Learning Spanish in the age of the Climate Emergency

As a Filipino, I speak at least three languages fluently. That is, I speak Tagalog (the Philippines’ national language), Ilocano (the language of a majority in the North) and English (also one of the country’s official languages, having been a former colony of the US). But, moving to Spain thrust me into a new linguistic challenge I had not anticipated: learning Spanish in my 30s.

I moved to Spain in September 2020 to fulfil a dream. In the middle of a global pandemic, I decided to fly to Barcelona to study a master’s degree in Political Science. I had been to the city once before as a tourist and was charmed by its cobblestone streets and its distinctive architecture. I also remember being able to converse mostly in English, which I naively thought would be enough to survive the city as a resident. As it turns out, learning Spanish would not only endear me to the cashier at my neighbourhood supermarket or make my life easier when transacting with government agencies, it would also allow me to experience community and conviviality beyond anything I had imagined.

As a Filipino, I have some advantage in learning Spanish because my mother tongue includes many Spanish words (thousands of loanwords, according to estimates). But this did not mean learning the language has been easy. In the first few months, I had to constantly remind myself of the gender of words, which was completely alien to me because Tagalog does not have the same gender dimensions on nouns or adjectives. Eventually, I enjoyed learning the peculiarities and nuances of the Spanish language, especially when I realise its similarities to Tagalog. To this day, I still chuckle a little whenever I hear the expression ‘mala leche’ because in the Philippines ‘Leche!’ is also used to express disappointment or a foul mood. The similarities in linguistic affect between Tagalog and Spanish never cease to amaze me.

Through Spanish, I have also learned new ways to convey urgencies over an issue that I am most passionate about: climate change. In Tagalog, there is no direct translation of climate change but in Spanish, cambio climático succinctly encapsulates the phenomenon. Moreover, Spanish has taught me new ways of harnessing people power and hope in fighting for another world. For instance, ‘El pueblo unido jamás será vencido’ perfectly articulates the power that a united people’s front has in dismantling the systems of oppression that perpetuate climate injustice. It is a sentence that I hold dear in my heart.

Indeed, while learning a new language can be daunting, the process can also be a way to discover the world and society. For me, Spanish also afforded new ways to appreciate the communities at the forefront of the climate crisis, those who are working every day to build a better and more just planet. Learning Spanish opened my world to the different ways that climate change is changing communities and what they’re doing to fight back. In one of my walks around Barcelona, I remember seeing a graffiti written on a wall that I still return to whenever the future seems too bleak and overwhelming. It is this sentence that I hope to always remember in moments of loss or despair: Tengo ganas que ganar el mundo.

Alanah Torralba

1st December 2022

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