Category Archives: Learning Spanish

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!


Spanish lessons from popular fiction

My second-favorite souvenir from a Spanish-speaking country is a reading list. (My absolute favorite is a mama cuchara, an oversized spoon that I bought at the open-air market in Otovalo, Ecuador.)

My mama cuchara is about 2 feet long and usually contains soup, not a tree.

This precious list was a parting present from a professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where I took summer classes about six years ago. She explained that for advanced non-native speakers like us (many of whom were Spanish teachers), the best way to keep improving our Spanish when we got home was to read for pleasure. The idea is that if you get absorbed in a story, your fluency will increase naturally.

I love this approach because it combines two of my deepest passions: Spanish and light reading. Now I get to read a mystery novel or an adventure story and count it as “professional development”. Not in any formal sense, of course (hence the ironic quotation marks), but enough to feel that I’m using my time productively. Sometimes I read like a student, looking up new words and even making flashcards for them. But usually I “just” read.

Last night I finished a terrific book from the list, Guillermo Martínez’s La muerte lenta de Luciana B. The plot describes a writer’s Rashomon-like quest to understand a series of deaths — or are they murders? Martínez is Argentinian and of course I got a big kick out of the voseo, but the biggest linguistic thrill for me, having just blogged on the topic, was the following passage, which combines both versions of the imperfect subjunctive:

Hubo un silencio del otro lado, como si Kloster ya tuviera el presentimiento correcto y se preparase a jugar una partida diferente.

Perhaps a native speaker who reads this blog can suggest an intuitive explanation for the author’s choices here.

One of my professor’s top recommendations was the wildly popular Capitán Alatriste series by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. These books feature a down-on-his-luck Golden Age swashbuckler with a knack for inserting himself into important historical events (like the siege of Breda) à la Forrest Gump and palling around with notable writers like Francisco de Quevedo. The series has spawned a restaurant in Madrid and a [by all accounts mediocre] film starring Viggo Mortensen, whose fluent Spanish comes from a childhood in Argentina.

Alatriste taverna

Taberna del Capitán Alatriste, Madrid

The Alatriste books are rich in vocabulary. Besides swordfighting and military terms, and adjectives good for describing sinister characters, they abound in idiomatic expressions involving a la or las pronoun that lacks a specific direct object referent. Examples include:

  • dársela “to pretend to be something”, e.g. “…que por ser antiguo sargento de caballos, mutilado en Nieuport, se las daba de consumado estratega.”
  • habérsela “to contend with”, e.g. “…permanecieron allí, quietos y silenciosos a uno y otro lado del candelabro … estudiándose para averiguar si se las habían con un camarada o un adversario”
  • tenérsela jurada “to have it in for someone”, e.g. (referring to Quevedo): “Algunos, como Luis de Góngora o Juan Ruiz de Alarcón se la tenían jurada, y no sólo por escrita.”
  • levantársela “to excite (sexually)”, e.g. (referring to an allegedly pure woman, a “santa”) “Y entre santa y santa — repuso Calzas, procaz — a nuestro rey se la levantan.”
  • arreglársela “to manage, carry out, finagle”, e.g. “A veces me pregunto cómo se las arreglan ustedes, los que no juegan [al ajedrez], para escapar de la locura o la melancolía.”

My favorite book so far by Pérez-Reverte, El maestro de esgrima, isn’t from the Alatriste series. It’s a complicated story involving the titular fencing teacher, an unusual student, and a blackmail plot. What fun!

¡Que disfruten!

Forgotten Spanish

As much as I love Spanish, there have been a few periods in my life when I didn’t speak it much, or at all. Because I’m a compulsively analytic linguist, it’s been interesting to see what I’ve forgotten, or remembered, after a break from the language.

My longest break was the dozen or so years that I worked as a computational linguist. For most of this time I lived in New Mexico, where, as I previously described, it was hard to find people to speak Spanish with because I was an outsider — an Anglo (or Angla).

What did I forget during that time? Mostly, vocabulary, on what a computer scientist would call a LIFO basis — Last In, First Out. That is, the words I forgot tended to be the ones I’d learned most recently.

Last in, first out

I discovered one such loss when my husband’s cousin came to dinner with his family. His wife Claudia is Mexican and it was pure joy to speak Spanish with her and their multilingual children (Spanish, French, some Hebrew, some English). At one point I groped for the word for “struggle” and came up with esdrújulo. Claudia looked puzzled. Clearly the word didn’t mean what I thought it did; in fact, she told me she had never heard it!

A trip to the dictionary solved the mystery: esdrújulo is a reasonably obscure linguistic term that I had learned while writing my dissertation on children’s acquisition of the Spanish word stress system. It refers to stress three syllables from the end of a word — the antepenultimate syllable. Some examples are teléfonohelicóptero, and, of course, esdrújulo itself, which means that the word is “autological“, i.e. an example of what it defines. (Sesquipedalian, meaning “having many syllables”, is another famous autology.) Esdrújulo and struggle are phonetically similar: sdru maps to stru, j maps to g, and l maps to l. This undoubtedly explains why my memory had reinterpreted the word during those years of disuse.

Needless to say, I have never since forgotten it!

I retained Spanish grammar more completely, which again makes sense for a linguist. Grammar is our bread and butter, the pond we choose to swim in. In fact, when I decided to make a career transition to teaching Spanish, and spent some time in Mexico refreshing my skills, I found that the only significant chunk of grammar I’d forgotten was the use of the subjunctive after expressions of emotion, as in Me alegro de que Pablo ESTÉ aquí (I’m happy Pablo’s here). It’s an odd usage, when you think about it, because there’s no doubt about Pablo’s location; compare, for example, Espero que Pablo ESTÉ aquí (I hope Pablo’s here). Losing and recovering this use of the subjunctive has made me more sensitive, as a teacher, to the challenge it poses for students.

How cute is this cartoon about the subjunctive, from

If losing a bit of Spanish is frustrating, there’s pure joy in having one come back to you. As a college student I put Spanish on the back burner for a few semesters to work on my French, then spent a summer in Madrid. I’ll never forget the day our group was walking down a street and stopped to admire a beautiful tile. Like a long-lost friend, the word azulejo floated into my active memory after a few scary moments of mental groping. It felt like a divine signal from the Spanish gods, if you will, that they’d forgiven my temporary apostasy.

Unos azulejos de Madrid

Since then, azulejo has been one of my favorite Spanish words (along with esdrújulo, I guess). Many people assume it comes from the word azul, since so many tiles are blue, but the Real Academia assures us that it comes from Arabic azzuláyga. It’s a gorgeous word no matter where it comes from.

Spanish is easy to learn — but not too easy

In my experience, many Spanish students are surprised at how hard they have to work to make substantial progress in the language. I think they initially assume that Spanish is easy to learn because its spelling is more or less phonetic, and its pronunciation relatively easy (except for the rolled r). This certainly gives the Spanish student an advantage at first over someone studying, say, French. But as one’s studies progress, the complexities of Spanish verbs and pronouns can be a rude awakening.

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