Monthly Archives: December 2017

To gloss or not to gloss: a follow-up

Last week I wrote about my policy of handing out vocabulary lists with the English glosses (translations) written in. (Our textbook does not provide glosses for the end-of-chapter vocabulary lists, only a master list at the end of the book.)

When my students filled out their course evaluations I asked them to let me know what they thought of this practice. My question presented both sides of the issue:

“I like to give you the English translations of the chapter vocabulary to save you time and point out possible pitfalls. But other teachers think that looking up the words yourself is an important step in learning. Which approach do you think is best for you?”

I was pleased to see that my students unanimously appreciated the glosses. Also, even though I forgot ask them to explain their choice, most did so on their own. Saving time was most often mentioned as a benefit. Since this is a most studious group, I wasn’t surprised that many of these students said this was time they could spend memorizing the words or doing other homework.

One student gave a more nuanced perspective on the time factor:

” I looked up all my vocab words myself last year in Spanish class and although it did help me to know them better in the beginning, having the extra time saved from not looking them up meant more time to study them and memorize them later.”

A second benefit often mentioned was accuracy: students said that the glosses kept them from “studying the wrong meanings,” as one student put it.

Given this response, I will definitely continue to provide glosses when I teach this class again.

Some specifics: Sixteen students were present that day, and all responded. Of the thirteen who explained their answer, nine mentioned time and five accuracy. (These add up to fourteen because one student gave both reasons.)

Spanish beats English: subjunctive in adjective clauses edition

My teaching this semester has been heavy on the subjunctive, but one topic we haven’t covered is the use of the subjunctive to distinguish between actual and hypothetical characteristics in descriptions, or “adjective clauses.” The last time I taught this topic was during a chapter on housing, so there were lots of sentences like Vivo en un apartamento que tiene mucha luz ‘I live in an apartment that has a lot of light’ versus Quiero un apartamento que tenga mucha luz ‘I want an apartment that has a lot of light’. The indicative tiene is appropriate when talking about an actual light-filled apartment; the subjunctive tenga works for the hypothetical light-filled apartment.

The next time I teach this topic I plan to start with a memorably funny bit from the 1970s TV show Phyllis, starring Cloris Leachman. It was a spin-off from Rhoda, which was itself a spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore show. In this scene, Phyllis’s daughter Bess tries to break the news of her engagement to her mother, who fails to understand. I’ve paraphrased their dialogue, as well as I can remember it, in cartoon form below. [Please see note at end for a correction.]

If Bess and Phyllis had been speaking Spanish, there wouldn’t have been any problem. Bess would have used the indicative, as shown in the speech bubble on the left, to indicate that Harold was her actual fiancé. Her mother’s misinterpretation corresponds to the version with the subjunctive shown on the right.


So this is definitely a case where Spanish is superior to English!

[Note: After posting this blog entry I did a Google search and discovered that (i) this is universally acknowledge as the funniest episode of Phyllis and (ii) I had misremembered the scene! The conversation was actually between Phyllis and a colleague, played by Richard Schaal, and it’s Phyllis who utters the ambiguous line (something like “Bess wants to marry a man whose parents are midgets”). In the intervening years my memory had transposed the characters and invented the name Harold! With apologies to the writers and crew, I’ll keep my cartoons the way they are to reflect my (defective but happy) memory.]

Irregular irregulars

Note: this post is intended for Spanish verb fiends only! Others read at your peril!

The Spanish verb system is riddled with irregular verbs, but at least they fall into discernible patterns. For example, verbs that end in -ir and have a stem change in the present tense are also irregular in the preterite, imperfect subjunctive, and gerund. These fall into three groups:

  • o/ue/u
    * Example: dormir ‘to sleep’, duermo ‘I sleep’, durmió ‘he slept’, durmiendo ‘sleeping’
  • e/ie/i
    * Example: sentir ‘to feel’, siento ‘I feel’, sintió ‘he felt’, sintiendo ‘feeling’
  • e/i/i
    * Example: servir ‘to serve’, sirvo ‘I serve’, sirvió ‘he served’, sirviendo ‘serving’

The silver lining to this cloud of complexity is that it is, at least, predictable. As implied above, there are no exceptions to this pattern, i.e. -ir verbs with a stem change in the present tense that are regular in the preterite and the gerund.

Or are there?

