Category Archives: Learning Spanish

Muletillas revisited

I remember, with excruciating clarity, my most embarrassing moment as a young mother. I was in the supermarket with my two-year-old daughter, Joanna. She always attracted a lot of attention because of her adorable face and her cherubic halo of blond curls. This made it even more humiliating when she decided that she was bored and piped up, in her clear voice that carried for aisles (if not miles), “Mom, let’s get out of this f**ing store!” That’s when I realized it was time for me to clean up my language.

What does this have to do with Spanish?

Last week my second-semester students all gave oral presentations. I had slipped, almost without realizing it, into the habit of dropping the English word so into my Spanish. And just like toddler Joanna, my students did as I did. More than half of them used so in their presentations instead of a proper Spanish hesitation word, like pues or bien. (In Spanish these are called muletillas ‘little crutches’, a term I adore.) As with the supermarket incident, the message was clear: it was time for me to clean up my Spanish.

This incident was particularly galling to me because I am well aware of the linguistic importance of sticking to the target language when using hesitation words. In fact, this was the subject of the best language lesson I ever had as a student, in a class with Harvard’s master French teacher Judy Frommer, Prof. Frommer had every student in the class read out loud a short, innocuous paragraph while attempting to stretch it out as long as possible with French muletillas, or tics de langage, such as bondoncalors, and bien. It was a lot of fun, and really drove home an important point: every time you lapse into your own language, even if just for a meaningless syllable, your brain has to do extra work to switch back into the target language.

So — I have turned over a new linguistic leaf, and am doing my best to keep my Spanish pure. I’m sure that my students will register this change, albeit not consciously, and I hope it will help them keep to Spanish themselves.

[Note: I entitled this post “Muletillas revisited” because I thought I had mentioned the topic before…but I haven’t. More’s the pity…]

The top 10 surprising ways that Spanish isn’t special

¡Próspero Año Nuevo!

My previous post presented the Top 10 reasons why Spanish is special. This post presents its opposite: the Top 10 reasons why Spanish isn’t special. Like the previous Top 10 list, it includes examples from Spanish grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation.

This Top 10 list was constructed with native speakers of English in mind. It describes core aspects of Spanish that may seem peculiar, but turn out to be normal when considered in a broader linguistic context. Some of these are truly surprising! The inscrutable ‘personal a, for example, turns out to be a prime example of a linguistic phenomenon known as Differential Object Marking, while the use of positive expressions like en absoluto (‘absolutely’) with a negative meaning (‘absolutely not’), illustrates a well-known historical process called Jespersen’s Cycle.

To me, the two lists are equally interesting. I love both the special features of Spanish and its reflection of broader cross-linguistic tendencies. I hope you do, too.


A terrific website for Spanish learners

[On Halloween, I turned in the manuscript for the book on Hispanic linguistics I’ve been working on for the past 5 years (¡Uy!), and expect to be getting back into more regular posting now that I have more time.]

A contributor to the Spanish subreddit posted some time ago about a terrific website for Spanish learners, called Readlang. Frankly, I don’t know much about Readlang except for what I’ve seen while playing around with the links on the subreddit post, but I strongly recommend that you check it out if you learn or teach Spanish. Each Readlang entry (at least the ones linked to on this post) has a video of a series of speakers reading different thematic passages in Spanish, with the passages reprinted below. You have the usual video controls, plus the ability to slow down or speed up the video. A cursor in the reading passage shows your current location. You can click on any word to get an instant translation.

The entry labeled “Day, Date” gives the country each speaker is from. (I wish all the entries had this feature, but “chiggers can’t be boozers”.)

Here’s a screen shot:

Truly awesome — many thanks to the folks at Readlang and to whoever posted these specific entries on it.

The difference between knowing and knowing

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Este aporte no trata de la diferencia entre los verbos saberconocer, sino de la diferencia entre conocer un aspecto de un idioma abtracta versus íntimamente.

