A little under two years ago, I received an email confirming that from the following October, I would be teaching in a school in Spain. I had worked in Spain before this. I taught English at an immersion camp one summer. Spanish was forbidden. A few years after that I worked as an au-pair in the Catalonian region, a place where the children’s first language was Catalan, not Spanish, and where I was supposed to talk English. I learnt a pathetic smattering of Catalan words and the Spanish phrase ‘café con leche’.
On receiving my job offer for Spain, I went off to Italy for the best part of the following two months and so it wasn’t until the very end of July that I began contemplating that I was going to need to speak Spanish.
As a language teacher, I am fascinated by how we learn languages, or more precisely, how we fail to learn them. Although I was instructed in French for five years at school, and obtained an A grade, with maybe 300 hours of class time, I have remarkably little ability to communicate in French. This is not a unique situation.
I asked the adult students in a physics class here, in Chile, how long they had been learning English, for some the answer was ten-years.
“Perfect, we can talk in English.”
They shook their heads. Whilst they have sat through class after class, they haven’t obtained any skill with using the language. Put on the spot they couldn’t create a sentence. Their cheeks pinkened.
In the school in Murcia, Spain, students in the top classes who have been forced through the intense bilingual Spanish system can express themselves. They are capable of sharing their disgust at the idea that British schools have gender segregation for physical education in English, for example. Once they let go of their inhibitions start to rant about their Latin teacher, unfair exams and each other. The top classes. Teenagers who often go to school in the morning and private classes in the evenings.
Some students are different. I ask for their name and they roll their eyes. A few minutes later they’re interviewing me about British politics, tearing apart my taste in music or asking me about how to travel the world. These students are different. I ask them how they learnt English, and they shrug. With a bored expression they seem to ponder a moment, they had classes at school, yes, but so did everyone else in the room. Then it comes out. Either, they play video games – often online video games against native English speakers – or they are obsessive about music or they watch a lot of television in English. Whichever it is, they absorbed words in context and then actively sought out clarification.
I am not a musical person and I don’t watch a lot of television or play many video games. But I don’t need to, because I have the language in context all around me, every day, and I am forced to actively seek out clarification because, otherwise, I cannot make clear to Loreto when I’m going to be free for her to drop off her fresh-from-the-farm eggs so that I can make pancakes.
Although I teach them, I don’t believe that English classes work particularly well. It’s basic maths. The teacher can listen to only one student at a time. This means that the majority of the students’ mistakes pass by without immediate correction, by which point the urgency of learning the point has drifted away. Or, the students fail to make enough mistakes. If students were listening to each other speak, and learning from each other then maybe it would work.
But even then, by the time Thursday’s class comes around, Monday morning’s vocabulary has been almost entirely lost. Teachers correct the same pronunciation, inject ‘do’ into the same questions and rehearse the same few phrases over and over again.
When I was learning my times-tables we used to practice them every day at school, quickly, a five-minute bout of scary anyone-might-get-asked firing of six times eight, seven times two…
The students memorise what they have to for the exam. Then a week later then put it aside and start the next chapter with contains new vocabulary for them to rehearse for a few weeks and then not use again until the following term. They might be able to spell their first name, but they cannot recite the alphabet.
I think one of the reasons why so many students fail to learn is that they don’t start with a clear goal. For those who are driven by music, video games or film, I don’t think they start with a grand goal of speaking a foreign language. They start by wanting to know what they’re singing. Or they want to beat the bad guy in the game. They want to win. They have something specific that they want to understand.
I would say that not-coincidentally, several of my Spanish teenagers understood elements of Japanese or Korean. Nobody taught them as such, but they’ve filled their time watching and listening to videos. Where they have been curious, their brains have naturally put in the effort to learn.
So what was my goal when I first started learning Spanish? Something more specific than simply survive.
In August 2018 I walked into a bookshop in Leeds, went upstairs to the foreign languages section and looked at the selection of books available in Spanish. I pulled out Gabriel García Márquez’ El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.
In her twenties, the nun in the book
went to an interview for a place at the National College of Domestic Subjects
to study cookery. In front of the panel, she was asked to read a section from
The Times newspaper. Having been born to wealth and educated by her mother to
become a lady, she read with what she describes as a ‘cut-glass accent’.
A chap on the panel whispered, “I
don’t think Sister Agatha will be much good in the East End of London.”
At which point she realised her error
and broke through the ice around them by adding, “Now, me ‘ole Dutch, where we
Smiles appeared throughout the panel,
which decided to accept her. She’d proven she could adapt her tone.
Speaking in an inclusive manner can be
Conversing isn’t always easy,
especially across cultures, across differences in educational opportunity and
across generations. I think those of us who seek out opportunities to converse
across such barriers don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we do.
Just the other week I was reminded how
hard we must work to get the most out of a conversation.
Imagine a very tidy living room and a
I was sitting upright, body lent
forward, alert because I was having coffee with my friend´s mother – a tiny
woman with strong eyes. Such a situation can be a little daunting even if you
speak the same language, but here I was having to converse in Spanish. Spanish.
That language which has me dancing on the edge of my comfort zone on an almost
This time, I was talking about France
I have within me a repertoire of short
stories to which I have learnt, through perseverance and embarrassment, the
relevant vocabulary. Good conversations involve stories or at least interesting
examples the other person can connect to. Stories also fill time and make a
conversation feel fluid.
What’s more, I quite enjoy trampling
over people’s assumptions about me. I enjoy eliciting surprise. You need a bit
of wonder sprinkled in a conversation to keep your audience paying attention.
During this conversation, however, I
was doing nothing artful with my language
The anxiety that strikes me whenever I
must speak to someone new in Spanish had entered my bones, and the cogs in my
brain were overheating. The Spanish grandmother didn’t ask complex questions,
but her Spanish is drenched in dialect, which frustrated our translator and aid
(her son), who desperately wanted me to understand for myself.
I was speaking particularly badly
I was nervous. So out of necessity,
the Spanish grandmother was taking responsibility for the structure of the
conversation. I hate this, but whilst I can structure a conversation in
English, doing the same in Spanish is beyond me.
From the start, she knew I taught
Like many people, she was curious as
to how I’d ended up where I was. I explained how I’d worked in a ‘proper job’
once upon a time. In an office, at a desk, next to a window. And I explained
how I’d watched Spring come from behind the glass pane, summer pass by, and
eventually autumn arrive. Then I told her about France. I told her about
working the land, driving diggers and feeding the sheep.
