Why not Spanish as a third language?
STAR BYTES - Butch Francisco () - July 12, 2001 - 12:00am
When I was told late last week that I was going to interview on Startalk South American beauty Natalia Oreiro, the star of the new GMA-7 tele-novela, Monica Brava, I panicked a bit when I found out that she was only conversant in Spanish.

The day before the interview, I started thinking of questions to ask Natalia - in Spanish. Then, all of a sudden, I realized that this most romantic of languages had already ceased to slide off my tongue. I groped for words and phrases in Spanish, but I had already lost it - almost completely.

No, I never really spoke the language with the fluidity and ease of a Madrileno or a Malagueno. Normally, I would just limp my way through a conversation conducted in the Castilian language. However, I would manage to get by somehow – often with enough grammatical monstrosities to make Miguel de Cervantes do cartwheels in his grave.

But since I stopped using the language the day after I turned in my test paper for the final exam of my Spanish 4 in college many years ago, my little knowledge of Spanish had become as rusty as a tin can left out in the open – to be exposed to the elements.

Last Saturday on Startalk, I succeeded in asking Natalia questions in straight Spanish. Her response, however, had to be translated into either English or Tagalog by the interpreter, Mrs. Flora Maullon. Actually, I could have interpreted in Filipino Natalia’s answers myself, except that by the time I’m done with the translation, she probably would already have flown back to her home base in Argentina.

Although the interview went well, I still regret the fact that I did not pursue my interest in this language after college.

My earliest lessons in Spanish were actually learned on the lap of my maternal grandmother. For a time, in fact, I even recited Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be in Spanish. (Up to now, I find it a lot easier to recite Hail Mary in Spanish because the English version is rather difficult on the tongue – especially the part that goes... "now, and at the hour of our death.") But after my grandmother passed away, I absolutely lost interest in anything Hispanic.

When I went to college and took up Spanish 1, I had this yearning to learn the Castilian language once more – thanks to this professor who was vibrant and relatively young at 32 (although she passed herself off as 23 – but that’s another story). This Spanish teacher conducted lively discussions in class and was very patient with anyone who was willing to learn the language.

Unfortunately, for my Spanish 2, the professor assigned to handle the class turned out to be a remnant of the galleon trade between Mexico and the Philippines. She insulted all those who made mistakes during recitations and threw out of the room students who didn’t bring their books with them to class. Well, the wise guys that we were, we would deliberately leave behind our books at home so that we’d get thrown out of her classroom and out of her life. Oh, what fun we had at the school cafeteria where we savored our temporary liberation from our teacher’s tyrannical methods of teaching the Spanish language.

It was in one of these idle moments that I learned about this tryout for the English oratorical contest. Since I wasn’t doing very well in my academic subjects, I decided I might as well excel in extra-curricular activities.

When I went to the auditorium where the auditions were being conducted, however, I found out to my horror that the entire school showed up. There was no way I was going to win this contest. At least, not with my piece called Tribute to a Dog.

A few months later – and this was sometime in December – auditions were held for the Spanish declamation contest. I thought I had a better chance here because I was very sure very few people would show up for the tryout. True enough, there were only 12 of us in the audition. And half of the 12 were just pushed by their Spanish professors into trying out. Since I was the only one who took the audition seriously, the committee decided that there would be no more formal competition and that I would be sent to represent the college in the university-wide Spanish declamation contest.

I only had three weeks to prepare and was given a coach from another school – Majela Barranco, a direct descendent of the great poet of the Spanish revolution, Fernando Ma. Guerrero.

For my piece, Ms. Barranco made me choose from among the works of Fernando Ma. Guerrero. I chose the shortest one (but which proved to be the most difficult to deliver). It was called Altivez (Haughtiness).

I spent the holiday season rehearsing my piece at the Quezon City home of Ms. Barranco. When classes resumed after New Year, I flunked the preliminary exam for my Psychology class (mercifully, I made up for it in the finals) because there was nothing in my head – except for that Fernando Ma. Guerrero declamation piece called Altivez.

The day before the big contest, I went to Quiapo Church and made a bargain with the Black Nazarene. Before the altar of the Senor Nazareno, I promised would donate P100 to Quiapo Church if He would at least make me land in third place. Now, if He wanted me to donate P300, then He had to make me win first place.

I ended up donating only P100. The farthest I reached in the contest was third place. But I was very pleased and happy with my third place finish. My parents were even happier because they didn’t think I’d win anything in this life.

After that Spanish declamation contest, the Spanish teachers all over the university sought me out and started casting me in – believe it or not – lead roles in Spanish plays.

Prior to this, I had also appeared in other school plays – but was cast in very minor parts. In the school production of Oedipus Rex, for instance, I was made to play the tertiary role of the shepherd who only had two lines – which I even flubbed in the actual presentation.

But since there were very few students who were willing to get involved in Spanish school productions, I had the monopoly of all the choice parts in Spanish plays. Sure, I didn’t look Castilian and – worse – had very little acting talent. But there was no one else to do these roles. So they were stuck with me.

From my end, I didn’t really enjoy doing theater. But I had to do it because that excused me from attending regular classes.

After college, the people I mingled with in my profession all frowned on anything Hispanic. Even I got turned off every time I would hear a Filipino speak in Spanish in a crowd of Pinoys.

It was only when I went to live in the US that I realized the value of the Spanish language. Spanish was being spoken everywhere – especially in Los Angeles. People who were fluent at both English and Spanish actually got better job offers – so I found out when I was applying for work.

Unfortunately, I was among those who threw away the chance to master the Spanish language – even at a time when I had every opportunity to really learn it. During rehearsal breaks in the Spanish plays I did for school, for example, I would refuse to speak to the teachers in the Spanish tongue because I was afraid of getting corrected. Secondly, being very young then, I thought it was old-fashioned to be speaking in the language of the conquistadores. But regret comes late in life. And there have been many instances in my career when the mastery of the Spanish language would have come in handy.

Of course, we can live and die without learning Spanish. But at the same time, I don’t think it would kill us if we mastered a third language.

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