Learning Languages II

Continuing with the stories about Italian, Spanish and Russian.

In my first year at University I had to choose a second language. I didn’t know which one to choose, but my father told me that at the end of the first year, in the summer, there is a chance I can go to Milan to stay at an apartment of a business friend of his who will be out of town. So I took Italian. Unfortunately my Italian professor wasn’t very good (or I was bad at learning a language in the “scholarly way”) so I didn’t learn anything throughout the year even though I was regularly visiting the lectures. This was worrying as I had an oral exam to take. I was pinning my hopes on that trip to Milan. When that one came, in the summer of 1995, I was feeling as lost as possible. It was my first trip completely alone (I even had to take a bus to Belgrade to take the flight to Milan) and upon landing in Milan I had no idea where I had to go. I somehow found the bus to take me to the Central Station and when I got off I had no idea where in the city I was. I had one map of the city with a circle around the address of the apartment but since I couldn’t see where I was at that moment (in spite of me finding a McDonalds and sitting down and carefully studying the map) it was of no use. I wandered around for a while and eventually got tired, so I decided to take a taxi. I found one, but the driver refused to drive me to the address! He explained (in Italian, of course, which I didn’t understand one bit!) that I was very close to the apartment and I could walk there. Sign language helped as he pointed me towards the street and after some walking I finally found my home in Milan!

Apart from trying to learn the language my idea of going to Italy was to play tournaments. So I bought some chess magazines where the tournaments were announced and I started calling them. This was the biggest frustration as they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian (often I forced myself to, leading to more frustration) so it was very difficult to get the information I needed. I barely opened my mouth in Italian for the month I spent in Italy that summer. But I was exposed to the language all the time around me, both in spoken and written, and upon returning to Skopje I was amazed at the miracle that happened at the exam. When I opened my mouth to speak I started to speak fluently! The professor was as shocked as I was, she couldn’t understand how a student who didn’t know a single thing during the year now suddenly speaks fluently! So the exam consisted of me basically retelling my Italian trip and she enjoying the story. Needless to say I got the highest grade.

If this wasn’t strange enough, the fact that the exactly same story repeated during the second year at University makes it even more perplexing. As the lectures started I again returned to the “know nothing, understand nothing” student. I couldn’t follow the lectures, which this time were more complicated, and I also had problems understanding when things were discussed in class. After another year of frustration I went to Italy again in the summer (this was in 1996) and it had exactly the same effect as the year before – in spite of me not speaking the language (I remember a funny story when after struggling to find a tournament address I ran into a chess player who was also looking for it and when we found it he told me “Abbiamo trovato il torneo”, meaning “we found the tournament” but I didn’t understand that simple sentence then, it only dawned on me the following day what it meant) it was the exposure that did the work and when I returned and took the exam it was with the same success as the year before.

In 1996 I visited France and Spain for the first time, but while I started to play in France more often almost immediately, Spain was still further in the future for me. As for Italian, I kept on going there every single year and was spending more and more time there playing tournaments and soon enough I was speaking it fluently. I must say that I don’t speak it in the way I’d like to, for example I never use congiuntivo and passato remoto, but after the years of frustration I’m just happy to feel comfortable when I speak it and when I’m in Italy.

The year 2005 was a huge year for me. I made my second GM norm and I travelled extensively. Two of those travels had big impact on my languages.

From May to July I spent a month and a half in Cuba and immediately after that a month and a half in Spain, all the time playing tournaments. These three months in Spanish-speaking countries helped me learn Spanish.

It is curious that I first learned Spanish in Cuba. It is different than the one in Spain and I was surprised to learn that when at the end of my stay in Cuba I understood Cubans talking to me I didn’t understand the Spanish in Spain!

The way I learned Spanish was again by exposure. My knowledge of Italian also helped, even though I often confused and mixed the two. I remember what helped me a lot was watching films on TV in English in Santa Clara that had subtitles in Spanish and this was very useful for me as I am a visual type who best remembers when he sees something in writing, thus helping me distinguish words and their meaning. Of course, the social life in Cuba is fantastic and the constant communication (or the attempts at it) sped up the process of learning. I remember one funny episode in the restaurant of the hotel in Santa Clara. For some reason GM Borges Mateos, who spoke only Spanish, and IM Schilow, who spoke Russian, thought that I am the best person to translate for them so they can communicate. As I described above Russian still sounded “nyanyanya” to me and in Spanish I could barely distinguish the words, but somehow I managed to enable them to understand each other! This is probably my most successful translation attempt ever!

Coming to Spain from Cuba took some time to adjust to the new accent but at the end of these 3 months in Spanish-speaking countries I could speak the language. Not ideal, of course, but I could understand it and people could understand me.

In the winter of the same year I had a chance to spend one month in Russia. I played a tournament in Saratov and then I spent some 20 days in Moscow. This is when Russian “clicked” for me. I started to distinguish the words from the “nyanyanya” and since I already had enough book knowledge of words from my childhood and chess books I could easily start talking. My accent was far from perfect, but for me the feeling of comfort with a language and in a country where that language is spoken is the measure by which I determine how well I speak a language.

There was a curious episode with my Russian. I was standing in line for a ticket in one museum and I noticed that for Russians the price of the tickets was literally cents, while for foreigners it was almost 40 times that much. So I thought there is no harm in trying to pretend I was Russian. While still standing in line I was thinking whether I should say something or just hand over the money. I knew I was running a risk to be recognised as a foreigner if I spoke… When my turn came I gave the cents for the ticket and with a tightly closed mouth said “один” (“one”). The cashier abruptly raised her head, looked at me sharply, but said nothing. She gave me the ticket and I walked away. I knew that if she talked I would have been exposed, but I was lucky she didn’t.

Ever since the end of 2005 I feel comfortable with Russian and speak it freely, which has helped me tremendously in the chess world.

In 2007 I was invited to live in Spain and it is then that I finally mastered Spanish. That year I also went to Cuba but this time I felt different and much more comfortable, practically serving as the local guide for the foreign players. It was a great time going to discotheques in Havana and mingling with the locals. Starting from 2007 I lived in Spain for 2 years and as my job consisted of coaching the kids in the local club. I was forced to speak Spanish all the time and this meant that finally I felt in Spain like at home.

After feeling at home with Spanish I was surprised to find out that it has overtaken my Italian and in the period 2009-2010 I had problems in Italy as all the time the Spanish words were coming out of my mouth! This was frustrating, but then things evened out as I started to go more often in Italy and eventually both languages somehow “separated” in my head.

Nowadays it is a nice feeling to go to Italy or Spain and feel like home. It brings back memories from decades ago and I really feel comfortable in these countries. And I am happy for that.

People have told me that I have talent for languages. I don’t know what that means, but I suppose it’s the same for talented chess players – it just comes naturally. It’s not always easy, but sooner rather than later you overcome the difficulty and come to a new level.

This concludes the stories of the languages I learned. I have been asked whether I’ll learn another language, to which I always say “I don’t think so” even though I’ve always liked the sound of French. But as I don’t see myself spending a prolongued time in France I think that for now I’ll stay with the above 7.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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1 Comment
  • Miloš
    May 17,2020 at 5:11 pm

    Nice, interesting, even instructive stories. The story about Italian we liked the most. mom and dad.

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