First week into our Masters program, I was sitting with four of my classmates for our first beer together. The conversation juggled from our respective countries to our families back home. I found myself busy conjugating Spanish verbs in my head, at the same time trying to follow the flow of the conversation as I happened to be the only non-Spanish speaker in the group. Even worse, everybody spoke super fast with their own funny accents making my brain work triple time: choosing the right words, composing at least one less grammatically-challenged sentence, right gender and articles and all, and waiting for my cue to say the memorized line. As I opened my mouth ready to launch, my friends had already moved on to the next subject and what I was about to say was no longer relevant. I quickly took a swig of beer, gave a knowing nod and released a smile.
Even if I had taken Spanish classes in the Philippines before coming to Spain, I had to start from zero upon my arrival. Hearing the locals speak in a rat-tat fashion, I immediately realized that my four-hour sessions every Saturday in Manila were just going to go pfft. I had learned some Spanish vocab all right or how to conjugate verbs but the part where I had to understand them was a bit intimidating. It seemed that every time I opened my mouth, it was hard to even utter a single, whole error-free sentence. Expressing myself was such an ordeal that I had to resort to my pidgin Castellano accompanied by a lot of hand gestures to drive my point home. Although there are about 20% of Spanish words in the Filipino vocabulary, Spanish is still a tad tricky, grammatically speaking. And so I decided to take Spanish seriously because if not, I would be eaten up alive and all I could muster was “Si!” all the time.
To those who are planning to learn Spanish, I have some practical tips for you:
1) Take Classes – Learning the Rules and the Exceptions to the Rules
Taking Spanish classes is a must. It is always important to know the rules and the exceptions to the rules. It´s also a way of meeting new friends who share the same interest as yours. So I ran straight to the College of Philology of the University of Santiago and enrolled in level 1. There are free Spanish classes at universities in Spain and in big cities like Madrid and Barcelona, there are various language centers subsidized by the government such as the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas. They offer intensive and extensive classes at very affordable prices. Aside from the Official School of Languages, there are also NGOs that give classes especially to immigrants; at times at much cheaper prices but most of the time, free. Extensive classes usually run from late September to early June while intensive classes, from late September to early February and late February to early June. And there are private academies that have mushroomed everywhere in the country. I juggled between my regular classes in the morning and my Spanish class in the afternoon. I was digesting Spanish six hours a day.
Little by little, my Spanish was getting better. Inside the classroom, I could at least follow 60% of what the fastest talking teacher was explaining compared to the 5% during the first few days. At home, my relationship with my flat mates had improved quite well. From a single line that would usually consist of a simple “¿Hola, que tal?”, I had expanded my “horizon” and started to be more daring by asking about their day.
2) Join a Language-Exchange Tandem
Being able to express myself a bit much better than my “Si”-filled days, there was this sudden itch to put this surge of confidence to good use. I needed a constant companion to continuously practice my Spanish with. A language-exchange tandem easily came to mind. I composed my own ad starting with “I´m looking for a Spanish-English intercambio partner…”, and capping it with “…we can talk about anything under the sun!” The following day, I went to post my ad and waited for some takers. On the bulletin board, a very interesting ad caught my attention. “Portuguese-English language exchange. With free Brazilian food experience.”
I immediately received three e-mails from a student athlete, a Romanian girl and a history teacher. All three wanted to start the earliest possible time. After setting a date for each one of them and after explaining what I meant about “anything under the sun”, I was ready for my first ever intercambio experience. That same day, another email arrived; a reply from my future Portuguese-English intercambio partner. She was excited that somebody was interested in learning Portuguese with her. I was already imagining “the free Brazilian food”.
So how does a language-intercambio work? It´s simple. You agree where and when to meet. You spend an hour talking in Spanish, your native partner corrects your mistakes and in the second hour, you shift to English, you correct his/her mistakes and agree to meet again for another session. The Romanian girl introduced me to her Spanish friend and we already had our sessions at their place over coffee and sometimes a sumptuous Galician lunch. The history teacher supplied me with a lot of reading materials about the history of Spain and the athlete helped me practice my personal nemesis: the subjunctives. I remember waging war against the subjunctive mood and this intercambio thing was indeed a great help.
3) A Verb a Day…
Studying the rules and talking with native speakers introduce you to more words, especially verbs. Sometimes I abused the line “¿Como se dice...?” (How do you say…?) when I talked with my intercambio partners as I groped for the right verb. Entonces, it is essential to know as many verbs as you can. What I did was, before climbing my bed at night, I would pick one verb and try to conjugate it using all its tenses, especially the subjunctive tense. It proved helpful as a verb a day kept my conjugating-woes away.
