Tag Archives: Argentinian Spanish

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!


The mutual intelligibility of Spanish dialects

While we were living in New Mexico, a family from Argentina moved in next door. At the time I had neglected my Spanish for a while, but I liked to think that it was still there when I needed it. And in fact, I was delighted to find that I could easily converse with our new neighbors. I actually felt pretty smug.

Until the day, that is, when the phone rang while I was visiting next door, and my neighbor launched into an intense conversation with someone from home. Her Spanish sped up, her accent became more pronounced, and I could barely follow what she was saying (not that it was any of my business).

This little anecdote has more to say about my (probable) rustiness in Spanish, and my neighbor’s politeness in accommodating her Spanish to my non-native ears, than it does about Spanish dialects. For in fact, different varieties of Spanish are just as mutually comprehensible as varieties of English. A Spanish speaker from Madrid may have initial difficulty understanding Cuban or Argentine Spanish, just as an American does Australian or Scottish English, but that’s as far as the problem goes. One’s ear adjusts pretty quickly. That’s why Spanish-language films and telenovelas don’t provide Spanish subtitles for foreign distribution any more than English-language films and TV programs do. In fact, Spanish-speaking friends I have polled insist that the range of variation is smaller than in English. 

Education plays a major factor in helping Spanish speakers around the world understand each other. Depending on where one lives, some dialectal features, like the weakening and loss of final /s/, can be associated with low socioeconomic status (not unlike ain’t in English). The speech of two educated Spanish speakers from different countries can therefore be more similar than that of two people from the same country, or even the same city, from opposite ends of the socioeconomic and educational spectrum. Moreover, educated speakers are more aware of dialectal differences and so better able to understand and/or accommodate. For example, just as a sophisticated English speaker from the United States isn’t thrown off by British vocabulary (lift for elevatorlorry for truck, and the like), a well-educated Spaniard will understand that Argentineans use vos, not , to mean “you.” At the same time, an Argentinean who is aware that his use of vos is non-standard can accommodate to the Spaniard by trying to use  instead.

Why is Spanish as consistent as it is? It’s partly because all modern dialects of Spanish stem from two varieties of Spanish spoken in Spain in the 16th century: either castellano (standard Spanish, exemplified by the speech of Madrid) or Andalucian Spanish, exemplified by the speech of Seville. This was a small range of variation to begin with. Moreover, during the four hundred years or so that Spanish has been a world language, several factors—the existence of a language standard, increasingly widespread literacy, the availability of books and the mass media, and now the Internet—have provided centralizing ballast to the centrifugal force of language change. It remains to be seen how long they can continue to do so.

[Update from 4 Aug: Here‘s a post about mutual intelligibility in English that includes a list of references about mutual intelligibility in general (search on “Subtirelu”)].