A Spanish teacher in Italy

I recently returned from a short visit to Italy with my husband. It was our third time there together. We spent one day in Milan, three in Florence, and four in Bologna, including a day trip to Ravenna to see the mosaics. My mother used to tell me about the mosaics, so I had her very much in my thoughts while we were there. It was the best day of the trip.

The first time we went to Italy, I worked through the first 100 or so pages of a standard Italian grammar workbook on the plane ride over. (It’s hard for me to sleep on an airplane, so I decided to use the time productively.) Given my Spanish, my French, and a year of college Latin, I found Italian easy to pick up. I managed to have some respectable conversations with hotel receptionists and restaurant servers. This time, I worked through Language Transfer’s Introduction to Italian course, which I recommend 100%! I also bought a short grammar reference book and an adorable book of short Italian stories for beginners, which I devoured. My favorite story was about a lonely yellow sock with a green stripe whose owner matches him with a lonely green sock with a yellow stripe, and wears them all over the world. This book was a lot of fun.

What struck me most about Italian the second time around was the similarity between its past tense and that of French. Like French, Italian has mostly abandoned the simple past (like I ate) in favor of the periphrastic past (like I have eaten), a transformation that may be underway with Spanish in Spain. Also, both Italian and French use two different auxiliaries (‘to have’ and ‘to be’) to form the periphrastic past tense, and the past participle (like eaten in I have eaten) agrees with the verb’s subject or object in a rule-governed but confusing way.

I also learned that Italian, unlike Spanish or French, does not have a periphrastic future tense. In Spanish and French you can either use the future tense conjugation (e.g. comeré ‘I will eat’) or, as in English, use the verb ‘to go’ as an auxiliary (e.g. Voy a comer ‘I’m going to eat’). Catalan doesn’t have a periphrastic future either, and in fact uses the verb anar ‘to go’ to form a periphrastic past, e.g. va parlar ‘He/she spoke’ — literally, ‘he/she went and spoke’. This tells us that the use of ‘to go’ as a future auxiliary, which Spanish and English speakers take for granted, must not have been uniformly present in Vulgar Latin.

Like other Spanish speakers (I suppose), I found that Spanish occasionally tripped me up when I was trying to speak Italian. For example, in Spanish andar and caminar both mean ‘to walk,’ but in Italian andare means ‘to go.’ As another example, I kept confusing Italian cinque ‘five’ with Spanish quince ‘fifteen’. But overall, Spanish was more of a help than a hindrance.

I did get to speak some Spanish during our trip, for example with a couple from Colombia who were staying at our hotel in Bologna. It was such a pleasure to slip back into my comfort zone! I also took advantage of our presence in the European Union to finally purchase a jigsaw puzzle of Gaudi’s “El Capricho” house in Comillas, Spain that I had been coveting since 2019, thereby saving $35 on postage.

During this visit, my attempts at conversation were less successful than previously, with people I spoke with switching to English. I can think of several possible explanations for this:

  • Perhaps this year’s crash course in Italian wasn’t as successful as previous attempts. I am several years older, after all. But I sincerely believe that my Italian is pretty good, given that I don’t actually speak Italian! I’d rather find an alternative explanation. So…
  • Since we were staying at more luxurious hotels this time around, perhaps their staff are proudly bilingual, and trained to reply to clients in their own language.
  • It’s also possible that given the current influx in American tourists in Italy, Italian hospitality workers in general are primed to speak English

At any rate, now that I’m home Italian is going on the back burner — until the next viaggio.

Bad Spanish — Guilty conscience 2nd edition

Last year I posted about bad Spanish in a storefront advertisement for a public health program in New York City. I called that post a “guilty conscience edition” because I felt bad criticizing the program. But I think it’s important to call out bad Spanish wherever it appears.

On Monday I had occasion to visit one of the city’s great medical establishments, formerly known as Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, but now as NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. In the Milstein Building, where I went for breakfast, I spotted two problematic signs. They are shown below “as is” and digitally revised.

Bad Spanish at the Milstein Hospital Building

My suggested revision

The first sign is inside the lobby, on the way out. My suggested revision resolves the current disagreement between plural pases and singular usado in favor of the singular (in line with singular entregue), and restores the very necessary accent mark on aquí. (Accent marks are required on both lower- and upper-case letters.) I also followed the English version in using possessive su instead of the definite article el or los.

