Posted by: janecronin | September 18, 2016

Are we normal?

First I should define my terms.  By “we” I mean British people who only speak one language, although I do realize that people outside this group may also be reading this.  And the question is, is it “normal” to speak only one language?  Apparently, well over half of the world’s population speak two, three or more languages fluently, although statistics are hard to come by as there are too many variables to get an accurate picture.  For example, how competent do you have to be to count as a language speaker?; what is the difference between a “native” and a “second-language speaker”?; do some dialects count as proper languages?; and so on.  However, even allowing for all these variables, it seems that those of us who spend our lives within the conceptual and communicative boundaries of a single language, are the exception rather than the rule.

Interestingly, there are a lot of theories and discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism, in which the implication is that this is something unusual.  The fact is that most monolinguals live in countries which have dominant cultures, or speak a dominant language such as English, and it is in these monolingual cultures that bilingualism tends to be regarded as something of a rarity.

We only need to think a little about the history and geography of the world to realize why bilingualism and multilingualism is actually the norm in human society.  Many less developed countries have at some time in their history been colonies of European powers and therefore still have a European language (English, French, Spanish or Portuguese) as their official language, whilst also having a number of indigenous and tribal languages which are more likely to be spoken at home.

Then almost all European countries have some minority groups and languages, such as Basques and Catalans in Spain, Bretons in France, Welsh in the UK and so on.  In addition, the phenomenon of human migration which has gone on for thousands of years is still continuing today, so that millions of people live in countries whose official language is different from their own.  The children of these families frequently grow up as bilingual, thus preserving their native culture as well as their language.

All of this indicates that it is entirely normal for people to speak more than one language either from birth, or to a proficient standard acquired during their life-time.  This is a fact definitely worth bearing in mind as we go through life assuming that we are the normal ones whilst those amazing beings who switch comfortably between several languages are in some way exceptional.   I speak as a native monolingual who has worked hard for many years to acquire proficiency in just one other language.  The effort is definitely worth it, but I think at least part of the battle is won when we stop assuming that our way of thinking is the only “normal” one.

Posted by: janecronin | September 11, 2016

Is that an umlaut I see before me?

Those of you who read this article regularly will have noticed that over the last few weeks I have veered away from making general reflections about learning, to having a detailed look at pronunciation.  Fortunately Spanish is a phonetically written language and as such is completely logical, so at some point these explanations come to an end, and in fact this is the final article on the subject.

We are going to look at one specific aspect of pronunciation and spelling hitherto unmentioned, and that is the rules surrounding the letter “g”.  When you first learnt to pronounce the individual letters in Spanish, hopefully you were taught that the letter “g” has two possible pronunciations – the dry “g” sound similar to English in the word “go” (for example in “gracias”) and the throaty “hhh” sound when the “g” comes in front of the letters “e” or “i”, as in the place names Cartagena and Girona.  This throaty sounds doesn´t exist in English but is like the “ch” sound in the Scottish word “loch”   These two sounds are quite distinct from each other, even though they can vary in strength slightly with different accents and in different positions in the word.  For example, when the “g” is followed by a “u” it practically disappears altogether, so that “guapo” (handsome) in reality sounds more like “wapo”.

As Spanish spelling faithfully reflects sound, this means that a spelling solution has to be found when we want to write the sound “ge” (as in “get”) or “gi” (as in “give”).  In these cases, the spelling has to represent the hard “g” sound in a position where it would normally be pronounced as the throaty “hhhh”.  To do this, we add a silent letter “u” after the “g”.   An example of this is the name Miguel (which is not pronounced Migwel)  guerra (war), guitarra (guitar), guisantes (peas).  In all of these words the “u” is silent and is only there to make the “g” hard when it would otherwise be soft.

Finally, we need to look at those two little dots which some people refer to by the German word “umlaut” but in fact are called a “dieresis”.  (You will never need to know that, but there it is).   These are placed over the “u” when it appears between a “g – e” or a “g – i” but, however, should be pronounced and not silent. (In other words, güe and  güi sound as in the Welsh names Gwen and Gwyn). My favourite example of this is the word “vergüenza” meaning “shame”.  “¡Qué vergüenza!” can mean “How embarrassing!” or “How shameful!” depending on the context.  Therefore “un sinvergüenza” is  a “shameless person” and unfortunately there are plenty of those around.