Now lost between a historic
frustration and a series of memories, I described my nostalgia for that
physical sensation of labour. I tried to avoid romanticising it because hard
physical labour is not romantic. But I did contrast the physical work on the
land to the labours of the mind. And all this in broken sentences with the
verbs conjugated aloud.
The Spanish grandmother frowned
Her eyes communicated her recognition
of my naivety, not in a patronising manner, but in the way that a teacher might
look at a child who just hasn’t quite got it. A maternal look, but not a soft
Her voice, however, when she spoke,
was soft and steady. She said that outside work is both, body and mind.
I felt that she was navigating through
some of her own memories
Even now she works on the land and has
done I believe for much of her life. Her skin is golden, showing a lifetime of
being drenched in sunlight. The previous week she’d been picking flowers. She
knows more about the land than I ever will, but when she spoke, her words were
more like poetry, describing the relationship between the worker and the land
as a form of art.
This was not what I had expected
As I learnt about the woman I was
speaking to, I was reminded of how although she had little formal education,
she possessed immense wisdom, and it gave me an insight into my own child-like
self. In her eyes, I am not much older than a child.
Although, she acknowledged with a
little surprise, I have experienced a lot for one so young.
Her school life had centred around the
Every morning in her school she’d had to start with prayers because her school life had happened under Franco’s Catholic Nationalism. A complete contrast to my upbringing. I declared myself an atheist at the age of 7. The only people who argued the case for religion with me were my father (whose beliefs don’t appear to include an almighty being) and much later, Grand-père (who went to mass every Sunday and brought me back gigantic meringues).
She asked about my religious beliefs
or lack of belief
And I fumbled through my vocabulary,
trying to find the words to describe something I’m not sure I could articulate
in English. All the time she watched me with immense curiosity.
Religion in Spain is a dangerous
topic. Some people talk about religion as a pillar holding up the rest of life,
whilst others have an audible snarl in their throats when they mention the
church. I’m fascinated by these attitudes to religion, but I know I must tread
with care. The girls at school describe my Yorkshire influenced accent as being
cute, and although I’m sometimes conscious of the childish sound of my voice,
sometimes I’m grateful for it.
She listened though, receptive to what
I was saying, and I was grateful.
And then just before she was about to
leave, she motioned to my ebook reader
It lay on the coffee table where I’d
discarded it when she’d arrived. She told me she didn’t read on phones and
suchlike, she reads books printed on paper. A literature lover. Despite all the
differences we might have, we are fellow bibliophiles. My heart felt lighter.
Which brings me back to my
Grandmother’s book about a nun
I started off sceptical. Reading about
a rich young lady who gave up her fiancé and dedicated her life to her God, I
wasn’t sure how well I’d connect. At first, I found her story a little
And then, in her fifties, she decides
that she’s going to travel. She doesn’t have much in the way of cash, because
nuns don’t, and yet, her passion to travel forced her to find a way. And that I
could relate to.
What’s more, when she talked about her
terrible driving, I couldn’t help but think of the habit-wearing nun who nearly
ran me over the other day.
The book was A Nun’s Story by Sister Agatha and Richard Newman.
The children at school instructed me that I had to see the Easter processions. It’s not necessarily that the children are themselves particularly religious. A few are definitely so, more are kind of uncertain, a significant number seem to be solidly atheist. As far as I can tell though, of those from a Christian background, they’ve all been baptised and many confirmed. The church plays a significant role within the community here.
Let me tell you that it’s a spooky experience seeing the people weilding torches, wearing masked faces in rich robes. Some off them suddenly broke rank and leapt towards me. A voice spoke out to me, teasing me in English refusing to give their identity but rewarding me instead by putting their hands inside their robes and pulling out…
… huge handfuls of sweets. Yep. They might look like their wearing cushions around their middles, but it’s actually millions of sweets. I came home with my pockets stuffed full.
Things like this, however absurd them might seem to me, remind me that community rituals have a value. What do you think of such processions? Have you ever taken part in one?
When I was in Sicily I read a book about siestas1 and discovered that the siesta was, in the author’s opinion, the ideal time for either having sex or catching up on literature. It so happens that I once read a claim, in a Spanish newspaper, that the average Spaniard has more sex than the average Brit.
Maybe there’s some truth in the ‘more sex’ claim. After all, apparently 40% of Spaniards don’t read books and 35% only read one book a year,2 and yet many (at least here in the south) still do have some form of a siesta. Are they genuinely asleep, or maybe just watching day-time television? I wouldn’t want you to think that I was at all being scientific here. I’m not.
But some people are a bit more scientific about sleep than me
he came to visit a few weeks back DeepThought brought with him a book entitled ‘Why We Sleep’ written by the sleep scientist
Matthew Walker.3 DeepThought has not been taking enough siestas
recently, or at least he hasn’t been reading during them, because last year
when I saw him, he had the same book in his hands.
You’d be wrong to deduct from this that the book is a bore
It’s not. However, if you are one of the
many who don’t get enough sleep you might find it a horror.
and I did a deal. I think he was feeling guilty for reading so slowly. In
exchange for being allowed to read the book before he had finished it himself,
I would summarise my learning for him. Perhaps a mistake on his part. I’m not sure if he started regretting
lending me the book before or after I informed him that not getting his eight
hours a night would shrink his testicles.
This article however is less about facts and more about feelings
Here I’ll combine a few thoughts on how I feel about sleep:
The tiredness in school: teachers and students alike
The anxiety connection – a spiral
The sadness of ignorance and the hope of awareness
Monday morning arrives and I head to school
reluctantly gather in the staffroom bemoaning the coming of a new week. Supposedly
in the morning we are taller than at night, but at 8:25 am they seem shorter,
as if moving with a slight stoop, their limbs longing to lay back down.
wanted, it seems, to stretch their weekend out into the last moment – those
Saturday and Sunday moments with family and friends are so precious compared to
the chore of the week. I remind myself that this career that they’ve chosen wasn’t forced upon them but
was something that they spent many years training for. They’ve sat through
countless exams to be allowed this opportunity to teach, and yet they are going
to start their week wishing they didn’t have to.
