take.
The headlines are not necessarily idioms but they come in easy-to-digest bite-size chunks.
LA PRINCESA LETIZIA, BRILLANTE EN EL HISTÓRICO VIAJE DE LOS PRÍNCIPES DE ASTURIAS A ESTADOS UNIDOS
<<Una de las cosas que más me han motivado durante todo este tiempo han sido los hijos y los nietos de todos nosotros. Pensar en el futuro>>
CARMEN Y SABINA, LAS MELLIZAS DE LA BARONESA THYSSEN, PREPARAN SU PRIMERA NAVIDAD EN MADRID
Simple text with simple context and more than a few clueless aristocrats to look down on. Models, hunks, and the simplest of language bites. It doesn’t get any chunkier.