Sometimes it feels as if you’re banging your head against a brick wall. No matter how many times you tell your Spanish students to say: “She has blue eyes” they continue to say “She has eyes blues.”
What’s their problem?
Are they lazy?
Are they stupid?
Do they not listen to you?
Before you start blaming THEM, think about your own second language learning history for a minute.
Are there any mistakes you make over and over again?
If your answer is NO, I’m not convinced you are being 100% honest.
The truth is that we all make mistakes when using our second language.
It’s entirely natural to do so because our use of our second language is always influenced by our native tongue.
In this blog, I’m going to point out 10 reasons why Spanish speakers make certain errors. Knowing about these problems may help you and your students find ways to resolve them.
1. How many vowel sounds are there in Spanish? How many in English?
Spanish has 5 vowel sounds and English has….12. The other problem is that the length of the vowel sound is not an important feature which leads to classic misunderstandings such as: In Spain, there are many hot bitches!
2. Consonants also cause problems for Spanish speakers. Some English phonemes have equivalents in Spanish but others are distinctive sounds.
Ζ /∫ / ð / ν / ʤ / ʒ / h have no real match in Spanish.
3. Consonant Clusters are far more common in English than in Spanish. A simple word (for native English speakers) like ‘breakfast’ is tough for Spaniards who will often pronounce it ‘brefas’ and omit the ‘f’ and the final ‘t’ because they are attached to another consonant. They also need a run-up to manage names like ‘Stephen’ and insert a vowel sound before the first cluster of s / t and will often say ‘Estephen’.
4. The relationship in English between pronunciation and orthography (sound and spelling) is a nightmare for Spanish speakers because these two aspects are joined at the hip in their language. Words sound as they are spelled and are spelled like they sound. This is clearly not the case in English.
5. Whereas English is generally categorised as a stress-timed language, Spanish is usually considered to be a syllable-timed language. In English, we would put the beat on the content syllables in this sentence:
The Beatles were bigger than Elvis.
A Spanish speaker might pronounce each syllable equally and this might sound robotic to English speaker ears and we might struggle to identify the key content.
The / Beat / les / were / big / ger / than / El / vis.
6. The Spanish language doesn’t really have contracted forms in the same way as English. This means they can’t always hear them (I’ll see you tomorrow: Yes, I see you tomorrow) or they misuse them (Are you Pedro? Yes, I’m).
7. In English, an adjective comes before a noun (black cat) but the noun generally comes before the adjective in Spanish (cat black). The other problem is that we talk about ‘black cats’ in English but ‘gatos negros’ in Spanish. In other words, the adjective has a plural form which it doesn’t in English.
8. Asking questions with auxiliary verbs is a minefield for Spanish speakers. They often omit them and just use an affirmative form:
You are happy?
Sometimes they remember the auxiliary but put the main verb in the past tense to make sure they are understood:
Did you went to the party?
Question tags are also problematic due to the fact that there is a one-size fits all tag in Spanish (You are hungry, no?) unlike English which is far more structurally complex.
9. Subject personal pronouns (I, You, She, He, We, It, They) are often unnecessary in Spanish as the form of the main verb identifies the subject. This is why you’ll hear Spanish speakers say things like:
‘Is Bob here?’ ‘Yes, is here.’
‘It is possible to pass the exam?’ ‘Yes. is possible.’
10. False friends. Your Spanish students may surprise you with the depth and complexity of their vocabulary. However, these words are often cognates (similar words in two languages such as intelligent and inteligente) and derive from Latin. This can be beneficial to Spanish students who can often understand complex authentic texts in English. On the other hand, just as English speakers often change English suffixes to Spanish ones to form words (apparently to apparentemente), Spanish speakers often try to use a Spanish word only to find that it has a very different meaning in English.
This is a topic I’ll be returning to in a future post but I’ll leave you with one of my favourite excuses for missing a lesson:
Pedro: ‘Sorry professor, I couldn’t assist the class because of my strong constipation.’
So, next time, you groan inwardly or outwardly about a repeated error made by your Spanish students, cut them some slack but explain why they are wrong.
Bibliography: Swan, M & Smith, B. Learner English. Cambridge. 2001.
Are there any other major differences between Spanish and English which cause problems?
Here they are…..the answers to last week’s quiz about Spanish titles of famous English language movies.
1. Casarse esta en Griego – My Big Fat Greek Wedding I think you’ll agree that the Spanish title is far less likely to offend than the original.
2. Milagros inesperados – The Green Mile ‘Unexpected Miracles’ is probably a better title than the original. I saw the film a few months ago and can’t remember seeing a mile…and it certainly wasn’t green!
3. Mi pobre Angelito – Home Alone The Spanish title sounds far too latino for a film starring Macauley Caulkin, probably the palest actor ever to grace the silver screen.
4. Experto en Diversion – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off I’m sensing a theme here. The Spanish titles are bland and far more literal than their Anglo-American counterparts.