It would seem surreal perhaps if it wasn’t so normalised
Monday morning one of the teachers I assist didn’t turn up, so I took the opportunity to sate
my personal curiosity. I quizzed the class on their sleeping habits. I
discovered that at the grand old age of seventeen, out of twenty-five or so
students, only two had managed to get eight hours sleep the night before.
wonder if I’m the only
person in the school with a fresh memory of what maintaining 8 hours a night of
sleep feels like. When was the last time many of these kids woke up fresh
faced? Last summer perhaps, when they reportedly sleep a good proportion of the
reassured them that it wasn’t
their fault that they were sleepy at half past eight in the morning, that it
was just their circadian rhythm being out of sync with the city’s Department of
Education. And then I apologised for informing them that if they weren’t
getting 8 hours of sleep a night then they’d have to study a whole lot more
because their memories were leaking like a patched-up bucket and their
creativity was as strong as soggy cardboard.
stared at me as if this was the first time anyone had said anything positive
about our biological need for sleep. In other words, like I was mad.
understand, I think, that sleep has some value – they do apologise to me, from
time to time, when their brains fail them mid-conversation. They explain that
they are sleepy. Some days some of them look like they’re going to slump over my desk. And
yet, they wouldn’t consider their sleeping patterns to be abnormal. They don’t
recognise the value of applying some change.
The teachers have an inkling that their biology demands more
they talk about sleep, they at least talk from a perspective that they know
they need to get more of it. The rhetoric is there even if there’s no follow up action. Societal norms
students however are sceptical of sleep. Another girl described sleep as boring, as if
the challenge was in fact to minimise the amount of sleep one could get by on
because watching television or scrolling through Instagram is so much more
exciting. One girl I asked talked about sleep being
pointless because she wasn’t
going to sleep anyway, she is too anxious to sleep.
Frankly, such attitudes terrify me
anxious, not sleeping enough, being more anxious, not sleeping enough… this is an interconnected spiral,
and fighting this spiral becomes the central theme in some peoples’ lives. Bad
sleep habits become ingrained and so freedom from anxiety, freedom to breathe
easy, enjoy life and be creative is strangled.
you are stuck in this spiral, then I feel for you.
I feel helpless standing in front of the class knowing that sleep deprivation
is so tightly linked to their mental health. These children are from a
neighbourhood where the main industry is seasonal citrus picking, they are not
privileged like me and their parents are not necessarily going to be able to
fund their therapy and their recovery when tragedy occurs.
Bless their little cotton (or polyester) socks, because they’ve no idea what lays ahead
am forever making mistakes when it comes to my mental health. Just this week I
found myself fighting with an old friend and having to apologise for a badly
worded comment to my sister. The friend was anxious and sleep-deprived, my
sister was fretting, and I have been having nightmares.
And why, because I haven’t
been honest enough with myself, because I haven’t been paying enough attention
to my own emotional needs and in my own quickly spiralling way this of course
meant that I wasn’t sleeping sufficiently which was making me grumpy and…
body responds with a barrage of defences. I survive wonderfully, fighting down
my foes, strategizing, analysing, making myself busy. And then I have a moment
of realisation of what I’m
doing to myself.
At this point I know I need to open up and slow down
need to talk, and probably cry, and then I need to make the journey from my
castle wall and back to my bed. I need to get my mind to somewhere safe where I
can fall asleep and stay asleep because it’s in the night, when I’m dreaming that my
mind can apply its magic. It’s in the night, when I’m dreaming that my mind can
finally process how I’m feeling.
that means I need a two-hour bedtime routine, so be it.
Nowadays I am slow to realise, but in the past I was totally ignorant of my needs
the past I didn’t
make the connection.
All suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their own happiness or satisfaction
The Dalai Lama
I had been inflicting pain on others for my own happiness that would be a
rather selfish and unkind way to be living, but the truth is that when I am
ignorantly barraging myself against the world I’m not getting anywhere near happy. I’m
occupied, busy, surviving, but happy… no.
comes from my moments of humility and generosity (to myself and to others) and
depends on me having a gentle perspective of my state of being. There is no
happiness when I am working from a place of defence.
And nothing makes me defensive as quickly as not sleeping properly
I am learning more and more about how my body and my mind are intricately woven
together each day. This opportunity to be a little less ignorant and a little
more responsible for my words actions is a gift.
hence, when I see the students being led by tired teachers to a belief that
sleep is almost an enemy of a good life, I feel helpless and afraid for them.
They joke about their sleep-deprivation, but I can’t bring myself to laugh.
Yet, I can make sure that when I turn up on a Monday morning, I am awake
sometimes, when someone is tired, I can say something gentle with the hope it
might one day sink in. When the teacher didn’t turn up the class decided that I would have
to teach them instead. Thankfully I’d got a good night’s sleep and was feeling
suitably creative so I set about improvising a class.
quizzing everyone on their sleep I asked if anyone could remember dreaming the
previous night. Two hands shot into the air. I smiled, took a deep breath and
surmised that it was interesting that the two people in the class who had slept
their eight hours had also remembered having dreams. A coincidence perhaps, or…
that’s another article.
So, just to summarise what I’ve written here
Sleepiness pervades society, making us all a little more stupid.
The teenagers I teach are sleep-deprived and don’t see the connection with their own mental health.
I am luckier, my luck is the gift of awareness. Sometimes, not always but sometimes, I can recognise my unkindness as stemming from too few hours steadily sleeping.
The book ‘Why We Sleep’ is surprisingly non-lecturing
It’s sometimes even apologetic about the
truths it breaks. It’s not one of these books that’s repetitive and fluffy. The
author has a scientific way with words, being clear about causation and
correlation and although the information he shares is sometimes horrifying, it
doesn’t come across as sensationalist.
At the back of the book Matthew Walker includes a reprint of this list of tips for a better night’s sleep.4 You might want to check them out. After all, would you be happier if you got a little more sleep?
The Art of the Siesta by Thierry Paquot (Translated from French). I apparently only rated it 3 stars on Goodreads so don’t consider this as a recommendation.
I generally teach the ‘bilingual’* half of the school and so we hadn’t met before. She tried speaking to me in Spanish, and I explained, in slow English, that I don’t speak Spanish. This is now a lie. I just don’t speak Spanish at school.
She nodded. She didn’t really speak English and yet, for whatever reason, she had decided that she needed to tell me that she was feeling nervous. The funny thing was that I was nervous too. I often feel nervous before standing up and speaking.