Posted by: janecronin | September 4, 2016

Dual Sounds

As you will have noticed, very often two vowels come next to each other in Spanish words.  Unlike English which is much more variable, in Spanish these dual sounds are simply a combination or merging together of the two individual vowel sounds.  In most cases these combinations are referred to as “diphthongs” but there are one or two pronunciation rules we need to look at to understand the subject properly.

For the purposes of this explanation we can divide the five Spanish vowels into two types: A, E and O are described as “strong” vowels.  I also like to think of them as “open” vowels as you need your mouth wide open to pronounce them properly.  On the other hand I and U are “weak” or “closed” vowels and in saying them our mouths are narrower and more closed.

The first thing we need to know about diphthongs is that any combination of one strong and one weak vowel produces a diphthong.  These combinations therefore are: ai, ia, ei, ie, oi, io, au, ua, eu, ue, ou, uo.  In addition we count iu and ui as diphthongs.  The second thing to understand is that these combined sounds constitute a single beat or syllable.  This is important to understand, particularly when we are applying the rules I mentioned in the last article about where the emphasis should go in a word.

To give some examples of what I am talking about, here are some words containing diphthongs which also show in bold and capital letters where the emphasis should go on the word.  paiSAje; farMAcia; aCEIte; SEIte; OIga; paLAcio; autoBÚS;   LENgua; EUro; PUEdo; CUOta; RUIdo; ciuDAD.  In each case the diphthongs merge into a single dual sound creating a single syllable and the word emphasis follows the rules I have written about before.

In contrast to these examples, when we find two “strong” vowels together they stand on their own as single syllables.  Hence:  paSEo; oAsis, maREa and so on.  One more thing to say is that a diphthong can be split into two syllables by use of an accent – hence panaderÍa; paÍs; grÚa; aÚn.

I realize that putting all of this together into one short article may seem rather too technical, but if you manage to get to grips with it all, your problems about how words should be pronounced will be over for ever.

Posted by: janecronin | August 28, 2016

Rules of Emphasis

There are three golden rules about where the emphasis should be placed in Spanish words.  I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about how Spanish reading is taught in syllables and that therefore Spanish words should be read as a combination of these syllables.  The definition of a syllable is the beat in a word.  For example “un” has one syllable; “mesa” has two syllables; “botella” has three syllables, and so on.  Also, last week we talked about the importance of knowing on which part of a word the emphasis should go, in order for it to make sense when spoken.

The rules of emphasis in Spanish are as follows.  Firstly, if a word ends in a vowel (a, e, i, o, u) or the letters s or n, the emphasis falls on the last but one (penultimate) syllable.  Therefore the two examples above are pronounced MEsa and boTElla.  If these words are made into plurals by adding the letter ‘s’ (MEsas and boTEllas) the emphasis remains exactly the same.   Examples involving the letter ‘n’ are all third person plural verbs such as MIran (they look) and TIEnen (they have) which also place the beat on the syllable before the ending.

Secondly, in words that end in any consonant other than s or n, the beat of the word goes on the final syllable.  There are actually fewer letter endings in Spanish than there are in English, which is why Spanish Scrabble is not nearly as much fun as the English version.  The final consonants in Spanish words, apart from s and n are: d, j, r, l, y and z.  Any other ending letters you see are either imported words or from another language such as Valenciano.  Here are some examples of this rule: paRED, reLOJ, reguLAR, fenomeNAL, esTOY, feLIZ.

Finally, any word which diverts from these two rules, has an accent marking where the word should be emphasized.  Here are some examples;  árbol, difícil, inglés, lápiz, sábado, sofá, lámpara.  This also applies to place names such as Almoradí, Los Alcázares, Cádiz, León, Córdoba.   I haven´t marked the emphasized parts of these words myself, as the accents have done the job for me.