Quisiera empezar con un ejemplo de la experiencia personal de mi marido, cuyo idioma maternal era el francés belga. Entre otras diferencias dialectales, aprendió a usar palabras distintas por 70 (septante) y 90 (nonante) en vez del soixante-dix (60+10) y quatre-vingt-dix (4×20+10) del francés convencional. Cuando habla francés hoy, suele ser con francófonos franceses. Por eso usa los números convencionales: sabe que son lo normal. Pero me dice que cada vez resiste hacerlo. “No puedo creer que verdaderamente usen estos apaños complicados.”

Encontré un fenómeno parecido recientemente cuando estaba preparando un examen para mis clases de español. Como siempre, había incluido una pregunta usando tú y tus amigos para obtener una respuesta usando nosotros. La pregunta específica era algo como ¿Qué van a hacer tú y tus amigos este fin de semana? Una colega española que leyó el examen se quedó horrorizada. Insistió en que la pregunta era gramaticalmente incorrecta porque combinaba la habla informal ( and tus) y formal (van).

De hecho, solo el español de España mantiene el contraste entre las formas plurales formales e informales. Mi colega, por ejemplo, usa vosotros y sus formales verbales (como vais) cuando habla con amigos, y ustedes (con van) cuando habla con superiores y desconocidos. Pero en Latinoamérica (y Andalucía), se usa ustedes en contextos formales e informales. En este dialecto mi pregunta es correcta.

Para mí, lo interesante de la reacción de mi colega es que por supuesto sabía intelectualmente que “no se usa vosotros en Latinoamérica”. Pero cuando encaró un uso específico, como mi marido con los números “franceses franceses”, su reacción era rechazarlo. Sabe, pero no cree.

Esta diferencia entre conocer y conocer (o saber y saber, o saber y creer) también tiene un gran impacto en el aprendizaje de un idioma extranjero. Cualquier estudiante de español principiante o intermedio se declararía de acuerdo con reglas básicas como “los adjetivos tienen que estar en concordancia con los sustantivos” o “los verbos tienen que estar en concordancia con sus sujetos”. Pero siguen violando estas reglas sin embargo en su español oral y escrito. Por la mayor parte, en mi opinión, es porque no han alcanzado el segundo nivel del conocimiento. Al fondo no han aceptado que el español pueda ser tan diferente del inglés, ni que estas violaciones verdaderamente resulten en español incomprensible. Solo el tiempo y la práctica los van a convencer.


This post isn’t about saber and conocer, the two Spanish verbs that mean “to know”. Rather, it’s about the difference between knowing an aspect of language abstractly versus personally.

Let me illustrate this first with an example from my husband’s experience as a native speaker of Belgian French (no frites jokes, s’il vous plaît). Among other dialectal differences, Belgian French uses distinct vocabulary words for 70 (septante) and 90 (nonante) instead of standard French soixante-dix (60+10) and quatre-vingt-dix (4×20+10). When he speaks French today, it is normally with French speakers from France, and he uses the standard numbers because he knows this is expected. Yet he tells me that every time, he resists doing so. “I can’t believe they actually use those complicated work-arounds.”

I ran into a similar phenomenon recently when preparing a Spanish test. As usual, I had included a question about “you and your friends” (tú y tus amigos) in order to trigger a “we” (nosotros) answer. (The exact question was something like ¿Qué van a hacer tú y tus amigos este fin de semana?) A Spanish colleague who looked over the test insisted that the question was grammatically incorrect because it combined informal address ( and tus) and the formal plural verb form van.

In fact, only peninsular Spanish, as exemplified in the Spanish of Madrid, maintains a contrast between informal and formal address in the plural. Thus my colleague uses vosotros when addressing friends, and ustedes when addressing superiors and strangers. The same goes for the associated verb forms, such as informal vais versus formal van. But in Latin America, as well as Andalusia (southern Spain), ustedes and its verb forms are used in both formal and informal contexts. In this dialect, my usage was perfectly correct.