With the aid of some creative gestures and the assistance of another student we managed to communicate a little. But soon we were ushered towards the front of the hall, the seats were filling up and so we found ourself a place at the front facing our audience. I was given a seat, and the nervous girl and the student of mine who had asked me to partake in the event stood behind me. Both were visibly nervous.
In this short article I’m going to write about fear.
The group of students smelt of fear
This isn’t a smell I used to notice. I mean, I guess my body noticed, but cognitively I didn’t. They smelt something like the queue at airport security, but freshly so. Annoyingly my body was syncing up with theirs. Before entering the hall I hadn’t particularly been bothered about reading a poem. In fact I jokingly offered to do it in Spanish if my student read theirs in English.
However the tension of the students around me started getting to me. I smiled at them, told them to breathe deep. I took some deep breaths myself, sitting abnormally rigid in my seat, trying to pay attention to my fascinating body.
The poetry reading began
A microphone was handed to the first boy and he began his reading. After he finished I turned to the student who had asked me to read a poem in English for them and told her that I didn’t want to use the microphone. She gave me the look that said ‘it seems we’re using the microphone’. I didn’t want to use the microphone.
The nervous girl was shaking. The microphone was passed to the next reader.
I contemplated the microphone
I didn’t like it. I didn’t want it. I didn’t trust it. Student after student lifted it to their mouths and spoke softly into it.
Then came the announcement that a poem would be read in English and Spanish. The student’s class and full name was read, and then my name, simply Catherine.
I took the microphone with a smile
As a rule I try to do all such things with a smile. Then I stepped into the centre of the stage and looked up at the students who were amassed in front of me. I knew the names of many of the faces. Every chair was taken and there was a gathering of teachers huddled at the back. I smiled at the students, gave a quick, but visible, playful frown at the microphone and held it out at a distance so it would be sure to not pick up my voice. Then I read the poem.
Slowly. Annunciating each word and throwing the sounds out to the very back of the hall, interrupting the whispered hisses of the teaching staff. The students listened. It wasn’t a beautiful reading, but it was purposeful. It commanded silence and it got it. When I looked up at the children, seated in their rows, I was surprised to see that they were grinning back. Rows and rows of them. I was so stunned they were paying attention I nearly forgot the last line.
When I took my seat, to a round of applause, my student who was reading the Spanish translation read her part. It was her second reading, but this was twice as loud as the first.
My work however was not yet complete
The nervous girl touched my shoulder and I turned to her amid the clapping.
“Look,” I said. And I held out my hand.
It was shaking
She stared at me amazed and I smiled at her. Her eyes widened with the sudden recognition of what I was trying to show her.
And then she took to the stage and gave the best reading of us all.
At this point, having told my story, I want to bring your attention to three specific factors:
1) I have an informal relationship with my students
2) This means I can be vulnerable around them
3) I’m teaching them how to overcome fear by demonstrating it myself
I wear jeans and a t-shirt for school
The children call me by my first name. Apart from the teacher who introduced the speakers, I was the only adult involved. I sat with the students and before and after the reading it was with the students that I chatted.
Generally the students know more about me than any of their other teachers, because rather than standing at the front of the class and giving instructions which they are then expected to follow, I engage them in a two way conversation.
One of the exam questions is, “Would you like to have a small or large family in the future?”
I’m expected to ask this personal question to a class of sixteen-year-olds, and they have no option but answer. Lying in a foreign language you don’t speak very well is surprisingly difficult. It’s a double translation. I regularly give them permission to lie to me, but I also try to respect that I have to earn the truth.
So while I ask questions, I also give example answers talking about myself. This is how I know the girls who write fan-fiction and the boy who plays in chess tournaments at the weekends, and they know I paint and write and take photos.
And that unlike my ancestors I’m not going to be having fourteen children. I’m already much too old.
I’m willing to show the children that I haven’t got everything in my life straightened out
Sometimes I ask students about their plans for the future, and they admit to worrying because they’re not certain. So I share that although I’m twice their age, I feel the same. I’m not certain where I’ll be a year from now, let alone five years from now, certainly not for the rest of my life.
When I showed the nervous girl my shaking hand I was telling her that she was not alone. Nerves are not something you necessarily grow out of, but you can change how you think about them. Many of these children have significant anxiety issues. They don’t have the skills to handle the constant internal fear they are generating.
So often we view our bodies as betraying us, letting us down
It’s easy to get angry at a shaking hand. Yes, my voice trembles sometimes. Sometimes my heartbeat is so forceful in my chest that I think other people must be able to see my rib cage reverberating. When I’m stood at the front of the class I have to take off a few layers because my body is wound up hot.
I used to see these behaviours of my body as a tremendous weakness
My body would overreact to ridiculous things. When my body would slam into panic attack mode I wasn’t exactly grateful. But then I recall that how my body has used these troublesome reactions to protect me, and I am grateful.
When I felt my hand shaking I didn’t see it as something that was going to stop me reading the poem I’d been asked to read. I saw it as a curiosity. I had a commitment to my students to fulfill but when I felt my shaking hand and I realised that this visible quiver could be an incredible teaching tool. Without needing words, I said I see your fear, I know your fear, and I have faith in your ability to do stand up there and read your poem like it was written to be read.
And without needing words, the student simply said, I see your fear, and I believe you.
Which makes my informal, gentle approach, where I’m willing to open up a little and be realistic about my own uncertainty, worthwhile.
Which brings me to a final question
Why is such a simple approach remarkable?
I invite you to now read the poem I read by Rupi Kaur chosen by my students:
*The children are separated into bilingual and non-bilingual classes, based on a mixture of how good their grades are and how demanding their parents are willing to be. They all study English, but the bilingual students study an additional subject in English as well.
It is not unusual to hear that there has been some sort of problem with a child at school. These students weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths. They aren’t hand-held. They are discovering how to get on within society by trial and error. Sometimes a lot of error.
Occasionally though, a story you hear doesn’t seem to fit.
One morning I found myself sitting chatting with a teenager, practising exam questions. Her English was smooth, her answers grammatically intact, she had a clean face, her hair neatly brushed. The sort of student you don’t worry about.
But behind the scenes I knew that her story was more complex
That week she’d brandished a kitchen knife at her mother.
Because her mother had tried to take her phone away from her.
At first I couldn’t believe it
But then I began noticing how frequently the students were touching their phones in class. How when they were straining to find the vocabulary to speak with me, beneath the desk they were caressing their phones like a comfort blanket.