It is important to practice saying all these words out loud and getting used to their rhythm.  Some people hear this immediately, whilst others take longer to tune their ear in.  Although we do exactly the same thing in English, but without the help of consistent rules, it is an unconscious process in our native language.  However, if you apply these three basic rules when you speak Spanish they will get you a very long way to actually being understood!  There are just a couple more bits and pieces to complete the pronunciation jigsaw which I will cover next week.

Posted by: janecronin | August 21, 2016

The Music of Language

There are a lot of things in common between music and language.  For music to make any sense it has to obey rules of rhythm and expression and exactly the same is true of language.  Words and sentences have patterns and shapes which make them meaningful.  If we distort the rhythm of a word it becomes completely incomprehensible, and it is very difficult to follow the speech of someone who alters the natural cadence of a sentence.  Likewise, if music loses its rhythm it turns into a cacophony and is unpleasant to listen to.

As we learn the music of our native language unconsciously we are usually unaware that any particular pattern is being followed.  If we alter the rhythm of a sentence in English, we can significantly change its meaning.  For example: “You have painted the door red” changes completely in meaning depending on which word we emphasise.  “YOU have painted the door red” (I thought it was someone else).  “You HAVE painted the door red” (I thought you hadn´t).  “You have PAINTED the door red” (I thought you’d sprayed it) “You have painted the DOOR red” (I thought you’d painted the table) “You have painted the door RED” (I thought you’d painted it blue).  You can have endless hours of fun experimenting with changes of rhythm and emphasis in sentences.

Another interesting thing about English you may never have thought about is that the same word can mean two completely different things depending on which part you emphasise.  Just think of “refuse” “contract” “record” and imagine the chaos if you put the accent on the wrong part of the word.  “I REfuse to sign that conTRACT”. “He took the reFUSE to the bin.”  “She beat the word reCORD.”  “I want to REcord that song” and so on. There are many other words like this, for example “content”, “object”, “present”.   I think at this point we should spare a thought for people who have to learn English in later life.  How would they ever know which emphasis is correct?

There is a major difference between English and Spanish in this respect.  Whereas in English it is basically pot-luck which part of a word should be emphasised, in Spanish there are specific rules which are completely regular and never vary.  This means that if we learn a few simple principles we will always know how to give a word its correct emphasis and therefore make it comprehensible to others.  Unfortunately though, I have run out of space in this article and will have to give you the magic formula next week.

Posted by: janecronin | August 14, 2016

Learning to read

You may not remember how you learnt to read.  I was of the “Janet and John” generation, when reading was a question of looking at the pictures and recognizing words.  I remember that “boat” and “ball” figured quite highly, although I still don´t understand why on earth Janet said “Look John, see the boat”, a sentence I have never heard in real life.  Later on teachers seemed to be obsessed by those dreaded “spelling tests” when you had to learn all sorts of strange rules in little rhymes and then find out that there were loads of exceptions.

English spelling is so bizarre and unpredictable that different generations have been experimented on in different ways.  People about 20 years younger than me (I think) were taught a different kind of alphabet which spelt words phonetically and was supposed to help early reading skills.  The only problem with that is that we now have a whole generation of people who are unable to spell properly, alongside the rest of us who are still waiting for someone to say “see the boat”.

These problems do not exist in Spanish as it is a language whose written code reflects the sound of the language phonetically.  This means that, provided we learn the sound that each letter represents, and a couple of extra rules here and there, we always know how a word should be pronounced by looking at it and spelling ceases to be an issue.  The biggest problem a Spanish person has is knowing whether to add a silent “h” to a word, or whether something is spelt with a “b” or a “v”.

Reading in Spanish is therefore taught completely differently as well.  The first thing very young children learn is to write the five vowels: a, e, i, o u, which, incidentally, they learn in the “joined up writing” form with little tails ready to lead to the next letter.  Once they’ve mastered those five letters in crayon, plasticine, paint and glitter (and in one of my daughter’s case, a fancy dress costume) they then move on to the other letters, but always connected to a vowel.   In other words, instead of learning the letter “b” in isolation, they learn ba, be, bi, bo, bu as syllables or parts of a word.  Thus, when they come across a word, such as “mesa” (table) they automatically read it as  two syllables “me” plus “sa” which they then unit into the word “mesa”.

