Learning spanish.

I have been taking Spanish classes at Las Lilas School for 2.5 months already. Even though it is quite a chore to squeeze with the peak hour crowd to travel there from the university, I really look forward to the 2-hour lesson every Tuesday night. My teacher from Madrid, Cristina, is very encouraging and she makes the effort to conduct the class in Spanish and I find this style very practical. Language classes always involve a mixture of speaking, listening, reading and writing and different teachers set different priorities. The French crash course I had in France and the Cantonese class I has in Hongkong were both heavy on the speaking and listening components while the Malay class I did in the university last semester emphasized a lot on writing and reading. As for this Spanish class, the emphasis is on speaking and listening. I find language classes that slant towards the speaking and listening parts more useful when you’re staying in the country which uses that language as the main mode of communication. However, it is easy to forget the language once you leave that environment. On the other hand, classes that emphasize on writing and reading make you remember the language better even though you may find yourself tongue-tied when you need to communicate in that language. Personally, I feel that for introductory classes, learning to speak and listen to the new language will make people more interested in and fond of the language. Sometimes too much grammar details at the start make people afraid of the language.

The Spanish class is rather relaxing and it is a good respite from the stressful university culture. Cristina always encourages us to stay calm and understand the language bit by bit which makes it a really nice learning environment. The classmates, mostly non-Singaporean working adults, are motivated to learn Spanish for a variety of reasons. Some want to know the language for work-related reasons while others are making vacation plans in Spain/ South America later this year. For this basic class, we learn the greetings, how to introduce ourselves and our family in Spanish, some adjectives to describe appearance and personality as well as how to order food and drinks in a bar. We are also taught the grammar basics – masculine/ feminine (el, la, los, las), verb conjugation and singular/ plural.

As quite a number of words in English have Latin root, it is possible to guess the meaning of some Spanish words such as aeropuerto (airport), genoroso (generous) and masculino (masculine). One thing I notice as well is that some Spanish words have crept into the English language – I would have thought that they are English if not for this class and examples include “fiesta” (party), “pronto” (quickly), “guerrilla” (fighting force). However, like any other language, there are many things about Spanish which make it unique and special. 🙂 Again, I am not a language specialist and this is just a layman’s understanding of a new language.

1. Pronunciation.
To begin with, the “h” at the start of a word is not pronounced in Spanish. For instance, “hola” (hello) actually sounds like “ola”. “G” and “j” are especially difficult to pronounce and I have yet to master their pronuncation – they seem to involve making the sound from the back of the mouth or throat and positioning the tongue in a specific manner. Cristina claims that “ñ” is the pride of the Spanish language and it is a nasal sound.

2. “No, no tiene hermano.”

One thing that is really interesting about Spanish is that an equivalent word for “don’t” does not exist. Intriguedly, “no” has two uses in Spanish. It can be used as the negation similar to that in English (the opposite of yes) and a way to say “don’t”. The placement of “no” in the sentence essentially defines its meaning. For instance,  a sentence can be “No, no tengo hermano” which means “No, I do not have a brother” and while the first “no” means “no” in English, the second one means “don’t”.

3. Grammar basics.

A very special thing about Spanish is that the subject is often dropped in a sentence which makes the language rather succinct. Take the earlier sentence “No, no tengo hermano”. “Tengo” means have while “hermano” means brother. Essentially, the subject “I” is missing from the sentence. However, because “tengo” only goes with the first person (kind of similar to how “am” only goes with “I”, it is understood as “I do not have a brother”. If one means to say “you do not have a brother”, the sentence will be “no tienes hermano”. Alternatively, if one wants to say “he/she does not have a brother”, it will be “no tiene hermano”. Other scenarios include “we”, “you all” and “they” and different verb conjugations apply and they are “tenemos“, “tenéis” and “tienen” respectively.

Another aspect rather typical of European languages, such as Spanish, French and German, is the existence of masculine and feminine nouns. This is different from Asian languages like Chinese, Japanese and Malay in which nouns do not have gender. In Spanish, there are some general rules to follow to classify nouns as masculine or feminine. Nouns ending with ‘a’ or ‘dad’ are generally feminine such as manzana (apple), niña (girl) and ciudad (city). Others such as niño (boy), aeropuerto (airport) and bar are masculine. Because of this distinction, ‘the girl’ is referred to as ‘la niña’ while ‘the boy’ is ‘el niño’. While most masculine/ feminine classification is more because of the sound of the word rather than the actual characteristic, the ‘a’ and the ‘o’ define the gender in some words that describe people. For instance, ‘hermano’ is brother while ‘hermana’ is sister and ‘niño’ is boy while ‘niña’ is girl. Some nationalities follow this rule too – ‘americano’ for a male american while ‘americana’ for a female american. The trick lies in identifying the pattern as well as knowing the many exceptions to the generic rule.

I really want to take the second level of Spanish class in spite of the increasingly busy schedule. It is an interesting language and I feel that I have not learned enough to communicate in Spanish with my Spanish friends. Well, it is all about time management.

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