In our heads we might think, how can a child be addicted to her phone, but in our hearts we know a deeper truth. As a society we’re more dependent on our phones than we would like.
When we’re happy, when life is going well, this phone-reliance doesn’t necessarily strike us as a problem
It might strike us as annoying when conversations with friends get derailed by a bleep or a flash, and sometimes we find that more time has slid by than we intended, but by and large we’re just doing as everyone else around us seems to be. It all seems pretty normal.
But life isn’t all butterflies and sunshine. There are days when the phone feels like an anchor, and we are terrified of drifting away. Fingers flick across the screen as if it were an activity as necessary as breathing. We’re seeking out notifications, a moment of acknowledgment of our existence, and a balm for the discomfort of reality.
This article will talk about two techniques I started using when I was in therapy, and one used by my sister.
I love writing and so writing was always going to be a big part of my therapy
Recording how I was feeling, finding words to express the inexpressible, pounding the keys and seeing the words appear on the screen, all this gave me a sense of being me again. But it was touch and go at one point, because beside my keyboard I would place my phone.
My desk is one of those beautiful green-leather topped creations
I rescued it from a junk shop in Wales, telling the man that if he could fit it in my car I would buy it from him. He grinned. Of course the desk would fit. The two legs, thick blocks of ornate wooden drawers detach from the surface, making it easy to slide straight into my car.
It was these drawers, the top ones which are lockable, which I turned to when my mind was a mess. My technique was not complex. All I did was move my phone from resting on the green leather surface to laying in a drawer amongst my papers.
This created a barrier
And the barrier made me think, it made me realize how frequently I was reaching out to my phone. It didn’t stop me looking, but it made me more aware of how often I actually did so. Which made me see how ridiculous I was being, and so, slowly, I stopped.
And began to write more.
But not everyone is trying to create more writing space
My sister doesn’t write in the same obsessive manner as I do. And so the technique she has taken up is slightly different. I visited her for Christmas and was astounded to see a large ball of white wool squished between the sofa cushions.
“My psychotherapist suggested I find something to do with my hands,” she explained
I could understand this. She’s always been a fidgeter, tapping surfaces, wobbling tables, tearing serviettes into tiny pieces. And touching her phone had taken a similar role. Like drumming her fingers on the dining-room table, her constant phone use had become rather anti-social, but unlike tapping her fingers, her phone was just making her feel more and more anxious, whilst simultaneously becoming more and more addictive.
Knitting seems to have stepped into this role
At Christmas, she was simply working on white squares. White was the colour wool she’d found, a remnant of when the Nonna taught us both to knit as children, but since then the Mother has provided her with different colours, and my sister has developed her squares to include different stitches.
It’s a simple way that she keeps her hands busy in the evenings. She doesn’t, after all, want to lose count.
But what do we do about the bleeping screams of our phones?
My second technique (the third in this article), and the one that felt more ruthless, involved saying no to notifications. At first this felt like something rather rude. As my life is moving from solely revolving around being my mother’s poorly child to an independent adult I am having to be a little more lenient in some respects, but in general I don’t have a half-hearted approach for notifications.
I want to choose when you’re allowed to interrupt me.
So I went into the app notifications part of my phone settings and turned off everything
If an email arrives, nothing happens. If someone comments on an Instagram post, the first I will know about it is when I open up Instagram. And if you have me on WhatsApp, unless I would consider myself one of your emergency contacts (i.e. you are my sister), you can assume that you are muted.
Basically, the only people likely to ever get an instantaneous response are my parents and my sister. If we have plans in the next day or two I might unmute you, temporarily. But otherwise my phone behaves as if I had no friends whatsoever.
Now I have a boss and a few clients, I occasionally make a few additional exceptions. When a lesson is cancelled I do want to know. But in general I still stick to my approach of limiting instantaneousness to the moments when I’m the one choosing to chat.
Maybe this lack of availability strikes you as crazy or selfish
Or worse, like I’m avoiding life, running away from people who just want to chat. But this is not the case. This technique allows me to have bigger, substantial chunks of time which I can dedicate to the people I love in a meaningful manner. Instead of a constant pattering back and forth I tend to invite my friends to come visit me, schedule video calls and write longer more in-depth emails.
I have many friends at home with whom I want to maintain a deep and meaningful relationship, but I don’t need to know what they’re doing today, or tomorrow, or even next week. I need to clear time in my diary for them, and then I need to live my life so that when we do talk, I have something worthwhile to say.
You might imagine that ignoring people upsets them
But I actually get more people apologizing for pestering me than complaining that I’m ignoring them. And those people who do complain that I’m ignoring them, or not being a very good friend… well I start to question how healthy our relationship actually is.
These are just three tiny techniques
But by using an array of tiny techniques we can start to build a better relationship with our phones.
But where does that leave our knife wielding teenager?
We can’t know. I cross my fingers and hope that someone in her life will demonstrate how to have a healthy relationship with technology to her, and in the meantime, her dependence will be treated with kindness and as the serious addiction, the illness, that it has become.
So what can you do today?
Get mindful about who’s watching how you use your phone. Are you setting a good example, or do you need to experiment with some of these techniques?
You see I was rather loud in my breaking of a glass, outside
of the Casera’s bedroom door, at seven in the morning. Making noise at 11pm is
normal here. The kids in the apartment above run up and down the hallway. The
‘grandmas and grandpas’ in the ‘grandma and grandpa club’ hold a weekly disco.
At seven though the apartment block is in silence. As there are no carpets, and
few curtains, every sound, especially my clunking door reverberates throughout.
When you smash a glass of yogurt and then proceed to clear
it up, cut your finger and wrestle with the cat who is very much awake and
bored, you get into trouble.
History would suggest that I wouldn’t even think of being up this early
However something has changed. For reasons unknown to me I’m doing morning. I’m up early drinking coffee made in my new, tiny Italian moka (pot that you put on the hob to brew coffee). I eat breakfast. I have a short yoga routine. I practice my Spanish. And all before heading out to school.
Waking up, doing yoga, meditating before bed…
These are all things I have wished to do in an elegant habitual fashion for many years. Doing them though didn’t happen. I lacked the willpower to force any of it to happen. There were odd days, once every six months or so where I would wake in a spritely fashion and have a remarkable morning. Odd days. A good intention of executing efficient and energetic morning routines everyday would gestate in my mind. I’d tell myself that this would be a new beginning. The beginning would never get started. The next day I would find myself wondering what devil possessed me to set my alarm clock so early.