The second sign is on the outside wall of the building, near the front exit. It’s a doozy! My revision eliminates the unnecessary and un-Spanish capital letters on pacientes, empleados, and visitantes. More importantly, it removes the offensive apostrophe in visitantes. Like English, Spanish doesn’t form plurals with ’s. In fact, apostrophes are only used in written Spanish to represent colloquial shortenings like pa’ for para.

I’m grateful to Columbia Presbyterian for seeking to accommodate their Spanish-speaking staff and visitors, but wish they had consulted with a trained Spanish speaker/speller before having these signs made.

Septiembre, octubre, noviembre, diciembre

If you are reading this blog you must be interested in languages, so you may already be familiar with the etymology of the last four months of the year in Spanish, English, and many other languages. They come from the Latin words for seven, eight, nine, and ten, and were thus named because the Roman calendar began in March, making September the seventh month and so on.

Despite being fascinated by languages since I was a girl, speaking at least three languages that use these words, and knowing the relevant numerical prefixes, I somehow never made the connection between the numbers and the months until recently, when I started to study Italian in preparation for an upcoming trip. I had made some progress in Italian before but have now zoomed ahead using Language Transfer, a method developed by linguist and humanitarian Mihalis Eleftheriou. In his free courses, Mr. Eleftheriou likes to draw connections between the target language and English (and sometimes other languages), and in the process points out interesting etymologies such as these.

I recommend Language Transfer’s “Complete Spanish” as a first course in Spanish (or a refresher) to anyone who reads this blog. And if Mr. Eleftheriou comes across this blog post, I encourage him to contact me. I would be delighted to send him a copy of my first book (¿Por qué?) in thanks for his help with Italian.

For the sake of completeness, the etymology of the remaining months of the year is as follows:

eneroJanus, Roman god of beginnings and gates
febreroLatin februa ‘purification’. Since February was the last month of the Roman calendar, the Romans held a feast of purification on the ides of the month (February 15).
marzoMars, god of war
abrilunknown / disputed
mayoMaia, earth goddess and wife of Vulcan
junioJuno, goddess of marriage and wife of Jupiter
julioJulius Caesar
agostoAugustus Caesar

¡Another Hispania review!

I am honored that Hispania, the official journal of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, has now reviewed both of my books. To be honest, the second review, of my book Bringing Linguistics into the Spanish Language Classroom, actually appeared more than a year ago. This shows how lackadaisical I’ve become about keeping this blog up to date…but better late than never, ¿no?

As with ¿Por qué?, this new review is positive. Some excerpts:

  • “The book is full of eye-opening details, backed up by references, that even experienced linguists may not be fully aware of. Readers may even find themselves going through the contents as when reading a book from cover to cover, while consulting the slides as they read along. Reading this book is an enjoyable experience.”
  • “The frequent comparisons between Spanish and other languages are particularly enlightening, and contribute to a better understanding of the topics.”
  • Bringing Linguistics into the Spanish Language Classroom is a treasure trove of ideas, facts and activities, and is enthusiastically recommended.”

You can access the review here. It starts on the second page of the PDF.

Teaching preterite and imperfect (again)

This semester I have been in the odd situation (for a Spanish teacher) of teaching the crucial topic of preterite vs. imperfect (e.g. hablé vs. hablaba) after a multi-year gap. For the last few years I have only been teaching our introductory course, but for this semester I requested an higher-level class, which begins with a review of the past tense before launching into the subjunctive. So here I am.

During this hiatus, Routledge published my second book, Bringing Linguistics into the Spanish Language Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide. This book obviously focuses on pedagogy, and comes with hundreds of PowerPoint slides that teachers can use in their classrooms. You can actually download these slides from the Routledge website without purchasing the book (click on “support materials”), but of course I recommend buying the book as well!