It really is that simple to read in Spanish.  This means that when we come across a new Spanish word, instead of taking a kind of flying leap at pronouncing it in one breath, as though we were expected to recognise it, all we need to do is break it down into its component parts and pronounce it syllable by syllable.   You’ll be amazed and how well this works!

Posted by: janecronin | August 12, 2016

English in Europe, Spanish in the world

Among the many consequences of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Community, an important issue is the status of the English language.  At the moment English is the co-official common EU language along with French.  All administrative communications are carried out in these two languages, although within the European Parliament any one of the 24 officially registered languages can be used.

Every EU country has the right to register one language for its communication, but the two other English speaking countries, namely Ireland and Malta, have registered Gaelic and Maltese as official languages, since English was already present.  This means that when the UK withdraws from the EU, the registration of the English language will also be withdrawn and also the percentage of native English speakers across the EU will fall from 14% to 1%.  If our language ceases to be official in Europe we will no longer be able to rely on official translations of European documents into English and English can no longer be used as the common “lingua franca” within the Community.

On a practical level this will be difficult to enforce, since English is by far the most common second language spoken by member states.  However, internal legislation will have to be changed for English to continue officially and at present there appears to be little willingness on the part of EU officials to facilitate this.  Even in the short time since the fateful Brexit vote, there has been an increase of written communications in French and German and the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker recently chose to speak publicly in French and German, rather than in English.   There has been very little mention of this fact in the UK as we blithely assume our language will continue to dominate the world.

It is interesting to contrast our complete lack of concern about the future of our language, with the efforts made by Spanish speakers to raise the status of their language world-wide.  Every three years since 1997 there has been a major international congress devoted exclusively to the promotion of the Spanish language.  This year it was held in Puerto Rico and previous editions have taken place in Panama, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Spain and Mexico.  The conference is attended by eminent linguists and writers and discusses a wide range of aspects of Spanish literature and language and its role in the world.   They have had specific successes, such as  the recognition of Spanish letters and symbols on the Internet, to cite just one example.

The English language is a much wilder flower than Spanish and exists in multiple forms without any need for uniformity or control.  As a former empire and in the shadow of the United States we happily take the status of our language for granted.  However, we should be aware that linguistic competitors exist and that our new situation in Europe could have unexpected consequences.


Posted by: janecronin | August 10, 2016

I’ve always been a bit thick

“I was never any good at school” has been said to me many times.  It doesn´t matter how long ago it was, and in many cases we’re talking about nearly half a century, our school experiences mark us for life.  If the teacher told us we were good for nothing or if we failed the eleven plus, we can live with that sense of uselessness for the rest of our lives, and it can affect our attitude towards learning the Spanish language.

Nowadays there is more awareness in educational circles that intelligence can take on many different forms.  Now we talk about emotional intelligence, spatial intelligence, visual intelligence and many other types which were completely unrecognised in the old type of schooling.  Likewise, there are a whole range of different learning styles: some people learn better by hearing, others by seeing images, others by getting physically involved in an activity.  The idea that everyone can learn equally well by sitting behind a desk and listening to a teacher, or that everyone can demonstrate their intelligence by writing down answers on a piece of paper has been discredited, even though many educational systems still operate in exactly that way.  In addition, there is now recognition of learning difficulties such as dyslexia which years ago was considered a sign of stupidity or lack of interest.

Many of us English speakers labour under a further disadvantage, which is that we were not taught the grammar of our own language at school.  Those who went on to study French or Latin have an advantage, whilst many others never got beyond “a verb is a doing word and an adjective is a describing word”.  This is in complete contrast with people who have had a Spanish education, where basic grammar is taught at primary school and language analysis to quite a complex level at secondary school.  This can be a problem if you have a younger native Spanish teacher who may not be aware that you don’t have the same understanding of grammar as they do.  In that situation, unfortunately it is all too tempting to put the blame on yourself for being “thick”.

There are so many proven benefits to learning language, and other new skills, in later life that it would be a great shame to allow such past experiences to hold you back.