So when, at the beginning of January I found myself waking
up, and feeling awake before seven, I figured that it was a temporary
aberration. I would soon revert to my clumsy bear-coming-out-of-hibernation
style getting out of the front door. Brushing my hair would return to the
wayside. My hair would revert back to its messy bun. Coffee would wait until
A few days later, when I was still getting up early, I began
to worry. Yes, I could now touch my toes, what with all the yoga, but the
awake-ness was weird. It was abnormal.
The teachers at school were still recovering from Christmas
They bumped into students as they passed them in the corridors, eyes not quite open, cheeks limp. In classes, the students folded their arms and lay their heads down to rest. The teachers forgot what they were supposed to be teaching and their already Spanish timekeeping took a turn for the worse.
Meanwhile I was bouncing. The children were drinking
chocolate milk and eating cookies for breakfast, but it was me who exhibited
the characteristics of a nine am sugar high. I experimented with decaffeinated
coffee in the mornings, but it made no difference.
I began to worry. When I have too much energy, or when I
sleep for fewer hours, I tend to be charging into a wall. I decided that with
so much energy, the outcome could only be a catastrophic crash and so, wiser
than I once was, I decided that I needed to implement emergency measures.
I figured my emergency measures needed to reflect my resources
I’m practical like that. And January has been sunny. Daily, I have a bright blue sky, a warm yellow sun and I have to wear a moisturiser with UV protection. On a tangent here I’ll add that it would be embarrassing to burn. The colloquial Spanish word for a Brit is ‘gamba’, which means prawn. Back to my resources, I have sunshine and access to a balcony. So, on arriving home from school, I pop the kettle on and migrate to my plastic chair in the sunshine. The heat can be so intense that I have to turn my back to the sun, but it’s a place good for relaxation.
Here I engage in the very serious task of winding down.
This is important as at school I am a fountain of energy
I have no idea how to persuade a teenager on too few hours’ sleep who hasn’t had a decent breakfast to tell me about his life in a language he feels foolish speaking in without spurting stories. My tactic is visible, genuine fascination. I smile; I laugh. I am a caricature of the English. They tell me that in their free time they play football, see television and play video games. I tell them they watch television and ask what position they play on the pitch and how they win their favourite video game.
In England I would be pretty self-conscious about the bursts
of extroversion that spew from my mouth each day. I cross the threshold of the
staff-room each morning with a cheerful doubling up of my welcomes: “¡Hola!
Morning! How’s thee? ¿Qué tal?” When I do speak Spanish, I find that putting it
across with a bubbly extroverted spring is much more successful than with
self-doubting, quiet articulation. Nobody understands doubt within a voice.
Everyone understands grandiose gestures.
All this is exhausting
Exhausting, excessive bubbly behaviour and changes in my sleep pattern are to me like a sick canary in a mine shaft. They’re a warning of trouble.
Hence, when I arrive home I curl up in the sun and read. I
choose to slow down. Sometimes I have a siesta. I cook and listen to a podcast.
Instead of writing on my computer, I pick up my journal. In fact, I avoid my
desk. There are so many ways to get sucked into the computer that feel good,
but are, after a while, quite draining.
Sometimes I go for a walk.
I have no idea how regular folk manage their energy
I work less than twenty hours a week and it still takes me a lot of effort to manage that small demand on my time and energy.
So far though, I haven’t crashed. I’m still doing yoga each
morning. I’m still meditating before I go to bed. I’m still making a fool of
myself at school in such a way that the children can’t help themselves but engage.
I am happy.
I’m wondering, if, maybe, just maybe, I’ve cracked this
As long as I don’t disturb the Casera’s sleep with any more
My father likes to say that I land on my feet. I like to think it’s the effect of my wonderful, charming personality. I compel people to be wonderful around me. Either way, when I arrived in Spain, I found myself falling straight into the safe hands of the Casera/Landlady.
Our first conversation, back in October, was the twenty-minute drive from the bus station to her house and was inhibited by our lacking language skills, neither of us could speak a sentence of the other person’s language. With another person, this might have led to a very quiet trip, but the Casera is an extroverted Spaniard who believes in good hospitality. We talked the entire way.
A few months on and we can converse in an almost fluid
manner. Predominantly I speak Spanish and she speaks English, although we both
regularly revert into our own languages for some clarification. Oddly this
leads to us taking journeys together where I explain English grammar to her in
Spanish and she explains Spanish pronunciation in English. Grammar is a good
conversation topic. I like her to keep both hands on the wheel when she’s
Anyway, the Casera is a woman full of life. She’s a national
swimming champion, a professional coach and a pilates teacher. She’s also fascinated
by some weird branch of yoga called Kundalini, which has some relation to yoga,
but as she tells me on a regular basis is more spiritual.
Yesterday, she decided to go to a masterclass in Kundalini. Since
she didn’t want to go alone she invited me. She made it more enticing by
suggesting that I join her at her sister’s house and spend the afternoon in the
large garden there with the puppies and 22 degrees of sunshine. She would cook
I’m not one to say no to such an offer. Plus, I figured I
could write a blog post about it and that would amuse the Mother. I stuffed my book
and my leggings in my bag and slathered sun cream on my legs and arms.
I could write about the afternoon, but you’d probably just
be jealous. It was tranquil. And is rather overshadowed in my mind by the yoga.
Now, I could write about navigational difficulties and getting the time wrong
and the Casera forgetting her phone and my phone battery dying, but that would
distract from the experience itself.
Eventually we arrived, early, having previously got the wrong
time, and were welcomed into the yoga studio. Like other yoga studios, there
was a place for depositing bags and shoes, a set of shelves holding mats, cushions,
blankets and blocks, gentle music and dimmed lights. I was worried, initially,
that the class was going to be just the teacher, the Casera and I, but soon
another woman arrived. She looked normal, until she started getting changed
into all white and covered her hair in a peculiar little white hat which
reminded me of a swimming cap.
The Casera and the teacher clearly knew each other, and conversation
was instant and voluble. I was introduced, and the teacher, smiling in a yoga-teacher-who-won’t-be-fazed
manner, asked me if I could speak Spanish.
I told him a little. The cogs whirred in his brain. Then he
started speaking in English. Not fluent English, but the broken English of
someone who is a new but enthusiastic learner and has just realised that this
is a grand opportunity to practice. I replied in my mixture of Spanish and
English, smiling in a you-can-speak-English grin with regular encouraging nods.