The book’s section on preterite and imperfect introduces two metaphors: beads on a string, and a closed versus open box. Here’s the relevant text from the book, followed by slides that illustrate the metaphors:

The distinction between completed and continuing events is simple in the abstract but elusive in practice. For this reason many teachers train their students to rely on various rules of thumb when deciding between preterite and imperfect. Some of these rules concern the type of past occurrence; for example, students may learn to use the preterite to describe beginnings and endings (e.g. empezó and terminó) and the imperfect to describe the weather (e.g. llovía). Other rules focus on contextual clues, such as specific timeframes for the preterite (e.g. todo el día) and mientras for the imperfect. While helpful, the former rules are fallible (e.g. El orador empezaba a hablar cuando el micrófono falló; Ayer llovió durante tres horas) and the latter are often absent in actual speech or writing. Sooner or later students have to grapple with the aspectual difference itself.

The visual metaphors in Slides 2.29 and 2.30 can help. Slide 2.29 depicts the preterite as a closed box containing a past occurrence (in this case the life of El Cid), and the imperfect as an open box that “unpacks” the occurrence, telling us more about it. This metaphor is particularly helpful when deciding between fue and era. Slide 2.30 depicts multiple preterite events as discrete and sequenceable, like beads on a string. This metaphor is particularly useful when teaching students to construct narratives. The animation in [the PowerPoint version of] Slide 2.30 shows how one can use the imperfect to add color to a bares-bones preterite narrative, an exercise described later in this section. Students may be interested in learning that children usually acquire the two tenses in this same order, i.e. preterite before imperfect (Slide 5.19).

In our first class meeting of the semester, I embedded the slides from my book into a mini-lesson in which I:

  1. elicited some preterites during a class-opening chat;
  2. briefly reviewed the two conjugations;
  3. contrasted Spanish with English to explain the challenge of this topic;
  4. presented the two metaphors at a high level;
  5. walked through the “beads in a string” (un collar de perlas) animation in an updated version of my book’s slide 2.30;
  6. showed the result: a natural switching back-and-forth between the two tenses;
  7. presented the open vs. closed box metaphor (again, with an updated version of the published slide);
  8. had students choose between preterite and imperfect in a simple passage.

I also presented some favorite resources for students to pursue on their own, including my own divide-and-conquer, one-page summary of the preterite conjugation. A final slide showed them where we were, verb-wise, in our Spanish language sequence.

In the next class, I reviewed the use of preterite and imperfect via a group effort to tell the Cinderella story, then had pairs of students write short and simple narratives of their own, giving them a choice of well-known stories from Noah’s Ark to Avatar. Each pair received three pink index cards on which to write three key events on the preterite, and then white index cards, as needed, for them to add background information and details in the imperfect.

I had never had the chance to classroom-test these specific slides from my book, so it was exciting to finally put them into practice, especially since my students were receptive to the two metaphors. They did a decent job with their narratives; I’ll see how what they learned holds up as the semester rolls on.

Something borrowed, something blue

For the last few years I’ve had a research project about Spanish word origins on the back burner. This summer I’ve resurrected the project, and it is simmering nicely: I have now finished the first major stage.

The focus of the project is Spanish borrowings, or loanwords: words in Spanish that originated in other languages. The project applies to Spanish the methodology from Martin Haspelmath and Uri Tadmor’s World Loanword Database (WOLD) project. Beginning in 2004, Haspelmath and Tadmor organized a team of linguists to collect data on loanwords in forty-one languages around the world. In 2009 they published their results in a book, Loanwords in the World’s Languages: A Comparative Handbook (De Gruyter), and the contributing linguists shared their data on the WOLD website.

My goals in this project are:

  1. To compare Spanish to the forty-one languages in the WOLD project, in terms of (i) its percentage of loanwords, and (ii) these words’ characteristics, such as their part of speech.
  2. To quantify the relative contributions of different source languages to Spanish vocabulary. I already did this for my first book, using a random sampling of five hundred words from a standard Spanish etymological dictionary. But that sample may have skewed toward more recherché vocabulary.
  3. To address various issues involved in etymological research, in Spanish and in general.

More about the WOLD project

In order to obtain comparable results across the WOLD languages, all participating linguists started with the same list of 1460 core meanings: ‘house,’ ‘mother,’ ‘go,’ and so on. Each linguist identified ‘their’ language’s words for these meanings, then traced the origins of those words using a standardized set of guidelines. I have now completed the first of these two steps for Spanish. It raised all sorts of interesting issues, which I will discuss in my next blog post.

