Category Archives: Spanish in the world

A Rotary talk on Spanish in the United States

I recently gave a talk to my local Rotary Club about Spanish in the United States, as part of my ongoing effort to promote my book. It was fun in multiple ways. First, I didn’t know anything about the Rotary organization beforehand, so I got to learn a bit about what they do. The group included local business people, the chief of police, a judge, and other upstanding citizens. Second, I picked the topic of “Spanish in the United States” because I figured it would be of general interest, and it was — most gratifying. Third, this was the first time I’ve tried speaking to a group that knew nothing about either linguistics or Spanish, and it went fine. This bodes well for hypothetical future speaking gigs.

Here is a rough outline of my talk. Note that it was organized in reverse chronological order.

  1. Predicting the future
    1. General pattern of immigrant languages being lost (Yiddish, Italian, German, etc.)
    2. Researchers concur that Spanish fits the same pattern, despite large numbers of Spanish speakers
      1. previous waves of immigration had huge numbers, too
    3. Specific prediction: Spanish will be gone in a few generations unless new immigrants continue to replenish population of speakers
      1. anecdotal evidence from my students: “I wish my parents had insisted that I speak Spanish with them”.
  2. Describing the present
    1. Features that show loss in progress
      1. U.S.-born Hispanics speaking more basic form of language
        1. keeping fundamental parts, e.g.
          1. gender
          2. preterite/imperfect
        2. loss of
          1. sophisticated structures, e.g. complex If..then structures (‘If I hadn’t spent all my money yesterday I wouldn’t have had to borrow more this morning’)
          2. some verb tenses
          3. some irregular verbs
      2. English influence
        1. borrowing, e.g. registración for inscripciónflu for gripe
          1. excursus on borrowing of Spanish vocab into English (plug for Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries)
        2. grammar (examples from Silva-Corvalán and Lipski)
          1. possessives for body parts (Me pegó en mi brazo)
          2. superfluous subject pronouns (Yo creo)
          3. noun-adjective order (machucado español ‘chopped-up Spanish’)
        3. code switching
    2. Most important characteristic unrelated to language loss = variety
      1. No such thing as “United States Spanish”; plug for Lipski’s Varieties of Spanish in the United States)
      2. Main concentrations are PR/DR in NE, Mexican in SW, Cuban in SE
      3. Interesting research on dialects in contact: linguistic accommodation, leveling
  3. A little history
    1. Modern migration from other countries is second phase of Spanish in the U.S.
      1. First phase = Spanish colonial period
      2. Relics still in New Mexico and Colorado (norteños), Louisiana
        1. another plug for Varieties of Spanish in the United States (ch. 12)
    2. What kind of Spanish? Andalusian
      1. no th sound (cerveza)
      2. final -s deletion (lo libro)
      3. ustedes but not vosotros

Paella poetry

Pablo Neruda’s Oda al tomate is probably the most famous food poem in Spanish literature, but I’ve now found my personal favorite: José María Pemán y Pemartín’s Oda a la paella. This poem celebrates the way that paella respects its individual ingredients while achieving a harmonious whole. I’ve added a rough translation.

¡Oh insigne sinfonía de todos los colores!
¡Oh ilustre paella
por fuera con su blusa de colores,
quemadita por dentro con ansias de doncella!
¡Oh policromo plato colorista
que antes que con el gusto se come con la vista!
Concentración de glorias donde nada se deja.
Compromiso de Caspe entre el pollo y la almeja.
¡Oh plato decisivo :
gremial y colectivo!
¡Oh plato delicioso
donde todo es hermoso
y todo se distingue, pero nada está roto!
¡Oh plato liberal donde un grano es un grano
como un hombre es un voto!

Oh famous multi-colored symphony!
Oh illustrious paella
on the outside a colorful blouse,
burning from within like a yearning maiden!
Oh polychromatic, colorful dish
that your eyes enjoy before your stomach!
Concentration of glories where everything counts.
Spain’s compromise between chicken and clams.
Oh decisive and collaborative dish!
Oh delicious dish
where everything is beautiful
and everything stands out, but nothing is broken!
Oh generous dish where one grain of rice is one grain
just as one man is one vote!

I came across Pemán’s Oda in the Spanish novel I’m currently reading: Los mares del Sur, one of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s many mysteries featuring the detective Pepe Carvalho. Vázquez is passionate about food — he has written a number of cookbooks — and food figures heavily in Los mares del Sur. Vázquez reproduces the Oda in a chapter about a feast Carvalho enjoys with friends from his native Galicia. Paella is on the menu and the feasters have a vigorous discussion about whether or not onion is an allowed ingredient, regional paella differences, how much pepper to add, and so on. They enjoy the paella a lo rural (‘country style’), meaning that they eat straight out of the dish, each choosing some territorio (‘territory’) within the dish — a good way to avoid one eater’s hogging all the best ingredients!

I don’t remember where I saw Los mares del Sur recommended, but Wikipedia tells us that it won the Premio Planeta in 1979, and also made one Spanish newspaper’s list of the 100 best Spanish novels of the 20th century — not bad for light fiction. It has also been made into a movie.

