Monday, July 17, 2006

Lengua Española

I took up Spanish lessons at the Instituto Cervantes a few years ago, not so much out of genuine interest in Spanish culture and literature, but because my good friend Titus dragged me along. And besides, I was a bit curious as well.

The first few lessons were a blast. We all had a lot of fun, tripping and falling over our limited vocabulary, mangling the pronunciation and generally making asses of ourselves. And besides, we all thought Spanish was an easy language to learn because Filipino dialects (Cebuano and Chavacano) in particular, are peppered with Spanish words and phrases.

As you progress however, things take a different turn. The fun time is over, as grammar drills, irregular verbs and idioms take their places. We were forced to listen to audio material at lightning speed, and watch mostly existentialist but dull, avant-garde Spanish movies, although our teachers were kind enough to leave on the English subtitles.

Sometimes, I understood an entire complex sentence at top speed, with clauses, adjectives and tense changes. Then I got so impressed with myself, mentally pat myself on the back, only to miss the next three sentences entirely. Dialogues were worse. With regional accents, word short cuts and colloquialisms, I only understood every 5th word. It doesn't help that native speakers tend to slur their speech.

More often than not, even if you understood every word said, making sense out of it takes time. You see, there is a gap between recognizing the words and actually understanding the entire sentence. In my case, I search for the infinitive form of the verb and then translate everything, literally, into English, before finding what it's all about. *sigh*

You patiently watch news on Television Española, but you tend to flick the remote to CNN occasionally so as to get an idea of what is being reported. Or you watch and try to follow the game shows, with the hosts rattling off at machine-gun speed.

In the beginning, it was awfully strenuous. I comprehended virtually nothing although I could tell where one word ended and another began.

I also bought Spanish-language novels and short stories, but looking at the dictionary all the time and trying to decipher idioms became a taxing, cumbersome activity.

After six levels, my proficiency and comprehension has improved a lot. I have not yet conquered the language, although I can proudly say I am at least a little competent. Should I be put in the middle of Malaga, banished to Extremadura or the Uruguayan hinterlands and the Argentine pampas I will survive.

My reading is so much better than my writing and oral skills. But my Spanish grammar leaves much to be desired. Well, I have no one to converse Spanish with here in Manila.

I also had to stop attending classes because the venue was just too far, and the traffic remains unbearable. Instituto Cervantes transferred its offices even further off, to UN Avenue.

The consequence of shifting languages in the course of one day can cause your brain to misfire: Cebuano with my family, Tagalog with my friends, English with my work partners and now Spanish. Like sending a SMS message containing all four languages!

But I consider myself lucky. My former office colleague, who’s ethnic Chinese, speaks Fookien at home, Tagalog and Cebuano with her friends, Mandarin and English at work, and she’s so far advanced in her French classes at the Alliance Française I think she really has language overload. You know, like we start a conversation in Tagalog and end it in Cebuano, with English in between, liberally spiced up with plenty of French and Spanish.

We’re going bonkers.

Still, I hope to see the day, and experience the magic moment when I will finally conquer the language, when the brain clicks and you do not have to strain yourself to catch every word, or sweat everytime somebody speaks to you in a rapid fire manner, when you finally relax and express yourself confidently without sounding like an eejit, when the door is finally laid open for you to step in, inviting you to be part of a new and exciting world.

I am not there yet, but I will be.