One goal of the WOLD project was to compare the frequency of borrowing in different languages. In other words, of the core meanings, how many were expressed in each language by loanwords? As shown in the table below, borrowing rates ranged from 1.2% for Mandarin Chinese to 62.7% for Selice Romani. Yaron Matras’s review of the WOLD Handbook in the journal Language points out that these two languages are spoken in diametrically different environments. Speakers of Mandarin “show little or no bilingualism”; the language has “a status as a majority language, a powerful standard, and a sociopolitically dominant population.” In contrast, Selice Romani is associated with “universal multilingualism, a minority language status, the absence of a written standard, and sociopolitical marginalization.”

Romanian, the only Romance language in the project, fell into the “high borrowers” category (25.9% to 45.6%), as did English. My previous research (see above) placed Spanish in the “very high borrowers” category, with roughly one-third “native” vocabulary (from Vulgar Latin), one-third later borrowings from Latin, and one-third words from other languages. It will be interested to see whether this holds up for a WOLD-based lexicon.

Borrowing typeLanguages (in increasing order of % loanwords)
“Low borrowers”
(1.2 – 9.7%)
Mandarin Chinese, Old High German, Manange, Ket
“Average borrowers”
(10.7 – 22.4%)
Otomi, Seychelles Creole, Gawwada, Hug, Oroqen, Hawaiian, Kali’na, Iraqw, Q’eqchi’, Wichí, Zinacantán Tzotzil, Malagasy, Dutch, Kanuri, White Hmong, Mapudungun, Hausa, Lower Sorbian
“High borrowers”
(25.9 – 45.6%)
Takia, Thai, Yaqui, Swahili, Vietnamese, Sakha, Archi, Imbabura Quechua, Kildin Saami, Bezhta, Indonesian, Japanese, Ceq Wong, Sarmaccan, English, Romanian, Gurindji
“Very high borrowers”
(51.7 – 62.7%)
Tarifyt Berber, Selice Romani

Another goal of the WOLD project was to learn more about borrowing in general. The research confirmed several generally accepted principles about borrowings:

  • Function words were borrowed less than content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs). Overall, 12% of function words were borrowed, compared to 25% of content words.
  • Nouns were more likely to be borrowed (31%) than other types of content words (14-15%).
  • Borrowing was most common for cultural vocabulary, such as religion, clothing, housing, law, social and political relations, agriculture, food, and warfare; and least common for personal vocabulary, such as sense perception, spatial relations, body parts, and kinship.


My interest in the WOLD methodology dates from 2018, when I was starting to work on my second book, Bringing Linguistics into the Spanish Language Classroom. The book is organized around five themes, or “essential questions,” including “How is Spanish different from other languages?” and “How is Spanish similar to other languages?” I thought it would be interesting to compare Spanish to the WOLD languages so that I could say either “Spanish has borrowed more words than most other languages” or “Spanish has borrowed a typical amount of words.” (I was confident that Spanish would be a “low borrower.”)

I originally imagined that I could research this topic in a couple of weeks, but soon ran into methodological issues such as:

  • Should word pairs like hijo and hija (‘son/daughter’) be counted as two separate words, even though they are just masculine and feminine forms of the same word?
  • WOLD linguists could identify multiple words for a single meaning. How far should this be taken for Spanish? How does one draw the line between synonyms and dialectal variants?
  • When looking up word origins, the WOLD guidelines count a word as borrowed if it entered the language at any point in the language’s history. This would include, for instance, words borrowed into Classical or Vulgar Latin, such as gato ‘cat.’ (Vulgar Latin cattus is believed to be Afro-Asiatic in origin, and replaced the original Latin feles.) This guideline rubbed me the wrong way. Shouldn’t Spanish begin with Vulgar Latin?

After three months of a futile quick-and-dirty run at these issues, I decided to put the project on my back burner and eventually do a more thorough job that would hopefully yield publishable results. So…here we are.