In a gentle, unrushed style we found mats. The teacher made
sure that I had everything I needed and asked me about my yoga experience.
The problem with my yoga experience is that I’ve never had a
regular teacher. I first did yoga at the gym when I was at school. I did some
yoga at university, but it was a large class and there was no specific
feedback. I have been on a yoga retreat with the Mother, in which we did some
different styles of yoga. I have frequently done yoga from the Mother’s over
50s DVD. And then there was a yoga experience in Germany, in German, a language
which I don’t understand. I explained some highlights of this in Spanish, badly.
Normally people frown when they don’t understand, but I’m not sure yoga
teachers of deeply spiritual strange yoga practices, where they dress in all
white, can frown. I was therefore uncertain whether I was understood at all.
The worry I think that the teacher had, I realised later, was
that Kundalini yoga is not like other yoga. Asking me about my yoga experience
was kind of irrelevant. It was the wrong question. The question they should
have asked was about meditation, but they didn’t. The Casera reassured the teacher
that I was a meditative, spiritual person, a description which in her English
translates as ‘nun-like’ and involves her shutting her eyes and pretending to
pray. It’s a subject to avoid when she’s driving.
I was given a card with the chants written on them, the teacher
tried to explain, the Casera interjected that I didn’t have to chat, I asked
for pronunciation clarification and we began. A gong hung on the wall. I sat on
my meditation cushion and copied everyone else.
After a little strange chanting we began a few stretches. The
teacher decided that this was the place to practice his English and so the
Spanish instructions (which I mostly understood) were supplemented with
English. When we got to ‘put your hands on your knees’, the yoga teacher couldn’t
remember the word for knee and so paused to ask me. I successfully gave him the
However, the weird bending I was then supposed to do flummoxed
me. The teacher came over to help. The Casera stopped bending and turned around
to help too. The lady across the room kept bending, repeating what I found a
strenuous challenge in an elegant manner. If I were her I would have been
rolling my eyes at the commotion. The yoga teacher and the Casera wanted me to
move my hips in a different way, but as nobody knew the word for hips the Casera
resorted to some wild gesturing. Eventually I either got it or they gave up.
We returned to sitting on the floor. From then on, the
session focused on meditation. There was no more strange stretching, just
sitting very still. My posture was deemed acceptable for this and so we got
At this point it’s worth noting that I had no idea when the
class ended. It started at half eight, but there was no clock on the wall and I
had taken off my watch.
There was a gong. The teacher gonged the gong and I sat with
my hands in front of my heart being still. The teacher gonged the gong again
and again. I sat still.
A life of travel is very good at teaching you to surrender
to the moment. It’s a life of train stations and airports, immigration queues
and incomprehensible menus. I regularly don’t understand the conversations I have;
the culture surprises me (we don’t greet our yoga teachers with kisses in
England); and I’m frequently oblivious as to what I’m supposed to be doing –
hence the earlier navigational difficulties.
The gongs kept sounding, every time I thought the chimes might
be about to slow down, there would be another gong-g-g-g and after a long time
I realised that I was going to be sitting here a while.
When I did Vipassana meditation, which my friends like to describe
as cult-like and weird, I could barely sit straight for fifteen minutes. Feeling
sorry for me, the people who look after the meditators gave me a back board. Since
then I have not really done much Vipassana, it’s quite heavy-going meditation, but
I have done some more ‘mindfulness’ style meditations and now have a daily
practice. It turns of that if you practice mediation every day then your back
does in fact get stronger.
This all might deceive you into thinking that when it comes
to meditation I know what I’m doing. This isn’t true. Frequently, I find
meditation rather challenging. My mind starts thinking about other things. When
it falls into the trap of pondering the past I drag it back out, but when it is
excited, creative, or fantasising about the future, I get swept up in my
thoughts. Quite frequently I meditate with a little odd chanting meditation – although
weirder it’s gentler than a more silent meditation – and instead of just doing
what I’m supposed to I spend the time trying to roll an r at the end of every
syllable. ‘Sa, ta, na, ma’ becomes ‘SaRR, taRR, naRR, MaRR’. I still can’t roll
my r and it rather disrupts the meditation.
The book that I’m reading, Deep Work by Cal Newport, mentions the idea that sometimes, if you want to do something properly, deeply in fact, a good trick is to attack it with a grand gesture. He gives the example of J.K. Rowling, when struggling to finish the Deathly Hallows, moving herself into a hotel. I figure this is what enabled me to do ten days of silent Vipassana. I also believe that a serious Kundalini yoga masterclass, in Spanish, is a pretty grand gesture compared to my normal meditation practice which involves me sitting on my bed for ten minutes.
I think, that last night, kept myself going with the bewilderment
that I could.
Then the session got weird. Instead of gongs or chants,
which I do at least associate with more spiritually inclined meditation
practices, I heard the teacher tell us that he would play a song in English. At
first, I didn’t think I could have translated right, but nope, a few moments
later, some feel happy some about flowers being reborn started playing from the
I was now instructed to put my hands on my forehead, and
then a little later, just when my arms felt like they might drop off, on my
head. Every now and then some English words would interrupt the Spanish, so I knew
that I was clearing out my subconscious or whatever else I was supposed to be
When I finally opened my eyes, I discovered that the lady in
white had moved to lean against the wall and the Casera had stretched out her
legs and moved around in her heap of cushions. I of course was still sat
upright on my cushion in my elegant meditation posture.
More meditation followed, this time lying down. At first I
didn’t understand the instruction but after a tangential conversation where the
Casera explained to the teacher that it was past my bedtime already, and I
rolled my eyes, I worked it out. The Casera thinks I’m strange because I still,
even after months of living in Spain, insist on going to bed at dinner time. Personally,
I’m quite happy with my ten o’clock bedtime and the more I encounter the zombie
like Spaniards at work, the more convinced I become that I’m the one with the
I stretched out my legs, lay down on my mat and covered my
body with my blanket. There was another song, this time in some language that
was neither Spanish or English, but which occasionally included a random line
in English. I lay still, waiting, and then sometime later I started wiggling my
toes and my hands, in the typical fashion that one reawakens oneself after such
a yogaing, the teacher delighted in saying words like ‘toes’, ‘feet’ and hands’
in English. I smiled encouragingly and sat up. The lady in white continued to
sleep and the Casera began making gentle noises to gently wake her.