5. Secreto en la Montana – BrokebackMountain. There’s a mountain and it’s got a secret.
6. Que paso ayer – The Hangover ‘What happened yesterday?’ is a succinct plot summary if nothing else. Somewhat lacking in inspiration these Spanish titles, don’t you think?
7. Vaselina – Grease
All together now, sing along with me:
Vaselina is the word
Vaselina is the word, that you heard
It’s got groove it’s got meaning
Vaselina is the time, is the place is the motion
Vaselina is the way we are feeling
8. Muertos de risa – Shaun of the Dead It’s a comedy about dead people. Mmm, well it does what it says on the tin, I suppose.
9. Amor y Desafio – Jerry MacGuire As neither Jerry nor MacGuire are familiar names to the Spanish, I understand the change. Why not call it something like Jose Martinez though?
10. Perdidos en Tokio – Lost in Translation A sensible choice, marketing the film directly at the many Japophiles in Spain.
So, how many did you get right? If you know any other amusing film titles in Spanish or English titles of Spanish movies, I’d love to hear them.
The other day, my Spanish ‘suegra’ starting talking to me about one of her favourite musical called ‘Sonrisas y Lagrimas’ (smiles and tears). I hadn’t heard of the film but she insisted that it was a Hollywood classic. Finally, she started to hum a tune from the movie and it became clear that she was talking about:‘The Sound of Music.’
As well as dubbing films into Spanish, the Spanish film distributors also feel the need to modify or completely change the titles of movies. Here are a few, translate them into English and then see if you can work out the original English titles
(Feel free to comment and I’ll reveal the answers in my next post)
1. Casarse esta en Griego
2. Milagros inesperados
3. Mi pobre Angleito
4. Experto en Diversion
5. Secreto en la Montana
6. Que paso ayer
8. Muertos de risa
9. Amor y Desafio
10. Perdidos en Tokio
Watching movies is an excellent way to learn a language. Cinema is primarily a visual medium: we can understand much of what is happening by focusing on the moving images and the facial expressions and gestures of the actors.
This leaves us with plenty of cognitive energy to deal with interpreting what is being said……
In Spain these days, our students have easy access to English listening material just by choosing to watch films in their original language.
However, many of my Spanish students don’t do that, claiming it to be too difficult. I always mention they have a range of options:
Watching a film in Spanish with English subtitles will help them compare and analyse lexical and structural similarities and differences in English and Spanish with a focus on the written form
Watching a film in English with Spanish subtitles will help them compare and analyse lexical and structural similarities and differences in English and Spanish with a focus on the spoken form
Watching a film in English with English subtitles will help them compare and analyse the written and spoken forms of individual words, phrases and grammatical structures in English
Watching a film in English with no subtitles will help them deal with listening in real time when the listener has little choice but to interpret the utterances of the speaker based on their understanding of the context and situation, their reading of the paralinguistic clues being offered, and their functional knowledge of linguistic forms being used.
So, next time a student tells you that watching movies in the original language is too difficult, why not discuss this range of options with them? Mention that they can turn subtitles on and off and switch languages throughout the film depending on their cognitive energy levels.
Use the analogy of training for a marathon: at the beginning, people do lots of walking and brief bursts of runing but the ratio changes as running becomes habitual until finally they don’t need to walk to finish the race.
By training themselves to watch films in English, our students will progressively improve their listening skills and before long they will be able to understand individual scenes and eventually entire films with little or no recourse to Spanish subtitles.
Don’t forget to guess the titles of the original films. Some of them are as ridiculous as the American version of Abre los Ojos. What does Vanilla Sky mean anyway?
As ’tis the season to be jolly‘, I’d like to begin this post on a positive note:
Actually, Spanish are or should be good at learning English for the following reasons:
Firstly, many words in English and Spanish share etymological roots. In other words, there are masses of Spanish and English cognates (maybe 40%). Spaniards have a fairly good chance of correctly guessing the meaning of a new lexical item for this reason. Sure, there are lots of false friends but they are not as numerous as the number of cognates or near cognates. Grammatical structures in the two languages – such as time and aspect – are not as dissimilar as between, for example, Hungarian and Thai, so communicative breakdown due to incorrect or inaccurate grammar can generally be resolved through reformulation.
Secondly, Spanish need to learn English. They are highly motivated (instrumental and increasingly integrative) and not only to pass exams. Young Spanish do not see their short-term future in Spain and are increasingly looking to go abroad to find work. In order to do so, they realise a good level of English is a major advantage and are opting to gain internationally recognised qualifications such as the FCE or CAE in favour of local exams which are not acknowledged abroad. Furthermore, in order to study at universities in Spain, it is now necessary to have a B1/B2 level in English. More money for the Cambridge coffers! The other point to mention here is that – perhaps for the first time ever – lots of Spanish speakers are able to communicate effectively in a second language from outside the Iberian peninsula. Positive role models are everywhere!