What interested me about this exchange is that my colleague certainly knew that “Latin Americans don’t use vosotros“. Yet when it came to a specific application of this knowledge, her reaction was rejection, or even revulsion, just as when my husband has to force himself to use the “French French” numbers. She knows, but she doesn’t believe.

This difference between knowing and knowing also strongly affects second language learning. Any beginning or intermediate Spanish student will agree that “adjectives have to agree with nouns”, “verbs have to agree with their subjects”, and so on. They can probably list examples of correct agreement. Yet they continue to violate the rules in their spontaneous spoken and written Spanish. This is largely, I believe, because they haven’t progressed to the second level of knowing. In their heart of hearts they haven’t truly accepted that Spanish can be so different from English, and that violating these rules genuinely results in incomprehensible language.  Only time and practice will drive the reality home.

Categories or cases for Spanish grammar

My time and thoughts have mostly been in my classroom over the last few weeks, so this post is more teacher-y than usual. But it does, I hope, contain some interesting observations about some core grammatical issues in Spanish.

As I noted in an earlier post, Spanish teachers have to explain many differences that exist in Spanish but not in English. These vary in difficulty for the native English speaker. Simple vocabulary differences such as tocar versus jugar, which both mean “to play” (an instrument versus a sport), are the easiest. Other vocabulary differences are more complicated: for example, how por and para divvy up the various meanings of English “for”, or ser and estar the meanings of “to be”. Harder still are grammatical differences that English lacks either mostly (e.g. subjunctive versus indicative moods) or entirely (e.g. the pretérito and imperfecto aspects of the past tense).

When teaching these more challenging differences, I’m often torn between explaining them in terms of categories or cases. The former approach seeks overarching principles that distinguish the Spanish forms. The latter metaphorically throws up its hands and instead details the specific sub-uses of each form. As a linguist I much prefer the former since categorical differences often relate to core semantic concepts. In practice I always provide both frameworks and emphasize one or the other, depending on the topic at hand.

I ran head-first into this issue the first time I taught the Spanish past tense. The usual sequence in an American classroom is to teach the pretérito first, then the imperfecto, then how to use them in conjunction. For the final stage I followed the practice of a more experienced colleague and taught the students the SIMBA CHEATED mnemonic. SIMBA stands for some basic uses of the pretérito: Single actions, Interruptions, Main events, Beginnings and endings, and Arrivals or departures. CHEATED does the same for the imperfecto: describing someone or something’s Characteristics, Health, Emotion, or Age, telling Time, describing Endless activities, and giving a Date.

The net result: my students didn’t see the forest for the trees. In other words, they learned the specific cases covered by SIMBA CHEATED but failed to generalize to the overall difference between the two aspects: that the pretérito relates events, i.e. “what happened”, while the imperfecto describes the past, providing backgrounds and details.

This failure was a loss at an intellectual level, for this aspectual distinction is a perfect example of how different languages encode the world in different ways. At a practical level, the mnemonic slowed students down, since they tended to run through the entire mental checklist before using a past tense. It also proved useless when we moved on to subtler distinctions in the past tense. For example, while conocer retains its core meaning of “to know someone” in the imperfecto, in the pretérito it means “to meet” someone. This makes perfect sense — if one focuses on the overarching use of the pretérito to relate events.

I therefore now try to emphasize the broad categories of “event” and “description” as much as possible when teaching the past tense. While I do provide a reference sheet (see my teaching page) that shows some specific applications of these categories, I stay away from mnemonics and always aim to extract the basic principles from the examples that come up in class.