Posted by: janecronin | July 10, 2016

Filling the gaps

Amongst a number of things we struggle with when learning Spanish, there is the problem that occurs when a different number of words is needed in both languages to say the same thing.  Usually there are fewer words needed in Spanish than in English, which I have always found rather ironic since the Spanish seem to spend far more time and energy on saying the same thing than the rest of us.   A good example is found in the question: “How many brothers and sisters have you got?” which is Spanish is reduced to three words “¿Cuántos hermanos tienes?”  No matter how well we understand the grammatical reason for this difference, we are still left with feeling of incompleteness and the desire to add more words to get our message across.

In class I sometimes struggle with this problem, as any teacher does when they feel that their students don´t believe them.  This almost always happens when learning to tell the time.  No matter how thoroughly I teach people that “es la una” means “it’s one o´clock” or that “a las cinco” means “at five o’clock” I can guarantee that about two weeks after our “telling the time” lesson, someone will say “es una hora” or “a las cinco horas”.  I have to resist the temptation to get scary and demand them to tell me exactly when I gave them permission add an extra word to the sentence.  I just breathe deeply and calmly refer them back to previous examples.

Of course, what is actually happening is that the person is suffering from this same “missing word” syndrome.   They feel robbed of the word “o’clock” which in English is the one thing that defines the fact we are talking about the time.  They are unconsciously aware of this missing word and grasp the nearest Spanish one they can find to satisfy the need, which is inevitably the word “hora”.  In spite of my assurances that the words “es la”; “son las”; “a la” and “a las” do in fact indicate time, they just don´t seem sufficient when it comes to the moment of truth.  That Spanish person will not understand me unless I add “hora” on at the end.

More rarely this phenomenon works in the opposite direction, with more words required in Spanish than in English.  For example “Monday morning” is “el lunes por la mañana”.  Once more, I can teach it till I’m blue in the face, but people still say “lunes mañana” and when corrected then ask “so what does “por la” mean then?”  My reply is of course: “It’s just what we say in Spanish to mean Monday morning!”   I do try not to roll my eyes and maintain my reputation of patience and politeness, but this gap-filling problem does sometimes get under my skin, for some reason.  Maybe I’m in the wrong job after all!

Posted by: janecronin | July 3, 2016

Being Corrected

If we are lucky as Spanish students, we may come across a Spanish person who is willing to correct us when we make a mistake.  However, sometimes we might be met with a smile or slight giggle which gives us the feeling we have said something wrong but are unsure what, and on other occasions we might be congratulated for speaking excellent Spanish even when we know perfectly well that we have made lots of mistakes.

So, why is it that the Spanish are sometimes unwilling to correct you, even when you ask them to?  Sometimes, it is because they do not wish to appear rude or critical, especially if they actually feel admiration for the fact that you are having a go at speaking their language.  On other occasions, and probably more frequently, they are simply more interested in the message you are conveying and their only concern is to understand you.  A smile or giggle worries us because we can feel that we are being laughed at, but this is usually not the case.  Perhaps you said something in a quaint or roundabout way which raises a smile which is not meant to be in any way negative.

As a general rule, it is best not to expect correction from the Spanish and if you think about it, you probably don´t spend your time correcting their English either, for the same reasons.  You do not want to appear rude or critical of someone who is making an effort to communicate with you, and if you have understood what they mean that is usually quite enough.  You may even effusively congratulate someone on how good their English is, simply because you are relieved to have understood them, when they themselves are conscious of their linguistic limitations.

However, if we do wish to correct someone’s mistakes, what is the best way to do it?  Probably the most discreet and pleasant way is to simply echo back the correct version of the word or phrase.  When someone does this to you, you will notice the difference and register it without further comment being needed.  This is far better than drawing attention to a mistake by saying “No that’s wrong, it should be ….” which can create embarrassment.

This is a particularly important principle when correcting children.  They will unconsciously take on board the correct form that is echoed back to them.  If parents or teachers are overtly critical of children´s speech they can create all sorts of problems including insecurity and even in extreme cases, the development of a stutter.  If this is the effect over-correction can have on children, we need to be aware that it can also be harmful to adult learners, since just beneath the surface we can all be just as insecure as children when it comes to expressing ourselves.

Older Posts »