Posted by: janecronin | May 21, 2017

Culturally specific terms

All language learners at some point have to come to grips with the fact that there are words and concepts in one language that simply do not have an equivalent in another.  Sometimes these gaps seem quite inexplicable, for example the Spanish don´t have a word for “shallow”, they say “poco profundo” (not very deep).  Neither is there a word in Spanish for the verb “to drop”, they say instead “dejar caer” (to let fall).  Similarly, there are many words in Spanish that have no translation in English.  These are often more abstract words which are hard to replicate in our more pragmatic language. “Reivindicar” is one that constantly gives me problems in translations.  It sort of means “to claim” but not quite; it’s similar to “assert”  and linked to the idea of “vindicate”, but the truth is that there is no exact equivalent in English for something that a lot of Spanish people, at least the ones I know, do all the time.

There are other words that are untranslatable because they refer to things that are specific to a particular culture.  We all know what a “siesta” is, and we have adopted the word into English, but the only real equivalent for us is “afternoon nap”.  However, we have no concept of “la hora de la siesta” that hour or two in the middle of the afternoon when we are supposed to be quiet and allow other people to rest.  Another period during the day which we lack in English is “la hora del vermut”.  This is usually on a Sunday, before the main midday meal, when people go out to bars with their friends and family and have an aperitif, often vermouth or perhaps something a little less potent.

Another typically Spanish time period is what is called the “sobremesa”.  This is the time spent at the table talking after a meal has finished.  If you have observed groups of Spaniards in restaurants you may be aware that this can go on as long as the meal, or even longer.  My Spanish friends tell me that the “sobremesa” is no longer a reality on a day to day basis, but the fact remains that in English we don´t even have a word for it!

Finally, another time related concept – “el puente” (the bridge).  Successive governments have talked about ending this tradition, but it is showing no signs of disappearing at the moment.  The “puente” refers to the day that falls between a weekend and a national bank holiday.  Exact dates are kept to religiously, so if a fiesta falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, then many institutions such as schools and offices take the intervening Monday or Friday off as a holiday as well, thus creating a nice four day break in the middle of a period of work.  It’s one of those traditions that I think will be hard to break.




Posted by: janecronin | May 14, 2017

Initials and acronyms

Acronyms are the words we make out of initials.  Often they are similar in English and Spanish, but we may fail to recognise them in their spoken form.   For instance, many English speakers would struggle to understand “CD” or “DVD” in Spanish, which sound more or less like “the de” and “de uve de.   Although it’s obvious if you think about it, we don’t expect to hear the names of Spanish letters being used in this way even when we’ve faithfully learnt the Spanish alphabet.

Another example is the Spanish MOT equivalent, the ITV.  You may be inclined to say it as though it were a television channel, when in fact the Spanish say “i te uve”.  If you look at the ITV stations some of them actually have this written on them, run together as one word, “iteuve”, which by the way stands for “Inspección Técnica de Vehículo”.

When iinitials represent the names of organisations, they are often in reverse order from English.  For example, the familiar NATO, becomes OTAN in Spanish (Organización del Tratado del Atlántico del Norte), whilst the UN is ONU (Organización de Naciones Unidas) and the EU in Spanish is the UE (Unión Europea).

One rather strange phenomenon regarding the Spanish use of initials is the way they deal with plurals, as in the United States which is Estados Unidos.  You might think that this would be abbreviated to EU, but in fact, because both words are in the plural, the initial letters double, so that the USA in Spanish is EEUU.  In an similar way, los Juegos Olímpicos is abbreviated form are JJOO.

An abbreviation which is very peculiarly Spanish is that of the word “usted”.  “Usted” means “you” when someone is being addressed formally, as opposed to “tú” which is an informal way of saying “you”.  “Usted” is often abbreviated in writing to “Ud”, and sometimes “Vd”, while the plural “ustedes” can be written “Uds” or “Vds”.  Another abbreviation often seen is the one for brothers or “hermanos”.  There is a large furniture store in Torrevieja which uses this name which looks like “hnos”, although is said as “hermanos” in full.

Finally, you will come across all sorts of abbreviations when you come to reading and writing addresses.  You will find that street, or “calle” is written as “c/ “, avenue or “avenida” is written “avda” and square or “plaza” is “pl”.  The postal code or “código postal” is “c.p.” and the words for left “izquierda” and right “derecha”, often used to describe the location of flats in a building are “izq” and “dcha”, whilst of course floor numbers such as “primero” “segundo” “tercero” and “cuarto” are written 1º, 2º, 3º, 4º.