My approach to the indicative/subjunctive distinction still focuses mostly on categories, but veers slightly in the direction of cases (again see my teaching page). I focus on the overarching use of the indicative for reality and the subjunctive for uncertainty since this covers most uses of the two moods. However, in this case I do teach an acronym: the famous WEIRDO (Wish/Want, Emotions, Impersonal expressions, Require/Recommend, Doubt/Deny, and Ojalá). This is partly because some of the uses it covers trump the reality/uncertainty difference (e.g. emotional contexts like Me alegro de que Pablo esté aquí, where Pablo actually is here), but mostly as a handy way to remind students to practice a variety of subjunctive contexts in their written work.

My approach to por and para (teaching page again), in contrast, focuses almost entirely on cases. These two words correspond to so many different meanings of English “for” that I find it most helpful to emphasize individual uses, such as para for destinations and por for duration. However, since at a very high level para often implies directionality and por, apportionment, I also suggest the graphical metaphors of an arrow for para (X > Y) and a ratio line for por (X/Y). While I don’t expect the average student to find these useful in practice, he or she should at least be aware that the division of “for” into por and para isn’t random. There’s a method to the Spanish madness!



Some surprising Spanish-English cognates

I’ve always been a big fan of cognates, i.e. genetically related words across languages, like Spanish insistir and English insist. As a language learner, I’ve found cognates enormously helpful in reading and in memorizing vocabulary. I really missed them when I studied Hebrew.

As a teacher, I point out cognates and also teach my students to use them just as I do: as an aid in reading and in memorization. An additional benefit is intellectual. Articles in the popular press with titles like “Latin comeback in the schools” invariably make the claim that studying Latin helps students learn the roots of English vocabulary. There’s no reason why students can’t have the same benefit from studying Spanish or other Romance languages.

As a linguist, I’m happiest when I learn a non-obvious cognate: the kind that gives you an “Aha!” or “Really?” moment. The table below lists my favorite “Aha!” Spanish/English verb cognates. For example, I’ve always explained the verb disfrutar to my students metaphorically, as enjoying the fruits of life (or whatever) — here I normally mime plucking fruit from a tree – but until I looked it up I didn’t realize that this was the verb’s actual etymology. Again, I’ve left out what I consider to be more obvious cognates, such as savvy, savory, or homo sapiens for sabercognitive or acquaintance for conocer, or dictate for decir. [There, I worked them in anyway!] My sources for the table are the etymologies on the Real Academia website and Douglas Harper’s very impressive Online Etymology Dictionary, which is great fun to browse.

Please write in with your own favorite cognates, including cognates for nouns and adjectives.

Some verb cognates

Summer summary for

While I’m not much of a “beach person” — I don’t like the heat! — the last few weeks I’ve been craving a beach day. It really wouldn’t feel like summer without going at least once. So on Saturday, a girlfriend and I visited lovely, peaceful Hammonasset State Park in Madison, CT. It hit the spot.

Hammonasset Beach State Park, CT

Just before leaving for the beach I received the long-anticipated “”Welcome to the fall semester” email from the Spanish language coordinators at Fordham University (this is where I teach). All of a sudden the first day of classes (Wednesday!) feels real. I’m sure my future students are going through the same mental process. I will be teaching two sections of second-semester Spanish, and getting to know a new textbook, Gente.

These end-of-the-season events have inspired me to review the summer’s activity on I’ve published 27 posts since the beginning of June, roughly 3 a week. My main focus (9 posts) has been on verbs, which are, or course, a Big Deal in Spanish. These include:

Five posts have concerned vocabulary: Spanish slang, Spanish last names (women’s issues and patronymics)  special vocabulary for disabilities, and new Spanish vocabulary from the economic crisis.

Five other posts have concerned the process of learning. Topics included mismatches between Spanish and English vocabulary (verging into grammar), the pedagogical value of reading popular fiction (including a terrific reading list), what I forgot when I didn’t speak Spanish for a few years, and the philosophy that “language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.”

Four posts address Spanish spelling: accent marks, phonetic spelling (or not), x vs j, and x vs. cc.

