Interviewing Amit: the self-taught linguist
We continue our series of interviewing individuals who have put their love for Spanish into practice! Today we speak with Amit Schandillia, a self-taught linguist, author of The Spanish Vocabulary Bible and founder of the Spanish language blog, PeppyBurro.
1. Can you start off by introducing yourself?
My name is Amit. I am a full-time language-learning evangelist from India who has taught himself Spanish over the years using nothing but freely available resources on the Internet and a few cheap phrasebooks. I am 34 and live with my cat in Mumbai, the liveliest city in this part of the world. Until a couple of years ago, I was working with a Florida-based subprime mortgage banking firm as the operations manager. I quit my job in order to focus more on my hobby and turn it into a full-time source of livelihood. I run PeppyBurro, a Spanish learning blog committed to offering fellow self-learners free (and downright unconventional) tips and tricks to master the language as effortlessly as possible.
2. When did you realise you wanted to learn Spanish and why?
I consider myself a citizen of the world and am perennially curious about the places and people outside of my country. Because of this, foreign language has always been an integral part of my interests. Although India is a country with over 25 different regions, each with mutually unintelligible languages, language learning is yet to be a big endeavor here. Hindi is the lingua franca and so is English, so people rarely go out of their way to learn a foreign language.
Spanish was never on my radar, until 2002 when I was first exposed to Latin music. I listened to Enrique and Shakira and the music captivated me. So I set out to explore the language they sang in. I came to learn Spanish was more important in the western hemisphere than I had imagined! The fact that it's the most important language in the US after English also helped me stay hooked to it.
3. What is the most challenging things about learning Spanish?
Spanish prepositions put off a lot of people. Personally, I found it hard to wrap my head around "por vs. para" or "sobre vs. cerca de." Of course, there are tricks to nailing these subtleties but they're rarely taught in the classroom. And if you can still manage to sail past these grammar gremlins, there's the big verbal roadblock. Most Spanish speakers speak at an increadibly high rate of speech and it's hard to cathc individual words of a real-life conversation even when the words are otherwise familiar.
That being said, Spanish is much easier to learn than many would have you believe because it shares a lot of vocabulary with English due to it's Latin ancestry. Spanish is also one of the most accessible languages in western Europe or the Americas. There are enough Spanish-speakers in those parts of the world which makes for a much wider range of opportunities to practice this language as compared to any other.
4. As a Spanish-speaker living in a country where Spanish is not the native tongue, how do you keep up your language skills?
India doesn't have a culture of foreign langauge learning. At best you'll find a few poor quality language institutes in major cities but that's about it. I still get weird looks when I tell people I know Spanish; they ask, "what for?"
Having said that, it would be sorry to use that as an excuse in a world as connected as ours. The Internet has more to offer than it gets credited with. I consumed my entire Spanish learning substance off the Internet. You have sites like lang-8.com and italki.com where you can not only practice writing in the language of your choice and have it corrected by native speakers, but also connect with those native speakers and have a conversation with them on something like Skype. Talking online, if done regularly and persistently, can do magic to your Spanish speaking and comprehension skills, provided you're committed enough. I also make it a point to write at least a few paragraphs of random notes in Spanish to keep up my practice. Other than that, I also have my phone and all my social media profiles set to Spanish. In short, I do everything one can do to stay immersed in Spanish as far as practically possible.
5. Can you explain your blog and how it helps Spanish learners?
I offer articles (at least 2-3 each week) in a few different categories for fellow Spanish learners. These categories are Street Spanish (articles on Spanish colloquialism, dialects, and slang usage), Tips & Tricks (vocabulary, grammar and immerstion tricks to greatly reduce the efforts it takes to learn and memorize), TV and Movies (articles discussing various Spanish language TV shows and movies), Music (articles teaching Spanish through tappy popular music lyrics), and others. PeppyBurro.com doesn't teach Spanish. Nobody taught me Spanish. What I do through my blog is help people teach themselves the language. Language learning is different from other vocations in that nobody can give you a set of steps and you learn doing it. No, language learning is a very personal art and what works for one might not for another. That's why one should always try self-learning when it comes to Spanish.
6. What is your favourite Spanish word and why?
There are tons but right off the bat, it has to be cempesúchitl! It's Spanish for the marigold flower. Although pedantically speaking, the word is more Nahuatl than Spanish (the standard Spanish for it is maravilla but Mexicans prefer cempesúchitl), it's fun nonetheless. I still remember the sense of accomplishment I felt the day I learned to comfortably pronouce
and spell this nasty devil. I also love this word because this flower is as Indian as it gets.
Hindus use it in the temples all the time and during prayers, funerals, weddings, you name it. To discover that the same flower was equally significant in a culture half a globe away in Mexico (cempesúchitls are key to the Day of the Dead celebrations) was strangely exciting to me.