Monthly Archives: October 2020

A mini-festo

Last September the NECTFL Review published my article Essential Questions for Linguistic Literacy in the World Language Classroom. I wrote this article as a warm-up before tackling my next book project, Bringing Linguistics into the Spanish Language Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide, now in press with Routledge. The article was an opportunity to think through the general issues the book would cover before applying them to Spanish. Parts of it found their way into the book’s introduction (with the Review editor’s blessing, for which ¡muchas gracias!).

The article proposes five linguistics-based essential questions for world languages, shown at the top of this post. They loosely correspond to the fields of descriptive, theoretical, historical, socio-, and psycholinguistics, respectively. They meet the seven criteria for essential questions put forth by mavens Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins: they are (i) open-ended, (ii) thought-provoking, and intellectually engaging; they (ii) involve higher-order thinking, (iv) point toward important, transferable ideas that may transcend disciplinary boundaries, (v) raise additional questions, (vi) require support and justification, and (vii) recur over time.

The article gives examples of linguistic insights corresponding to each of these questions from a variety of world languages: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, and Spanish. Some examples are the German letter ß (Question 1), grammatical gender (Question 2), the Indo-European origins of French, German, and Spanish (Question 3), tonal variation in different varieties of Chinese (Question 4), and children’s verb conjugation errors (Question 5).

In the article (and my book) I argue that bringing linguistic insights into the foreign language classroom “add[s] intellectual interest by connecting Spanish to other languages, to general linguistic principles, and to other fields such as history, geography, sociology, and psychology.” This approach can also help students understand seemingly arbitrary aspects of the target language, such as irregular verbs that have simple historical explanations, and encourage students to accept differences between the target language and their first language.

The article describes how teachers can present linguistic insights in the classroom, for purposes of enrichment or explanation, lead related in-class activities, and assign take-home projects that further reinforce and/or explore these topics. As an example of an in-class activity, French students can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of gender-neutral adaptations to French grammar. As an example of a take-home project, Arabic students can ask a pen-pal about their experience communicating with speakers of other varieties of the language.

The downside of this approach, as one of the article’s peer reviewers pointed out, is that it does not contribute directly to proficiency in the target language. My response to this objection is that language is part of culture, and learning about the target language is just as valid as learning about other aspects of culture, such as food and music. To put it another way, If a Spanish class has time to debate their favorite tapa (I just made that up), they can debate whether Spanish writers should continue to use the language’s unique ¿ and ¡ marks. If the class has time to dance a tango, they have time to learn about dialectal aspects of Argentinian Spanish, from its distinctive treatment of yeísmo to voseo.

Compared to other cultural topics, linguistic topics have the obvious advantage of being directly related to the object of study in the world language classroom: the target language itself.

Publishing this article was personally meaningful to me in three ways. First, I hadn’t published a refereed journal article in two decades. For a PhD type like me, that was a long drought — though I did publish a significant and well-reviewed book in the meantime, while focusing primarily on my teaching. The NECTFL Review is “only” an online journal but its refereeing process was rigorous and greatly improved the article. Second, it was a real kick to identify and explain aspects of five unrelated languages that illustrated the essential questions. This was catnip for me as a linguist.

Third, and most importantly, the article (and my forthcoming book) satisfied an itch that has been bothering me since I took teacher training classes at Pace University in the aughts. When we learned about essential questions as a key ingredient in curriculum design, I was disappointed that there did not seem to be an adequate set of questions for world languages. It struck me as axiomatic that these should come from the field of linguistics. It feels great to have finally scratched that itch.

This third reason underlies the title of this post. The article is a manifesto, expressing novel ideas about world language pedagogy that I have been pondering for several years. But it is not only brief, but also modest. It does not insist that world language teachers adopt this approach, but rather introduces it and points out its advantages. In fact, the article (like the book) explicitly suggests different degrees to which teachers might choose to adopt this approach. This could be as minimal as offering linguistic explanations from time to time, to clarify specific topics and/or to add enrichment, or as maximal as maintaining the essential questions as a conceptual framework that the class returns to throughout a year or semester. Hence: a “mini-festo.”


Added: erratum page for ¿Por qué?