La esclava blanca

For years I’ve intended to watch a telenovela, or Spanish-language soap opera. Like many people who learned Spanish as a second language, I find that listening is my weakest skill. I figured that sitting through hours of Spanish dialogue would help me.

A few months ago I finally took the plunge and watched La esclava blanca (‘The White Slave’) on Netflix. It was so much fun that I ended up binge-watching all sixty-two episodes.* This was bad for my physical health except for those episodes I watched while exercising. It also wasn’t as good for my listening skills as I had hoped, since I watched it with Spanish subtitles. Now that I know the plot perhaps I should rewatch it without subtitles…but I’d rather move on to a different series.

There was much to admire in La esclava blanca. The cast was terrific, especially the villain, who was played by a handsome Spanish actor with the improbable but delightful name Miguel de Miguel. His character was vile yet undeniably charming. The star-crossed lovers at the center of the plot were brave and bold. Over the course of the series the side characters became more compelling and interesting as they grew and changed, often in surprising ways. Finally, the story’s setting, in Colombia toward the end of that country’s slavery era, was engrossing. The show made it abundantly clear that slavery was a poison in Colombian society, harming not only the enslaved Blacks (obviously) but also their legal owners. As the show progressed, and the slave owners became more and more desperate to protect their way of life, they descended deeper and deeper into pure evil. The ultimate fate of Miguel de Miguel’s character illustrates this path most graphically. You’ll have to watch the show to find out more. Really, his last scene is a doozy.

The one thing that bothered me about the series is that the white heroine and the mixed-race hero, rather than the enslaved people of pure African descent, drove the movement toward liberation. This is an example of what is known as the “white savior” trope in which a white person leads or rescues a minority. Other examples are the movie Glory, which stars Matthew Broderick as the white commander of a Black regiment on the Union side in the Civil War, and Avatar, in which only a brave white human (an ex-Marine played by Sam Worthington) can rescue the blue Na’vi humanoids and their homeland on a verdant moon.

My complaint is not original. A Google search for “esclava blanca white savior” will find many other critiques along these lines.

So while I truly enjoyed this telenovela, the “white savior” issue stops me from recommending it with full enthusiasm.

Of course, I found much of linguistic interest in the series. I don’t know to what extent the features noted below are specific to Colombian Spanish.

  • First and foremost, I am convinced that I heard some instances of words whose initial h was aspirated rather than silent. Two I wrote down, both in episode 33, were Qué va, hombre (shortly after 17:00) and Hola, Jesús (after 36:30). I’ve searched but haven’t found this described anywhere as a feature of Colombian Spanish.
  • As with the n-word in English, the white and Black characters in La esclava blanca use negro/negra differently. For the whites it is an insulting noun, often followed by the adjective asqueroso ‘disgusting.’ For the Blacks it is affect-free, like man or bro in English.
  • Speaking of man, the Black characters also use hombre when talking with pals. (I don’t remember whether the white characters do this too.) At 29:20 in episode 57, Julián even calls his girlfriend hombre, which amused me.
  • The actors frequently drop the word a in sentences like Miguel va a comer ‘Miguel is going to eat,’ saying instead Miguel va comer. This makes perfect sense: the adjacent a vowels in va and a have simply blended. A is retained with other verb forms, as in Miguel y Elena van a comer.
  • At 13:20 in episode 59 a character says Usted verá que no es lejos. I noticed other uses of ser instead of estar to describe location.
  • At 43:45 in episode 61 I learned a new verb, engatusar, meaning ‘to con, deceive.’ According to Juan Corominas it has an unusual etymology that blends three roots: encantusar ‘to deceive with witchcraft,’ engatar (from gato) ‘to deceive with affection,’ and engaratusar ‘to deceive with praise.’
  • Finally, while I have yet to realize my ambition of visiting a voseísta country like Colombia (i.e. one whose speakers use the pronoun vos instead of (or along with) ), I really enjoy hearing voseo! In La esclava blanca I especially relished commands followed by pronouns, since these are identical to their equivalents except for the stressed syllable. Some examples are perdoname (instead of perdóname) and tranquilizate (instead of tranquilízate), whose te threw me for a loop until I checked the conjugation.

As always, I welcome comments. I would especially appreciate hearing from anyone who is familiar with Colombian Spanish.