I’m now past the halfway point in Los mares del Sur, and so far it reminds me of a slow train ride with beautiful scenery. In other words, Vázquez takes his time with the plot, but the book has wonderful descriptions of people and places along the way. My favorite aspect (besides the paella poem) is Vázquez’s sly sense of humor, as when he describes a group of mismatched chairs as sillas de diferentes padres. I’m finding something laugh-out-loud funny every few pages. Another plus, for me at least, is that the novel is set in post-Franco Barcelona and thus provides a historical counterpart to the various Jordi Sierra i Fabra mysteries I’ve been reading, which take place in Barcelona just before and during that time period.




15 February ANLE event (NYC)

ANLE, the Academia Norteamericana de la Lenga Española, is the United States’ branch of the Real Academia Española (RAE— or, more precisely, of ASALE, the international organization of which the RAE is the best-known member. I’m a huge fan of the RAE and have previously written about it here, here, here, and here (slides 4 and 5).

Membership in ANLE is limited to fifty outstanding proponents of the Spanish language in the United States, including academicians, writers, and journalists. New members therefore join ANLE only occasionally — when an existing member retires or passes away — and their induction is always celebrated with a scholarly yet joyous event. I’ve previously attended one such induction. The order of business is always the same. First, the inductee is introduced and makes a speech (an academic discourse). Then another member gives a speech in response, and the director of ANLE officially welcomes the new member.

The next ANLE induction, on February 15 at the Instituto Cervantes in Manhattan, promises to be exceptionally interesting. The new member is Francisco Moreno-Fernández, the Executive Director of the Instituto Cervantes at Harvard University, a member of Harvard’s oddly punctuated “Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights,” and a professor of Hispanic Linguistics at Spain’s University of Alcalá. Moreno’s field is sociolinguistics, and his inaugural lecture will be on “Perfiles del español estadounidense.” You can download a flyer for the event here.

Prof. Francisco Moreno-Fernández

Prof. Francisco Moreno-Fernández

Besides the inherent interest of this event for anyone who cares about Spanish in the U.S., it will be personally meaningful for me: I studied linguistics at Harvard, and wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on a sociolinguistics topic. Small world!

Maybe I’ll see some of you there.

NECTFL report

On Friday and Saturday I had a wonderful time at the annual NECTFL conference here in New York. NECTFL stands for the NorthEast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. It started as an independent conference, but is now the largest of the regional conferences under the umbrella of ACTFL, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. I’ve attended NECTFL several times, and this year, for the first time, presented a talk.

The talk was based, not surprisingly, on my book, but with an appropriately pedagogical twist, to focus on how foreign language teachers can bring linguistics into the classroom. The conference theme was standards for foreign language teaching, so I shaped my talk around two of ACTFL’s official standards: Comparisons (with other languages) and Connections (to other disciplines). In the talk I managed to work in two other standards: Cultural comparisons and — the big one! — Communication. The abstract is below.


My talk had a decent turnout, especially since there were more than a dozen concurrent talks for attendees to choose from, and was well received. I had some promising follow-up conversations, including an offer of collaboration and an invitation to speak at another conference. I’m also planning to write up my talk and submit it to one of the ACTFL journals.

Bloomsbury Linguistics had rented a table in the conference’s book exhibit, and sold every copy of my book that they had with them, in addition to taking advance orders. This made me very happy. I figured that if I couldn’t sell my book at a conference for language teachers, I was in big trouble.

As in previous years I learned a lot from the talks I attended. My chore today is to go over my notes and the handouts I accumulated, and digest the specific techniques that I can implement (i) immediately and (ii) later in my own teaching. In many talks I was struck afresh by the dramatic differences between K-12 and college teaching. Most attendees, and all the presenters I heard, are K-12 teachers. They have lots of time to work with their students, and usually have a classroom to call their own. As a college Spanish teacher I have less time to cover more material, and share an anonymous classroom. On the other hand, my students are more mature who are strongly motivated to do the work and earn good grades. These environmental differences will play a large role in how I adapt the techniques I learned in the conference.

I had a final dose of Spanish after the conference, when I struck up a conversation with an Argentinian family at an excellent taquería where I stopped for a bite on my way to the train station. (It isn’t hard to recognize Argentinian Spanish, but of course I was pleased, and these tourists somewhat surprised, when I guessed their nationality.) We chatted a bit about my two idiosyncratic Argentinian obsessions: pato, the gaucho version of polo originally played with a live duck, and the linguistic isolation of Argentinian Spanish during the formative colonial period, which was the subject of my first blog post back in 2013. Now I have friends to see when I eventually visit Buenos Aires!


Neruda en México — sort of

I have to apologize, because I’m at it again, blogging about something other than the long-promised theme of “Cervantes on the beach.” The distracting factor this time is my trip to Washington, DC this past weekend for the Women’s March on Washington — an amazing experience, though not related to Spanish. While there, I returned to a Mexican restaurant I had enjoyed on my previous trip to the city. It is called Oyamel and features small plates that are innovative and delicious. I strongly recommend it!

