Why study Spanish?

Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario 1
A company orders equipment that is crucial to its improved productivity.  The equipment arrives but the instructions for assembling and operating it are in Spanish.  What do they do?  Send it all back and risk diminished returns; pay lots of money to bring in a consultant from the manufacturing company; or ask the employee who has done Spanish courses in university to translate the documents?

Scenario 2
A patient comes in to the emergency room at the hospital in visible agony.  He is trying to explain his situation but no one understands because he is using a language that is foreign to all the nurses.  Someone realises that it is Spanish and calls on the janitor who is from Honduras to help.   She is able to understand the patient and with the information passed on, the doctors are able to perform an appendectomy that saves the patient’s life.

Scenario 3
A young fellow in school does not see the relevance of learning Spanish. He longs for the day when he will “drop” it and he does so upon entering fourth form. He breathes a sigh of relief and hopes never to see another Spanish text nor hear another Spanish word in his life. He grows up to be a teacher of Math and Geography. No need for Spanish here. Later, a career change sees him as an immigration officer who must interact with passengers and tourists from various countries in the region. He has to expend thousands of dollars to take a course at the language training centre to be eligible to function adequately on his job.
I could provide many more real life examples to substantiate my claim that learning a foreign language is beneficial.  So, why learn Spanish? Spain is so far away! Yes it is, but Central and South America are near. These nations are our economic and geographical neighbours. We trade with them; we work with them and we visit their countries for vacations.
Even more important is the fact that we exist in a global village and it behoves us to be able to communicate with others everywhere. The companies with which we work may have subsidiaries in Spanish-speaking countries and we may need to communicate with our colleagues in those countries. 
Arguably, we do not need to learn Spanish because English is the international language of trade and commerce and politics. But wouldn’t we be at an advantage if we could comprehend and communicate our neighbours in their native tongue? The risk of misunderstandings and loss of information through translation would be minimised.
So knowing all of this, why are we apathetic toward learning the language? Why do students loathe the subject so much? Why do they see it as a chore to be endured because it is mandatory? The truth is, because the focus is on grammar and vocabulary, the students feel pressured to learn to write the language (they do written exams), since they do not have adequate opportunity to experience it conversationally. Opportunities for speaking and listening to the language exist, but the fast-paced world in which we live demand that everything be done instantaneously. The time and effort needed to learn about the culture of the people we study, the rules that govern grammar, the vocabulary and pronunciation, are in short supply. Despite textbooks that present real life situations, grammatical structures and vocabulary that one would use in real life – to order meals, to plan and go on vacations, to go shopping, to deal with health- related issues – students are not enamoured to learn them.  So what if the two Latinos are cursing you while you do your shopping? Who cares? So what if you need a few words of Spanish to save your or someone else’s life? Someone else can do it. It doesn’t have to be you.
This brings us to another bone of contention. The textbooks used in schools foster the teaching of Castilian Spanish, which is a standard form of the language far removed from what the native Latino speaks. So, it doesn’t help to ask them for help. They are sometimes as lost as the non- Spanish speaking students, because the language of the streets and that of the text are poles apart.
Ideally, immersion in a foreign language situation will foster the development of language skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing. But, alas, we cannot all afford this. We have to work with the resources and the time that we have. Truthfully, we do not spend as much time on the speaking and listening skills and developing communicative competencies as we would like, and we do not focus as much on the culture to try to understand fully the people whose language we study. Maybe if we were to do so, then we would show more respect to and generate a love for the language.
Additionally, whenever we think of how difficult it is to learn the language, we should think of the native Spanish- speaking people among us who have an even more difficult time to learn and speak English with its numerous exceptions to every rule. Let’s face it; English is harder to learn than Spanish. The fact that it is culled from many different languages means that spelling, pronunciation and grammatical rules are a tangled web for us to negotiate.
Think, for instance, of the challenge faced to pronounce “rough” and “through” or pluralising foot and boot! If the plural of foot is feet, why can’t the plural of boot be beet?
So, even if it seems to be a Herculean task, students of Spanish should press along, confident that their efforts are not in vain. The potential rewards may in fact outweigh the pains and pressures that have to be endured now.


An eye on the UCCI by Erica Gordon, MPhil, Lecturer in Arts and Humanities