First: A few days ago a piece of news caused a stir in the Philippine academic community. An OECD report (https://www.oecd.org/) showed the results of a reading comprehension test given to a number of countries, including the Philippines. What got the debate going was the rather dismal performance of the Philippines in the said test, in which the proud English-speaking country found itself at the bottom of the list. The exchange of arguments fomented informed and misguided discussions between various schools of thought on how best to teach reading and English in a country of more than 90 million speakers.
As expected, fingers pointed at public school teachers and error-riddled textbooks. To someone who has taught in a classroom set up, this is nothing new. This has been going on since the 1990s. And this concerns only English, which is a third language to most Filipinos. While there’s a certain segment of the population that claims to use English as a first language, is unclear how these people make an impact on the average Filipino’s English language proficiency. It is furthermore subject to debate how English proficiency impacts inclusive economic growth in a country caught in dilemma of transitioning from agriculture to full blown industrialization.
If for the sheer pleasure of playing language games, I decide to study another language, say Spanish, how would it impact my English language proficiency? You’d probably say it will ruin my English because there doesn’t seem to be any connection between English and Spanish. These two languages, apparently, seem to be worlds apart. And, transported into the Filipino context, using one and learning another from scratch will muddle up both. So, instead of becoming proficient at two languages one will decline in both in the long run.
Well, here’s what happened to me: The impetus of my decision to learn Spanish any which I can is my friend who is a professor of History but has worked for a Spanish campaign at a call center for nine years. He majored in history as an undergrad, and was lucky to have had more than five classes in Spanish with Spanish speaking professors in Iloilo. Until 1993, many universities in Iloilo stilled offered Spanish classes, and one Catholic school I remember, had an active Spanish Department which was chaired by a professor who had gone on to get a graduate degree in Spain. My friend, being a voracious reader, spent his free time reading Spanish texts in the library, and on weekends, conversing in Spanish with a teacher over beer. That’s how he learned the language. But the real work of language acquisition, however, doesn’t end there. Some days my friend would be seen wearing a guayabero, other days a sombrero. He would be overheard speaking with a faux Mexican accent in the cafeteria. He started collecting novels by Mario Vargas Llosa, Miguel Angel Asturias, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Even if he did not understand much of the elevated literary language used in these books, he never let up. He bought a gigantic Spanish-English dictionary to quench his thirst. A year before he graduated university, he was able to translate a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Soon after he had slowly made a reputation for himself of being a smooth Spanish speaker. True enough, he had it going well at the call center and at the Instituto Cervantes in Manila.
1. What did I learn from him that I was able to apply to my own Spanish language lessons?
Learning a new language requires learning the culture of the target language as well.
It makes reading and listening to a new language a lot easier when you have something to see, feel, and taste—something that engages your senses. That way, learning a new language becomes a first-hand experience.
2. Learning a new language need not be a “taught” classroom experience.
Children pick up a new language fast. It only takes a few months after initial exposure and they’ll start speaking the language. It’s because they live in an environment where they have no choice but to use it. Even while they revert to their native tongue back at home, the hours they spend with the new language are longer than the time they spend speaking with their parents. Eventually this gets to a point where children may forget their native tongue altogether.
3. Listening is a miracle worker.
There’s something about listening to a native speaker using your target language that does wonders. I get asked quite frequently where I learned English from and I answered that I just loved watching cartoon shows on TV. I didn’t understand much of it initially, but over time, through constant repetition, it all fell into place. Repetition and imitation, when done with clockwork precision, may put many language teachers out of work.
4. Finally, there is no substitute to motivation.
My friend was so fired up to learn Spanish that he even dreamed in it. He would go about reading English signs and translating them into Spanish, overhearing lyrics of English songs and thinking up of the closest Spanish equivalent. He would read recipes and translate them as well.
I am, in fact, at this very stage of my new language adventure. I have bought six books in Spanish, subscribed to four Spanish Youtube Channels, and made friends with a Mexican, an Ecuadorian-Spanish , and an Argentinian on social media. But, I think I’m going to beat my professor friend. For someone who began studying Spanish barely six months ago, I can speak with my friends now without them having to stop and ask if I understand. And I don’t fear for my English either. See for yourself.