Three posts address contemporary language issues: the minority languages of Spain, the high degree of metalinguistic awareness of normal Spanish speakers, and the political [in?]correctness of the language name Spanish.

This leaves two miscellaneous posts, on voseo and the surprising history of the word yand“.

Four of the above posts were part of Spanish Friday: here, here, here, and here.

During the summer the blog has been enriched by comments from readers from around the world. I really appreciate this and encourage you to keep writing. Please feel free to suggest new topics you’d like this blog to address, or enhancements — I’ve added an RSS feed but still haven’t invested any time in Twitter or Facebook. I much prefer to “just write”, but if any bells and whistles would make a difference I will invest the time. I just added a snazzy new background (made with Wordle) and hope it renders well on your screen.

To subscribe by email, use the form on the right.

It’s been a great summer, and I’m looking forward to continuing into the new academic year.

Update on Spanish-English correspondences

Today’s post is a quickie. I just wanted to point out that I updated the slideshow in my previous post about asymmetrical Spanish-English correspondences in response to reader F.J.’s very helpful comments.

There are two changes:

  • a clarification that the subjuntivo/indicativo difference is, of course, one of mood.
  • adding hacer (“to do” + “to make”) as a third case of a difference present in English but not Spanish. I am kicking myself for not having included this the first time around.

Please note that the updated slideshow has a different URL. Perhaps there was a graceful way to update it with the same URL, but I impetuously deleted the old one without checking… I doubt this will inconvenience anyone.

¡Gracias, F.J.!

Some asymmetrical correspondences between Spanish and English

Spanish students spend a lot of time learning and practicing differences that exist in Spanish but not English. These include differences in pronouns (, usted, and their plurals), verbs (ser and estarsaber and conocer), verb tenses and moods (pretérito/imperfectoindicativo/subjuntivo), and other aspects of grammar (masc./fem., por/paraese/aquel). I’ve put together a little slideshow below that summarizes these differences.

Obviously this list could be a lot longer. Pedir/preguntarmudarse/mover, and hacerse/ponerse are some additional items that spring to mind. The differences I put on the slideshow are the ones that seem to come up most in an introductory Spanish class. I’m particularly fond of doler vs. lastimar because students seem to trip over this one until they realize that the two words represent different aspects of the English concept.

Note: slideshow updated 3 aug 2013, see follow-up post.

The last two slides present the only three differences I’ve been able to think of (or had pointed out to me) that go the other way: that is, important distinctions we make in English but not in Spanish. These differences are “there is” vs. “there are” (both singular in Spanish), “to do” vs. “to make” (both hacer in Spanish), and all the different meanings of su (his, her, your, their).

I’m sure there are many others besides these. Perhaps an ESL teacher could suggest some? I welcome your comments. [Edit: As discussed in this later post, another good example is the Spanish verb esperar, which combines the meanings of English ‘to wait’ and ‘to hope’.]

A lovely thought about language learning

I subscribe to a lively mailing list for language teachers, FLTEACH. In a recent message, a professional translator recommended Kató Lomb’s classic book Polyglot: How I Learn LanguagesIt’s a fun read, and interesting for its emphasis on the important of reading (for pleasure or work) for language learners at all levels.

My favorite passage from the book, which motivated this post, is the following. I’ve highlighted my “most favorite” bit in red.

      We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorlyIf someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find that the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. The man somewhat skilled in medicine will not go far, and if he tries to trade on his knowledge without certification, he will be locked up as a quack doctor.
Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan.

Lomb’s observation that “language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly” is amazingly astute. It goes hand-in-hand with what every language teacher knows: it’s important to make mistakes while learning a language, and even more so, to not be afraid of making them. This is why I often tell my students “Me gusta el español malo”. As a language learner, I don’t mind sounding like an idiot when I attempt to communicate in German or another language that I barely know.

Depending on one’s personality it can be hard to be fearless — but one must always try!