I finally added a feature to this blog that has been on the back burner for ages: a list of  errata and other possible changes to my book ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish. I have been keeping this list in the event that Bloomsbury (or another publisher) ever puts out a second edition, and have just posted it as a new page on the blog. This is for the benefit of both readers and myself, as I hope readers will contact me with additions to the list. Hopefully most of these will be suggestions rather than further errata!

The most important errata concern factual errors. Others point out typographical errors and problems with references.

The page is organized by question number.

Have at it!

One fish two fish pez pescado

Never having caught a fish in my life, I certainly didn’t imagine that I would ever write a blog post about our aquatic pals, let alone two. Nevertheless this is my second post on the topic. I guess everything is more interesting in Spanish.

As I explained in my first fish post back in 2016, Spanish has two words for fish: pez for a live fish and pescado for one that you see in a pescadería (fish store), supermarket, or restaurant. The verb pescar means ‘to fish’ and pescado is its past participle. So a pescado is simply a pez that has been fished, or caught.

Pez and pescado were at the root of an amusing incident that took place while I was visiting my grandkids in May. This was during the first wave of COVID-19 in the Northeast and my grandsons’ classes had gone online. My younger grandson’s Montessori kindergarten had a weekly Spanish lesson via Zoom and we both thought it would be fun for me to sit in. I have to confess that I stayed out of camera range and fed Zachary answers to the teacher’s questions. (Wouldn’t you?) As you can imagine he was the star of the lesson, getting everything right and amazing the teacher…UNTIL the class started to go through a set of animal words and they got to ‘fish.’

The teacher showed a picture of a pet fish in a bowl and asked if anyone knew ¿Qué es esto? Zachary was the only student to raise his hand. The teacher called on him and he said, correctly, Es un pez, to which the teacher replied No, es un pescado. They went back and forth a few times and the teacher held her ground.

Es un pez


During the rest of the lesson I noticed other mistakes in the teacher’s Spanish. She said that a ‘kangaroo’ was a cangarú, which is basically a Spanish rendering of the English word instead of the proper Spanish word canguro. She also made a gender mistake, saying el serpiente instead of la. Given the teacher’s impeccable accent I concluded that she was a heritage speaker, meaning someone who grew up speaking Spanish at home but never had a formal education in the subject. Such speakers can have gaps in their knowledge.

According to Prof. Zyzik’s comment on this blog, heritage speakers are more prone to gender errors when using words such as serpiente, which lack a telltale -a or -o ending. Kids make such errors as well.

When I was back home in New York the next week, my daughter told me that Zachary had tried to answer el pez again during Spanish class and was again shot down. At this point I decided to do some research, looking up pescado on the Real Academia Española’s online Diccionario de americanismos. The first bullet in the entry read:

MxGuHoESNiPaCuPRCoVeEcPeBoPy. Pez, ya esté dentro o fuera del agua, sea comestible o no.

That is, in a number of Latin American countries pescado can mean a fish ‘in or out of the water, and edible or not.” So now I know.

In retrospect this dialectal variation might also explain the restaurant painting that inspired my first pez/pescado post, which showed a so-called pescado that was in the water (though hooked on a line). Chances are it was painted by someone with a similar background to Zachary’s teacher.

Stay tuned for my next fish post, four years from now.

Bad Spanish: Tampa Bay edition

Today’s Tampa Bay Times has an article about Joe Biden’s upcoming town hall with undecided voters at the Pérez Art Museum. I was surprised to see that the newspaper misspelled the museum’s name as Peréz.

Should be Pérez, not Peréz. Duh.

I was surprised for two reasons. First, the museum is a major Tampa cultural institution, and the city’s hometown newspaper should be able to spell its name properly. For crying out loud, they could have checked Wikipedia if they weren’t sure. You can see the name of the museum in both the text and the illustration of the Wikipedia entry, accent mark neatly in place.

Second, the misplaced accent mark is such an obvious Spanish mistake that someone at the the Tampa Bay Times should have caught it. As any Spanish teacher will tell you, Spanish words that end in a consonant, including z, are normally stressed on the last syllable. The accent mark on Pérez indicates an exception to this rule: the name is pronounced PErez, not peREZ. In other words, NO Spanish word that ends with z will ever have an accent mark on its final syllable.

Please be more careful, TBT.