Monday, April 15, 2013

How I learnt to speak Spanish?

I was in my mid-30s.  Not a great time to start learning a language but circumstances of my new job plus a bit of pushing and shoving from my boss, Jorge Bayona (God bless his heart) made me join a Spanish Language class.  

It wasn't in the best period of my life and I went under duress.  

It began in a beginner's two-hour class held twice or was it thrice weekly.  I can't remember now.  The classes weren't something I looked forward to because it was in the evenings and after a full day of work.  The teacher, Agustin Gutierrez was from Mexico.  I think he's a very good teacher.  I didn't know then but looking back, I realise that he was very good at his job.

The first lesson began without me.  I don't know how I missed it but I did.  Anyway, I attended my first class and was unpleasantly surprised to find that the teacher spoke completely in Spanish!  

Fortunately, they hadn't done much in the first lesson which probably would have been introductions and getting to know each other.

I was really unhappy but my pride set in and I decided to make it work.

The lessons were not very easy and the only reason I was able to follow everything was because earlier, I had taken a very short conversational Spanish class.  That didn't amount to anything and at the end, I was unable to follow or make any conversations with the Spanish-speaking community.

However, memory is such that when it's in your head, it lays dormant just like riding a bicycle.  Slowly, the words began to have meaning and it became easier.

At that time, everything was difficult for me because I didn't have the right attitude about it.  I was attending because I had to and not because I wanted to.

In hindsight, learning Spanish turned out to be such a great distraction during a period of discontent. Later, I would realise and appreciate the value of communicating in another language.

Anyway, that's another story.  

The reason for this post is to highlight the steps that I took to master a foreign language.  

1.  I paid attention in class and did my homework.  I'm a good student.  There's no denying this.  Okay, I'll admit that I begged my colleague on several occasions to help me with homework.  Manuel if you ever read this, I want to say "Gracias" again.  You were my "ángel disfrazado".

2.  I read Selecciones which is the Spanish version of Reader's Digest.  This was the hardest thing to do.  I didn't enjoy it and just browsed through the titles and jokes.  Maybe today I would find it interesting but not when I was a beginner.

3.  I made efforts to follow conversations whenever possible.  This was one of the main reasons why learning the language was important.  My colleagues could no longer speak freely when I was around.  Hah!

4.  I joined the 'Red Latina" which is a Spanish chat forum.  I found out that I could spell better than many there.  The people on the other side of the globe didn't believe I was a Malaysian and chatting with them in their own language.  I discovered words that you don't learn in a formal classroom. These little inroads boosted my confidence.  

5.  I listened to songs in Spanish. This was the easiest! It was strange because, at the beginning, it was like listening to a Chinese or Hindustani song.  You like the music but don't understand anything.

So I did the next best thing, I played the cassettes over and over again and wrote out the lyrics.  Those were the days when 'Google' didn't exist yet!  As Spanish was so alien to me, I couldn't figure out many of the phrases.  For this, I have to say that my boss, would happily check if the words I wrote, made sense.  He'd correct them and occasionally, he would sit with me and listen to whatever song I chose, and help me get the phrases that I couldn't catch.

Once I had the lyrics, I'd play that song on my way to work and on my way home.  I'd sing in the car and it made me feel like I was already a native Spanish speaker/singer!  BUT singing a song and speaking are worlds apart because if you strike up a conversation with anybody, they'll expect you to respond and what was I going to do then?  Break into a song!!!! 

It was disheartening.  After three hundred hours of lessons, I was still unable to say that I could speak the language.

But I persisted on my own and kept up with the songs of Ricardo Montaner, Laura Fygi, Chabuca Granda, Eva Ayllon, Camilo Sesto, Luis Miguel, Laura Pausini, of course Ricardo Arjona and many others whose names I don't remember.

Months after I finished the three levels of Spanish, JB gave me a cassette of Arjona songs.  Specifically he asked me to listen to "El Taxista".  He said, "listen and see if you can catch the story".  AND just like that, I did!  I understood what it was about.  I had to check some words on my own but I knew the story in the song.

That's what learning a language is all about. You have to immerse yourself in it.  You have to read, write, listen and love it.  

If you're struggling today with a new language, I have this to say, "one day, without even realising, you'll be thinking in that language and that's the day you'll know you've mastered it."

When I had to take my final test for the Advanced Level, my boss told me to spend the whole afternoon to do my revision.  "No more office work today", he said.  I had the best marks in the class. 

I have to put on record that it was due to JB's encouragement and  support that I was able to master the language.  When he left Malaysia after seven years, I was not only able to speak and write, I was able to perform my duties more efficiently.


Some people come into your life and they change you forever.  

This post is dedicated to you, Jorge Bayona for a life-changing distraction.

And I haven't forgotten the song you said was for me even before I turned 40!  I chanced upon it on youtube and it brought back all these memories that I have put down in this post.


  1. I enjoyed reading about your journey with Spanish. And you come through as one determined lady: one you set your mind to something, there's no holding you back!

    If Spanish were offered at University Malaya when I was in my first year, we'd have been able to chat! But, the department had closed, so I opted for French, my second choice.

    And then, Larnee met her Frenchman, and I re-learned French, and am ok with reading it, but please don't speak to me, because je ne comprends pas - which Google Translate says is: No entiendo. Betul ke? ;)

    1. I did have the option to study Spanish at University Malaya. It was a three-year thing which I declined. I found the classes at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (IDFR) better because it was just a class for beginners consisting of 100 hours. That sounded doable to me. Three years seemed like a lifetime!!!

      No entiendo means "I don't understand". :)

      It was nice to remember the snippets of my learning phase!