Thirdly, Spanish can now watch TV shows in the original language. OK, this is not really an intrinsic quality that Spaniards possess but their love of ‘the idiot box’ means they can use it to improve their English. Lower level learners can listen to English and read Spanish subtitles if they wish and advanced students can challenge themselves and listen without a safety net. Constant exposure to the sound of English can only have a positive effect on speaking and listening skills, areas which were -until recently – neglected in the teaching of English in Spain. Online or on TV, English is everywhere. As mentioned in a previous post, many Latin Americans have a better phonological awareness of English than most Spaniards. Well, watch this space – Spanish will catch up in no time.
Next reason, Spain is still an extremely attractive location for native English speakers. The country is full of Brits living it up in the sun and Americans living out their Hemingway fantasies. There are lots of English speakers in the big cities, a smattering in smaller towns, and, due to books such as ‘Driving over Lemons’, lots of older Brits living in the country. So finding teachers or language exchange partners is fairly easy. It’s a lot easier to have a beer with a Brit in Alicante than Algiers.
Finally, Spanish love to talk. Quickly, loudly, enthusiastically, forcefully. Once they have overcome their fear of embarrassment (el miedo al ridiculo), they love to converse in English. Remember the tertulia (a social gathering to discuss anything and everything) is an important feature in Spanish social and cultural life (just watch TV in the morning) and Spanish students, in my experience, really enjoy discussion activities, role-plays and giving presentations. You’ll find the most challenging part of setting up a speaking task will be ending it! Buy a Klaxon.
Can you think of any other reasons why Spanish should actually be successful learners of English?
There I was, having a copa (Rum and Coke) on Sunday evening with some Spanish friends and a chap from Chile. There were a couple of smokers in the group so we huddled around a table with a heater when one of them asked me how to say ‘Bufanda‘ in English.
Before I could respond, the Chilean calmly uttered the word ‘scarf‘. His pronunciation was clear, there was no attempt to insert an ‘e’ sound before the ‘f’ and, unlike most Granadinos, he managed to form the consonant cluster ‘rf’ at the end of the word. The locals laughed and, buoyed by the alcohol in their bloodstream, attempted to say this new word in English.
After 2 long and painful minutes of listening to repeated versions of ‘escar’, I had to stop them, write the word on a serviette and teach them how to say it. They gave up immediately and reverted to Spanish but used the incident as a launchpad for an extended conversation about the reasons why Spanish are bad at English.
Reason 1: Most of their English classes were taught in Spanish by Spanish speakers. A few of them had attended classes taught by native speakers and groaned about how difficult it was to be immersed in an English speaking environment. However, they all agreed being forced to communicate in English was a good thing to improve their speaking and listening skills but didn’t remember doing much, if any, unscripted conversation in class.
Reason 2: Native speaker teachers couldn’t answer their grammar questions. Learning about the finer points of English grammar was considered essential by a couple of people around the table. One was adamant that English grammar had to be explained by comparing and contrasting it with Spanish grammar. She really didn’t see how it could be learned any other way. When I mentioned (in Spanish of course) that people learn languages without formal grammar tuition, she looked at me as if I had suggested that we finish our drinks and go off and smoke some crack. Then again, I know some native speaker English teachers here who think a relative clause is Father Christmas’s aunt!
Reason 3: El miedo al ridiculo. After the next round of drinks arrived, my Spanish friends started to get a bit maudlin. They were ashamed of their poor English and didn’t want to look foolish in front of their peers. They identified this as a uniquely Spanish psychological trait. I got to thinking about the Spanish people I know who profess to have excellent English and wondered why they rarely speak to me in English. Indeed, they generally ask for tips about improving it but always speak in Spanish.
Reason 4: The ‘Oposiciones’ mentality. We were all now starting to shed our inhibitions. One of the group started to rage about oposiciones (public exams you need to pass to work for the state) and how the Spanish educational system encourages rote learning and memorisation of factual knowledge at the expense of developing critical thinking skills. She said that the main obstacle was getting Spanish people to see English as a tool for life and not just something to be used in order to increase your chances of being a funcionario (civil servants but this includes state school teachers, nurses and judges).
Reason 5: Version original (V.O). Remember the Chilean chap with the excellent English. Well, I asked him how things had changed in Chile because I went there in 2001 and don’t recall meeting any English speakers. He informed us that although Chileans studied English at kindergarten, he felt the main reason why Chileans spoke better English than Spanish was that films and TV shows were subtitled but not dubbed in Chile. He had grown up hearing English. The intonation, phonemes and stress patterns in the language were not unfamiliar to him. Unlike Spanish political leaders from Franco onwards…
All of us were fairly drunk by now, cheered by the beers and copas and the festive spirit in the air. Surprisingly, when I wished them ‘Feliz Navidad’, they were all happy to respond in English.
OK, they said ‘Merry Chrimas’ and avoided the ‘st’ consonant cluster, but at least they tried.
So, what do you think? It would be good to hear from you.
What other reasons might there be for Spanish struggling with English?