Posted by: janecronin | May 7, 2017

First names

We don’t often think about it as part of the language, but we frequently come across people’s first names in Spanish, and it helps to have some idea about them.   Spain is in fact quite a first name society these days.  Even your bank manager or your children’s teacher will be address by his or her first name which is why you will often be told – “phone this number and ask for Paco” or “go to that office and ask for Elena”.  It gives the whole procedure a certain sense of informality, but it is the custom in Spain these days.

You may have noticed that an awful lot of men are called José, or its abbreviated form Pepe.  This is not a coincidence.   When the Catholic church was officially part of the state during Franco’s dictatorship, everyone was obliged to be baptised into the church, and therefore had to have a saint’s name.  The most common practice was to put the name María in front of the chosen girl’s name, and José, which of course is the Spanish form of Joseph, in front of the chosen boy’s name.

That is why so many Spanish men are called things like, José Carlos, Jose Antonio, Jose Luis, José Ramón, and in fact if you were to look at the identity cards of any Carlos, Antonio, Luis or Ramón that you know, they will almost certainly have a José there as well, which they just don’t use in everyday life.  Other saints’ names are acceptable such as Juan or Jesús.  Also common is the combination of José María and Jesús María for men, as in the case of a former president of Spain, José María Aznar, and María José or María Jesús for women.

Nowadays baptism, and naming after saints is not obligatory, but Catholic traditions are still strong in many cases.  Of course, not everybody wants to walk round with a name like Jesus Mary or Mary Jesus, especially in modern Spain where it already sounds a bit old-fashioned, so they are often turned into abbreviated names which in themselves sound a little odd to our ears.  For example, Chema comes from Jesús María, and Chus comes from José Jesús.

The ubiquitous Paco is in fact the abbreviation of the name Francisco, but where we get into a maze of abbreviated forms is with women’s names.  María Teresa becomes Maite, María de la Soledad (Mary of the Lonliness) becomes Marisol, María del Pilar may be Pili, Maripili or Mapi.  Many woman are called Inmaculada Concepción, which can become Inma, Conchi or Concha whilst “María de los Dolores” (Mary of the Pains) becomes Lola, Lolita, Loles or Loli.   I’m glad I’m just called Jane, although when my name is called at the doctor’s they usually plump for my second name, Elizabeth, obviously assuming that Jane is my baptismal saint’s name, rather than the one my parents chose to call me.

Posted by: janecronin | April 30, 2017

Place names

It´s always interesting, or at least it is to me, to find out about the origin of place names.  Sometimes these are lost in the mists of time, but many of the names of towns and cities in Spain can be traced back to specific periods in history.

The first period is broadly known as Iberian or pre-Roman, when there were in fact a number of different tribes populating the peninsula.  The word “ondar” meaning “sand” comes from this period, from which we have “Ondara” as well as the suffix “-astro” from which comes “Bigastro”.

After the Roman invasion many of these names became “Latinised” whilst new settlements received Latin names directly.  The city name “Merida” comes from “Augusta Emerita” whilst Zaragoza comes from “Caesar Augusta”.   In many cases, these Latin names became distorted by the subsequent Visigoth and especially Moorish invasions.

At the end of the period of Roman domination the Germanic Visigoth tribes entered Spain, and although they controlled the territory for over two hundred years, their heritage is far less influential today than that of the Moorish invaders.

The Moors controlled much of the Iberian Peninsula for a total of 800 years.  For the first 300 years they dominated all but a small strip of land on the north Atlantic coast and their influence was overwhelming in every sphere of life, including the language.  In terms of place names, there is a vast number beginning with the two letters “Al” which is the Arabic word for “the”.  Alicante, Almoradí, Algerciras, Albacete, Alcalá are just a few examples.   The Alhambra palace means “the red one” whilst the word “Alcázar” means castle, so “Los Alcázares” therefore means “the castles”, and probably refers to military fortresses that were built along the Levante coast during the wars of the Reconquest.