As on my previous visit, I noticed that the words of my long-time favorite poem, Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche, are inscribed on the restaurant’s walls. This time I took some photographs (below). You can see the titular first line of the poem interrupted by the window in the first photo, and wrapping around the corner in the second.IMG_20170122_160253


Puedo escribir… is one of the most famous poems by Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet. It is part of his Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, published in 1924. Readers familiar with Hispanic literature will wonder, of course, why a Mexican restaurant is decorated with Chilean poetry. Perhaps this is because Oyamel is part of a larger restaurant group run by José Andrés, a Spanish chef, whose restaurants include cuisine from around the Spanish-speaking world.

At any rate, it was a thrill to be able to enjoy my favorite poem while enjoying a delicious lunch with friends.

Spanish versus Portuguese

I owe my readers an apology. In my previous post I promised to write several posts about the Spanish of Cervantes. Instead, my recent days have been devoted to annoying grownup stuff (car trouble, health insurance wrangling), happy grownup stuff (visiting my grandchildren), and also sending out “blast” emails about my book. All important, yet distracting.

This makes it even more awkward that my first post since promising Cervantes is, instead, about Portuguese! But I couldn’t resist, and you’ll see why.

My “blast” emails have given me the chance to reconnect with some friends and family I haven’t been in touch with for a while. One childhood friend wrote back, “I have been studying Portuguese and this has made me wonder about why Spanish is so much more complex.” In direct contrast, a cousin of my husband’s asked, “when will you do [a book] on Portuguese, in my opinion a more difficult and mysterious language?”

I hate to disappoint both my old friend and my cousin-in-law, but I have never studied Portuguese and have no idea how it compares to Spanish in difficulty. I do know some interesting factoids about the difference between the two languages:

  1. It’s easier for Portuguese speakers to understand Spanish than the other way around (the topic of an earlier post);
  2. The future subjunctive, an Iberian invention, is more frequent in Portuguese than in Spanish, where it’s only seen in legalese;
  3. Spanish and Portuguese both have the ser/estar contrast, but permanent location is expressed with ser in Portuguese, versus estar in Spanish.

However, none of these factoids has anything to do with the relative difficulty of the two languages. Perhaps some readers will write in and help with this question. Please!

In the meantime, anyone interested in Portuguese is recommended to read the delightful “not just a physics memoir” Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman. Its chapters on Feynman’s time in Brazil show how learning a foreign language can open unexpected doors.

A visit to the Real Academia Española

Today was a dream come true for me: I visited the seat of the Real Academia Española. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably already know that I’m a big fan of the RAE. This visit was therefore a top priority for my linguistic tour of northern Spain. I also wanted to use the RAE’s library to look at a specific book that is not available in the United States.

The seat of the Real Academia Española, just behind the Museo del Prado.

The RAE is not generally open to the public, but the head of the Academia Norteamérica de la Lengua Española, Gerardo Piña-Rosales, kindly contacted the RAE to arrange for me to take a tour. As it happened, a local public school had scheduled a class trip to the RAE on my preferred date and time, so I was simply added to this group of very well-behaved kids. We saw a video about the RAE (see below) and then visited the principal rooms, including meeting rooms, the lecture hall, and various libraries.

My two favorite rooms were the coat room and the plenary meeting room. The coat room is fun because each hook is labeled with a member’s name, and they are ordered by their year of admittance to the RAE.  I was happy to see the designated hooks for one of my favorite writers, Arturo Pérez-Reverte (whose work has popped up in my blog here and here), and the linguist Inés Fernández Ordóñez, whose research on leísmo I’ve cited here. The plenary meeting room is where the RAE convenes to vote on proposed changes to their dictionary, spelling guide, or grammar. One letter of the Spanish alphabet, either upper-case or lower-case, is carved into each chair around the table. This reflects that fact that each membership position on the RAE corresponds to a letter: when member P dies, for example, a new member is appointed to position P. Our tour guide made sure to point out, however, that each member is NOT responsible for the section of the dictionary corresponding to his or her letter. (Perhaps this is a common misconception?) They aren’t even required to sit in their corresponding chair.

RAE plenary meeting room. A different letter of the alphabet is carved into each chair.

When I get home, I’ll have to write additional posts to share other tidbits I learned about the RAE, and also the fruits of my research session in the RAE library.

Saludos desde Madrid

I arrived in Madrid this morning and am taking a jet lag day before beginning my linguistic itinerary in earnest tomorrow. I’m happy as a clam to be back in Spain and surrounded by Spanish — specifically, Spanish Spanish. I’ve already seen a nice example of the typically Spanish extended use of (our airplane breakfast was served in a box that wished Que tengas un buen viaje), and an advertising poster with the vosotros verb form sois.

The most Spanish thing I’ve seen so far, leaving aside the language, is this “No food or drink” decal on the airport tram:

airport train

A similar sign in the U.S. would never in a million years feature a wine glass!