When the 33-year-old Spaniard Jesus Trapero Sandoval launched his YouTube channel in 2011 to teach colloquial Spanish, it was an experiment as well as a way to do something fun.
“I found this [a YouTube channel] can actually influence a large number of people and wanted to see if my students liked it,” he said. “It was an interesting experience. I like to make changes in the way I teach, like asking students different questions or doing practices they have never done before.”
After teaching Spanish in Taiwan for almost six years, both in a cram school and at a private university, Sandoval said the project was designed to solve the problems he faced when teaching Spanish in the classroom.
“Most people in Taiwan learn Spanish because they have already studied English and want to learn a different language. There is no definite purpose for studying it,” he said. “They hardly get to practice Spanish in their daily lives. Even if you give them some homework, they would not do it.”
Sandoval tried posting some supplementary learning materials on a blog he set up, but none of his students bothered to read them.
“I later found out that students are more interested in learning slang, especially phrases they can use among friends,” he said. “I also found that people like to do things together here, like: ‘Let’s all get on Facebook.’ They may not do their homework, but they will check their Facebook page every day.”
Prior to launching his Spanish-teaching channel, Sandoval checked out several YouTube channels aimed at learning languages such as English, Japanese or Chinese.
He decided that the content he would provide needed to be easy, fun and something people could use everyday.
He then shot the video, uploaded one episode at a time and shared them on his Facebook page.
“Whenever I think of phrases people in Spain and Latin America use or something I heard in Spanish-speaking movies, I would write it down immediately,” he said when asked about how he gathered his materials. “I only choose one or two words or phrases to teach each time, but they can convey different meanings in different contexts.”
He received more response than he usually did in class.
Sandoval said he could get up to 66 replies to just one video he posted online.
“Because the material is interesting, students are more motivated to do the homework I give them in the video. Taiwanese are stressed out by a lot of things. They would be stress-free if they could study in the comfort of their homes and have the freedom of choosing whether to do homework,” he said.
The materials Sandoval prepares vary greatly, from teaching people how to say: “I have so much work to do” (Tengo mogollon de curro) and “a crappy movie” (Una pelicula de mierda), to: “I have no luck picking up girls/boys” (No me como ni un rosco).
He also teaches people how to curse in Spanish, which he said “students studying Spanish have to learn.”
“That’s the way we speak. The point is not whether we should teach curse words; the point is how to teach them,” he said.
He would also entertain his audiences by putting on a skit that is not strictly relevant to learning Spanish, such as producing an alternative version of the popular Taiwanese TV drama In Time with You (我可能不會愛你).
Sandoval said he did not see any conflict between this project and the teaching jobs he has at the moment.
“I was in a tango dancing class and told people in the class about my Spanish lessons on YouTube. They liked what they saw and said they were considering taking Spanish lessons,” he added.
He said he hoped his materials would make a little contribution to Taiwan.
“Taiwanese people seem to have this idea that all foreigners must be able to speak English,” he said. “I used to be so angry if people spoke English to me, but nothing really happened afterward. I stopped being angry and knew I needed to change my attitude. I could not tell them they should change unless I make an effort to do the same.”
Estela Lan (藍文君), director of National Chengchi University’s European Languages and Cultures Department and a Spanish professor, watched a few of Sandoval’s videos and thought they could complement the formal Spanish language curriculum at the university.
“I think the channel’s title is right, that people can learn from these videos the kind of Spanish that they cannot learn from textbooks,” she said, adding that Sandoval has made it clear that these are not classes one takes to prepare for language proficiency exams or to learn formal Spanish.
Lan said a regular Spanish class generally lasts two to three hours and needs to cover one to two lessons each time, adding that students may feel tired after each class.
“His [Sandoval’s] lesson is about one to two minutes long,” Lan said. “Because he would repeat the phrase or sentence again and again, and review what he has taught before, students can see the effects much faster than if they take regular classes.”
Students can learn the gestures, facial expressions and intonations of native Spanish speakers by learning from the examples he gave, she said, adding that “when he explained, he would also alternate the use of Mandarin and Taiwanese, which young people can easily relate to. While he taught people how to curse in Spanish, he also reminded them that they need to use these words with caution.”
Taiwan has formal diplomatic ties with 23 nations around the world, including the Holy See.
Spanish is spoken in eight of the these countries. They are Belize, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Paraguay.
In the past, students could only learn foreign languages other than English when they went to university.
However, the Ministry of Education has started offering foreign language courses in high school since 1999, ranging from Japanese, French, German, Spanish to six other European and Asian languages.
The number of students taking foreign-language courses has increased from 11,500 in 1999 to 59,072 by the end of last year. Most Taiwanese prefer to take Japanese classes, followed by French, German or Spanish courses.