“Beni” is another Moorish prefix meaning “son of”, so Benidorm was originally “son of Darhim” and “Benijófar “sons of Yafar”.  Madrid itself is a name of Moorish origin, originally called “Magherit” which refers to a source of underground waters, although the city itself was probably originally a Visigoth agrarian settlement.

Finally, there are many place names that have a modern Castilian origin.  These are often places named after saints, such as Santiago, Santander, San Fulgencio, Santa María and Santa Eulalia to name but a few.  There are also many composite Christianized place names such as Pilar de la Horadada or San Pedro del Pinatar where the name of the saint worshipped in the locality is added to a former place name.

Posted by: janecronin | April 23, 2017

English mutations

Languages are not static things: their natural state of one of constant flux, with new words and expressions appearing and old ones disappearing constantly.  For some reason, a lot of us strongly dislike changes in language, and it seems that the older we get, the more we hark back to the “correct” language of the past.  A typical example of these changes in English is that wonderful way in which we turn nouns into verbs.   A recent example was in the Olympics when all of a sudden people were trying “to medal” or “to podium”.  I for one cringe at this, but it no doubt sounds normal if you’re under a certain age, just as “to hand”, “to chair” or “to man” probably sounded excruciating to some previous generation.

In Spanish, it has become increasingly trendy to introduce English into everyday speech.  Sometimes English words are used because they express concepts that do not exist in Spanish; sometimes they are used to sound intellectual when perfectly good Spanish equivalents exist and often their meaning alters slightly in their new language – a fact that can create some confusion for native English speakers.

Spellings start to alter informally because of pronunciation difficulties.  This is true of the following examples I’ve seen recently.  Can you work out what they are?  “táper”, “fotochó”, “potcas”, “feisbuk”.  Well, of course!  They are “tupper”, which we call “Tupperware”;  photoshop, podcast and Facebook.   Another strange computer one is “pendrive”.  I learnt to use this item in Spanish first so was surprised when an English speaking person who knows about computers didn’t understand me.  It turns out that in real English a “pendrive” is a “memory stick”!

Here’s another cluster of terms which I find intriguing: “performance”, “show” and “boy”.  Our understanding of performance is “actuación” in Spanish, but when the Spanish say “performance” they are referring to some kind of avant garde, spontaneous public display (like nude protesting or those videos of opera singers in metro stations, also known as a “flashmob”).  We all know what a “show” is in English, but I was intrigued to read in Spanish the other day about an actor’s humble beginnings doing “shows”.  It turns out it meant working as a male stripper!   This takes me to the word “boy” which refers to the same activity.

Moving back onto safer ground, what about “friki”? This comes from “freak” but doesn`t actually refer to Victorian circus creatures, more just people who are a little bit strange!   And finally, there is a lot of talk these days about “fairplay” in Spanish sport.  We pride ourselves on this British attribute, something to do with cricket, but you’d better know that both Real Madrid and Barcelona have been awarded for their “fairplay” in the game of “fútbol”.  Wonders will never cease.


Posted by: janecronin | April 16, 2017

Text speak

Whether you approve of it or not, text speak is with us, and probably to stay.   In the last article I mentioned that the art of abbreviation was being practised way back in the Middle Ages, in those days to save space on expensive parchments.  Nowadays, we are either saving letters on Twitter and texts or time on the very effective communication tool, Whatsapp.

Maybe like a lot of us oldies, you insist on including all the right punctuation marks and spellings even when send a text, but that leaves you completely at a loss when someone of the younger generation writes to you with something like:  CU 2moro lol.    Well, just in case you’re wondering, this person is laughing for some reason (laugh out loud) and is going to “see you tomorrow”, so you’d better get some tea and biscuits at the ready.

Of course text speak also exists in Spanish, and there are very few people below the age of 50 (to pluck at age out nowhere) who are not “Whatsapping” (or Whatsappeando) at all hours of the day and night.  So just in case you receive one of these messages, here are some things you should know.

Let’s start with the use of the letter “x” which represents the word “por”, as in the mathematical symbol: 2 x 3 = 6 (dos por tres son seis).  There are other words that get cut down to just their first letter, so therefore, “xf” represents “por favor” and “xq” represents “porque” (because).  You may be rolling your eyes already, but you’ll be glad of this information some time.  Also from maths is the symbol + which represents “más” and  I have actually seen “+ x –“  on a shop sign (más por menos – more for less).