*When I started watching the show I had no idea that it was so long. At first I figured that it would be fairly short because an important wedding was scheduled to take place in a few days. When the wedding kept being postponed I checked and saw that I still had dozens of episodes to go. By then it was too late to stop watching: I was thoroughly hooked.

Bad Spanish – Guilty conscience edition

I feel sheepish about writing this blog post — hence the “guilty conscience” — since the perpetrator this time around is a most worthy organization: SOMOS Community Care, a network of community-based health medical providers in New York City who serve Medicaid recipients, many of whom are Spanish speakers.

I saw this promotion for SOMOS on a window on the north side of East 42nd street in Manhattan, just down the block from Grand Central Station:

The error is the unneeded accent mark on the last word of this promotion, which should have been just plain ti. People often put an accent mark on ti because the similar word (as in para mí) has one. But that mark distinguishes the pronoun ‘me’ from the possessive adjective mi ‘my.’ It’s akin to the accent marks on ‘yes’ (versus unaccented si ‘if’), ‘you’ (vs. tu ‘your’), más ‘more’ (vs. mas ‘but’), and a number of other word pairs. in contrast, Spanish only has one word ti, so there’s no need for an accent mark.

I am totally at a loss to understand the top line of this promotion: The inside’s. I don’t even know if it’s part of the SOMOS promotion. But it reminds me of an adage I’ve come up with: accent mark mistakes in Spanish are like apostrophe marks in English. They’re ubiquitous, and make a bad impression.

SOMOS’s app, MiSOMOS, includes a terrific set of “Dr. Del Barrio” videos that explain annual checkups, diabetes, prostate cancer, and other important topics. The text in the sample video I watched (“Ver a tu doctor”) also has a few accent mark mistakes, as does the text below the video. I suggest that the good people at SOMOS enlist a Spanish teacher, or someone else familiar with this aspect of Spanish spelling, to review their content. I’d be happy to volunteer.

Enough with the (in)transitive verbs already

No sooner had I published my previous blog post, on the unexpectedly transitive Spanish verbs desayunar, almorzar, and cenar, when I had a headlong collision with an unexpectedly intransitive verb: comprar ‘to buy.’ I’ve been using this basic verb for ages, but always as a transitive verb, i.e. with a direct object, as in:

  • Voy a comprar un libro. (the direct object is el libro)
  • He comprado demasiadas papas. (the direct object is demasiadas papas ‘too many potatoes’)
  • Compro mucha comida en Trader Joe’s. (the direct object is mucha comida ‘a lot of food’)

Spanish has a related intransitive expression ir de compras ‘to go shopping.’ But I never imagined that the verb comprar itself can be intransitive until one of my colleagues put the following sentence on a test we were writing together. I’ve changed it a little in case one of our students is reading this blog.

  • No hay nada de sal en la cocina. Tenemos que comprar.
    ‘There is no salt in the kitchen. We have to buy.’

For this native English speaker at least, the intransitive comprar sounded woefully naked. I expected some object to accompany the verb, as in La tenemos que comprar ‘We have to buy it,’ Tenemos que comprarla (same translation), or Tenemos que comprar más ‘We have to buy more.’

However, after asking with other Spanish speakers, it is clear that Tenemos que comprar is fine by itself. I also checked the verb’s entry in the Real Academia Española dictionary, and indeed the third definition is intransitive:

  • intr. Realizar una compra, especialmente si se hace de forma habitual. Compramos en tiendas del barrio.

although this sounds synonymous with ir de compras ‘to go shopping’ rather than shopping for a specific item.

My fellow test-writer also said that you could only say Tenemos que comprar más if you still had some salt and wanted to supplement it. Other speakers whom I consulted were divided on this nuance.

This comprar surprise, and my recent reckoning with desayunar and its transitive friends, have reminded me forcibly that I will never be a native speaker. To bolster my wounded self-esteem I keep reminding myself that my Spanish is actually really good and my English is even better! Plus I speak decent French, know a fair amount of Hebrew, and a little German. Really, I can hold my head high as a linguist, and should enjoy the subtle surprises that Spanish still holds for me rather than taking them personally. Most of the time, I do.