We were finished. I was relieved to have survived. We
expressed gestures of thanks, and then proceeded to, in a very Spanish fashion,
leave. Spanish fashion because you can’t simple say thank you and leave in
Spain. It is required that you first engage in a lengthy conversation in my
case a discussion of why the English language has so many conflicting rules. We
chatted about accommodation, rental agreements, the names in English of kitchen
appliances, and the state of language learning in Spain.
Eventually, we left. When we arrived back at the car I
glanced at my phone and discovered it was after 11.
I might have a tendency of landing on my feet, as my father
so claims, but sometimes I have to admit, I land in the most peculiar places.
With reluctance, accepting that the sun’s gaze was now facing the other wall of the apartment block and it was only my bare feet, heels resting on the balcony railing, that were in direct sunlight, I decided to come inside. The cat, fast asleep on the concrete block between the balcony and it’s neighbour, was luckier. The concrete block remained sunlit. The cat, twisted on it’s back, one paw in the air, limp, didn’t know how lucky it was. I reminded myself not to close the balcony door behind me.
Inside I switched my skirt for fleece-lined leggings, pulled on a cardigan followed by a hoodie, rinsed the few remaining grains of post-lunch coffee from my mug and flicked on the kettle for a fresh cup of tea. And to fill up my hot water bottle.
This is the south of Spain in winter. Outside the sky is very blue. I know good writing is not supposed to use the word ‘very’, but the sky is a very blue blue. In the mornings, I peer out of the window, crane my neck upwards at the small amount of it framed by the apartment block’s courtyard, and smile to see an absence of clouds. However, when I step out of the apartment building, wrapped up in scarf and coat, I wish I’d worn my gloves.
I’m told that the reason none of the buildings have central heating, or decent curtains, is that it’s not cold here; this week the temperature is set to drop below zero and all I’m armed with is a half-sized hot water bottle. I’m glad that when I was packing I thought a hot water bottle was a good idea. It felt like a mad indulgence at the time. I only thought it was a good idea because I write, and writing is one of those odd tasks which results in cold fingers.
We do have a heater, a couple of them in fact, but if you put them on in tandem you blow the electricity. The main one, white, rectangular, you need no imagination to imagine it, makes an awful racket and so I avoid putting it on where possible. Sometimes I want to curl up on the sofa and read, so I position the heater close enough to my body that I can give it a whack if the fan emits a tantrum.
My hot water bottle is silent. It wears a pale blue woollen jumper with an embroidered rainbow and smiling cloud. The cloud is white and fluffy, you need no imagination to imagine this either as its shape is straight out of a children’s cartoon. The cloud has pink cheeks. Its black eyes look up at me from my lap as I write.
Leaning forward I tip my head back and look up at the very blue sky reminding myself that it’s still there. Yes, it’s January 13th and already my legs have seen the sun.
It’s not the most welcoming environment. Even when there’s a blue sky outside, the corridor remains cold. The child opposite me wears a coat. I say child. He’s fourteen, when I was fourteen I didn’t feel child-like at all.
He tells me he hates history. I nod, I’ve heard this story before. It’s a symptom of one of the Spanish government’s ‘wonderful ideas’, as if Spain didn’t already have enough confusion about its own history already. This is a trilingual school so history here is taught in French.
How, the boy implores, is he supposed to write a page answering a history question in French? He can’t string together five French sentences. There is anger lining his voice, but also defeat. He thinks it is impossible. He believes he will fail history
The thing is… I don’t believe him
I listen and at no point say, ‘you’re wrong’. For him, this is a serious and painful topic, so I avoid smiling, despite finding it delightful how as he rants about French his English begins to flow.
I sympathise with his teachers
doubt that they’re going to fail him in history. He’s bright. If he’s
going to fail, then half the class is doomed. And the teachers don’t
like to fail half the class, it looks bad on them.
though, training to be a history teacher, and then the job market
changes. The best positions are going to those who can teach in a
foreign language. You’re raising a family, working full time and add
language classes in the evenings. You pass your exams, but when you’re
teaching you feel the difficulty of expressing yourself. You can’t tell
stories anymore. Humour doesn’t work. The classes struggle and get lost.
It’s not an easy role to take on.
But my focus is on the student in front of me
I don’t believe that he can’t write a page in French. He’s been studying that language for at least eight years. That’s seven years and seven months longer than I’ve been studying Spanish and if push came to shove, I could write a page on a historical topic in Spanish. If you gave me a few weeks I might be able to do it in French too.
I admit, I would need some verb tables if it was going to be in the correct tense, but I could write a page. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would exist. I could do it. A handwritten page is only a few hundred words.
The boy however believes he can’t and that’s a problem
Without belief he’s going to sit, uncomfortably, on the splintering green chair in his classroom. He’ll stare at a white piece of paper, pen in hand, and write as little as possible. Tension will squeeze his stomach. A metallic taste in his mouth. He’ll grip his pen tight.
If grows up to be like the twenty-something-year-old Spanish young men I know, then this fear will follow him into the future. When faced with a live, fast-speaking, slang-using French person, he’ll panic. His fight, flight or freeze response will wipe out his French language skills. His brain will scream ‘abort’.
I know this feeling
spent years learning French at school. Yet the only thing I can ever
think of to say is ‘Je ratisse avec un râteau’ which I learnt working on
a French farm. I can’t pronounce the phrase because I have never
mastered the damn ‘r’. The sentence means ‘I rake with a rake’, and is,
more or less, useless.
I’ve seen this same mind blasting fear
make sweat drip from the foreheads of wide-shouldered, swaggering
teenage boys. I’ve witnessed it time and time again. I’ve felt it myself
time and time again.
The opposite of fear is belief
Shortcuts don’t work.
a few shots of tequila or a bottle of wine can help. I know some women
who go from being unable to construct the present simple to being
comfortable with future conditional after a drink. Men, typically, need a
glass or two of beer, and for all the women to scarper. But these
children I teach aren’t looking to only be able to speak whilst
intoxicated. They need language skills for job interviews.
They need to belief in themselves
The child needs to believe he can speak French.
The teacher needs to believe they can teach in French.
Because without belief, everything becomes dredged in a thick gloopy fear.
Which would be sad, because this bright, articulate young man could do with a decent history education.
So, the next question is, where can you get belief from? (Or why is my Italian and Spanish better than my French)