4) Read, Read and Read
Reading is very vital in learning a language. Aside from learning more words, one can familiarize himself with complex sentences, spelling and most especially improve one´s comprehension skills. The history teacher lent me books written by famous Galician authors and not only were they interesting, most of them were not that difficult to understand. With a dictionary close to me, I dedicated most of my spare time reading and discussing with him in our intercambio sessions some points from those books.
5) Sing, Watch and Listen
I remember one Spanish teacher in Manila once told us that movies, music and TV were one of the most effective tools in learning a language. And I couldn´t agree more. I even took it all to heart. I scoured the nearest video clubs somewhere in Plaza Roja and rented Spanish films, both old and new. Every night, armed with my notebook and earphones, I spent a couple of hours with some of Spanish cinema greats like the prolific Carmen Maura Almodovar, Amenabar, Bigas Luna and more. Not only was it a good exercise to improve my listening skills but I also got to observe how they deliver the lines and pronounce the words. It became a habit to watch a movie twice. First, with English subtitles to fully understand the whole film, writing down the new words and their meanings. The subtitles disappeared during the second sitting. This time, to see if I could catch the dialogues without any guide whatsoever. In the morning, I would listen to the songs of Juanes and Alejandro Sanz and at dinner, I would catch the evening news on TV in the communal kitchen with my pen and notebook. Sometimes, I would stay a little bit after the evening news and stretch my brain by watching talk show hosts hurl insults and invectives at their guests at a speed of 500 words per millisecond. I got to learn insults and swear words in Spanish as fast as a speeding light. Balanced programming at its best.
6) Master the Art of Eavesdropping Without Becoming a Gossip
This is the fun side of learning Spanish. Take the public transport like the bus or the underground and you will never miss a chance of catching a new word or two and even gain friends at a snap of a finger. Spanish people love speaking out loud in public. And they don’t mind telling their stories in high decibels for everybody to hear, whether on the phone or to their seatmates. So if you happen to be around them, just sharpen your ears and there, you will be able to check your listening skills whether you can catch what your seatmate on your right has said about her lover and your seatmate on your left wants to go to on holidays after her husband´s hernia operation. Or the grandmother in front of you itching to share how her daughter-in-law wanted to take her to a Home. It´s up to you if you want to join in or just a happy eavesdropper. I also suggest sharing your political thoughts with a Spanish taxi driver and you will have an exciting oral exam with a lot of expletives during the whole ride.
The Importance of Going Beyond the “Si”
Most of us think that learning the language is no longer necessary. It might be because we don’t have time to go to class or dedicate more time to study. Some even think that they can learn the language on their own by spending time with the locals. This might work for some but not for others. It is still important to know the basic, especially the rules. And of course, practice. Through practice, we gain confidence. Having confidence, we can express ourselves better. Another beauty of learning the language is the chance to understand the culture of the host country and compare it with ours. Sometimes we will find it surprising to know that even if we use several Spanish words in Filipino, these words don’t exactly mean the same as their Spanish counterparts. Take the case of the “siyempre/siempre” which means “of course” in Tagalog but means “always” in Spanish or “Lamyerda/La Mierda” meaning “paint the town red” in Tagalog but in Spanish, it literally means “the shit”. Either one plans to stay longer or not, learning Spanish is culturally “enlightening”, satisfying and full of surprises.
Looking back, I could only cringe, giggle and smile at my blunders, the awkward silence after repeating the same line the other person had already said, or those understanding looks assuring me that it was okay to mistake “EL” for “La”. Committing grammar mistakes is not a capital sin, mind you. Not being our mother tongue, we have the license to commit boo-boos. Remember, learning a language is a personal experience. And each one has its own way of doing it. Don’t rush. Be patient. It is a work in progress. Some can master it in a matter of weeks, while some, years. Take your time and ENJOY!
And so, by the time I was about to defend my thesis at the end of my Masters, my Spanish was already functional. In the end, I passed, gained friends and my Spanish movie career hadn’t been so good. And yes, my classmates no longer called me, “The boy who always says Si!”
Nats Sisma Villaluna came to Spain to study Masters in International Sectorial Economics at the University of Santiago de Compostela in 2004. From 2005 to 2008, he worked as a volunteer with various Spanish NGOs in Madrid. In 2009, he took up Masters in International Cooperation at the University of Barcelona. At present, he juggles from teaching English to being an active volunteer of Centro Filipino in Barcelona. He is a member of The Filipino Writers in Spain and the Grupo Concierto Filipino. Nats is a lover of books, good food and art films. He also travels a lot in his free time.