To my horror, and great interest, I learned just today of two exceptions: cernir ‘to sift’ and hendir ‘to slit open’. Despite their present-tense stem changes (ciernohiendo, and so on) they are regular in the preterite (cernió, cernieronhendió, hendieron), imperfect subjunctive (cerniera, hendiera, etc.), and gerund (cerniendo, hendiendo). You can see the full conjugations here and here.

Discernir and concernir share the same irregularity as cernir, as you might expect. (This is why I made sure to use the English cognate discernible at the beginning of this post. 😉 )

Not surprisingly, the Real Academia’s Diccionario panhispánico de dudas contains warnings against forms such as hindióhindieron, and cirniendo.

Fortunately, there is a logical explanation for these irregular irregulars: cernir and hendir are variants of the -er verbs cerner and hender, from Latin cernĕre and findĕre. In other words, they are innovative -ir verbs that still think they are -er‘s with respect to this irregular pattern. If I can attempt a wacky analogy, they’re akin to someone who dyed their hair but red still lacks the freckles that a natural redhead would have.

Just for fun, I used the Google ngram viewer to trace the history of cerner, cernir, hender, and hendir. None of these verbs is very common, but the -ir variants have definitely caught up to the older -er forms over the last two hundred years or so, and, in fact, have managed to surpass them.

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If you look at a shorter time period, you can clearly see hender nose-diving to fall just behind hendir. It’s pretty cool.


Vocabulary: to gloss or not to gloss?

Everybody knows that flossing is good for you. But what about glossing?

The Spanish textbook series we currently use at Fordham University is Pearson’s Gente. The beginning and intermediate books in the series provide glosses, or translations, for the vocabulary list at the end of each chapter. But the advanced textbook does not. There is a Spanish-English glossary at the end of the book that students can use to look up words.

The first time I taught this course, I was struck by how inefficient it was for each student to have to look up the words. Moreover, I found some mistakes, or at least weaknesses, in the glosses:

  • missing words
  • glosses that average college students wouldn’t necessarily understand (‘foment’, ‘infusion’)
  • glosses that are correct but not necessarily satisfactory, such as ‘commitment, engagement’ for compromiso (leaving out that it’s often a pre-marital engagement) or ‘offer’ for oferta, where the usual meaning involves a special price.
  • glosses that conflate differences, such as genialidad and genio both glossed as ‘genius’
  • no heads-up for false cognates such as compromiso, which doesn’t mean ‘compromise’

So this semester, at the beginning of each chapter I gave the students a screen shot of the vocabulary page on which I had written on my own glosses. I photocopied these onto yellow paper — a teaching trick I picked up somewhere along the way. Here’s an example: my original, hence not yellow. Note that I don’t generally gloss cognates. This drives home their ubiquity, and also makes false cognates stand out.

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When I told a colleague about my approach, she was mildly horrified. She thought that it was important for students to look up the glosses themselves, and that this was their first step in learning vocabulary. I believe that while it’s beneficial to use a dictionary while reading, and that this is a special skill that we need to teach our students, looking up 100 words, in alphabetical order, in a simple glossary is fundamentally different. It’s mechanical, rather than intellectual, essentially a secretarial task of collating two lists.

What do you think?

In this follow-up post, I describe my students’ unanimously favorable assessment of the glosses.



Ya and todavía, logical at last

The Spanish words ya ‘already’ and todavía ‘still’ are straightforward enough, but their negatives also have specific meanings: todavía no means ‘not yet’ and ya no means ‘no longer.’ So this small corner of Spanish vocabulary is actually a bit tricky.

As a Spanish student I dealt with the problem via brute force, memorizing the four expressions and their translations. This worked for years but was always a bit unsatisfying. Then, a few years ago, a member of reddit’s /r/Spanish subreddit posted the following infographic, which changed the way i think about these words. The focus on ya as change and todavía as continuity unites the positive and negative meanings of both these adverbs. I am posting it here with his permission.

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This brings me to one of my favorite teaching anecdotes. Back in 2008, when teaching a lesson on these four adverbs, I thought that it would be fun to base an exercise on the previous year’s Republican and Democratic presidential primaries. I made a little table that showed who the candidates were at different stages at the primaries, and the students had to choose between ya and todavía to complete sentences like “En verano 2007, Hillary Clinton ________ no era candidata.” One of my students complained, “I didn’t know we had to know history for this class!” So cute…