As already mentioned, there are some very common words that are expressed by their first letter, for example “d” for “de” and “q” for “que”.  Other words are abbreviated to their most significant letters like this:  “tb” for “también”, “mñn” for “mañana” and “bss” for “besos”.  The Spanish use this abbreviated (bss) and not our “xxx” to send kisses.  If you write xxx at the end of a message to a Spanish person, they will read “por por por” and it really won´t make any sense!

An abbreviation that is common in texting, but also rather trendy in business names and so on, is to you write the number “2” to replace the letters “dos” at the end of a word.  So, we have names like “comunica2” (comunicados) or “pinta2” (pintados).  The possibilities are endless!

Finally, you will often find the predominantly English letters “w” and “k” used to replace the two letters “gu” and “qu” in Spanish.  Therefore “guapa” becomes “wapa” and “quiero” becomes “kiero”.

I hope this revelation hasn´t upset you too much – we have to move with the times, after all!

Posted by: janecronin | April 9, 2017

The Spanish letter

Many of us throw up our hands in horror at the way the youth of today (and some of us oldies as well) abbreviate language whilst texting or “whatsapping”.  This is just as common in Spanish as it is in English.  For example, “q” replaces “que” and “x” replaces “por”, so therefore the word “porque” (because) is conveniently reduced to two characters – “xq”.  Text speak is really a subject for another article, but the principle in itself is often condemned as something that will do away with literacy in the younger generation.

However, many centuries ago, when parchment was an expensive item and abbreviations were needed to save money rather than time, many Latin transcripts were similarly full of shortcuts and abbreviations.  Often, when a letter was missed from a word it was indicated by a wavy mark over the previous letter.  There are thousands of examples of this in medieval texts, where the mark would appear over a whole range of different letters.  One of the positions where this often occurred was when there was a double “n”, in for example the Latin word “annus” meaning “year”.  Along with the issue of spelling, there was also a tendency to pronounce the second “n” as a more nasal sound.  As you have probably already realized, this eventually led to the Spanish word “anno” becoming “año” with the wavy line indicating the missing “n” and the pronunciation approximating the modern “ñ” sound.

Over the years, as Castilian Spanish became established as a language in its own right, this particular use of the “ñ” was kept in the language, whilst other letters with similar waving signs (as distinct from accents which is another issue) were phased out.  However, in modern Portuguese we find exactly the same squiggly line over the letters “a” and “o”.  These have exactly the same origin and also indicate a nasal pronunciation, in this case of these two vowels in certain word positions.  However, in Portuguese they do not represent separate letters of the alphabet.

In the early 18th century when the Real Academia Española came into existence to organise the spelling and grammar of the Spanish language, it created an alphabetical dictionary, in which it was decided to order the “ñ” after the “n” in all the listings.  This set the standard for the subsequent adoption of the “ñ” into the Spanish language as a letter in its own right rather than as “n with an accent” as non-Spanish speakers sometimes assume.

Nowadays this unique letter has come to represent Spanish language and culture, and the squiggly line is even incorporated into logos and illustrations to represent “Spanishness”.  It also has its own representation on the Spanish keyboard.  In fact the RAE resisted strong pressure from the European Union in 1991 to eliminate the “ñ” from Spanish keyboards as a move to open up the computer sales market throughout the EU.  One last piece of useless information: the squiggle on the “ñ” actually has a name other than “squiggle” “wavy line” or “accent”.  It is actually called a “virgulilla”.  Now that’s a bit of trivia to bore your friends with.

Posted by: janecronin | April 2, 2017

False Beginners

You may be familiar with the term “false friends”, those words which appear to mean the same thing in two different languages, but in fact mean something different.  However, it is less likely that you have come across the term “false beginners” unless you have worked in language teaching.

The “false” beginner is the person who claims to be a complete beginner in a language, but in fact already has some knowledge.  This knowledge may be hidden in the recesses of memory and therefore not easy to recall, it might be passive knowledge that has been picked up some time in the past but never put to active use, or it might be the case that the person concerned lacks the confidence to admit to any knowledge of the language and so refers to himself or herself as a complete beginner, when this isn´t strictly the case.  I’m sure you have come across Spanish people who claim not to speak any English, or to speak very little, only to find they are practically fluent.  Often the person has made this claim not to deceive anybody, but just through lack of confidence in their own abilities.

This phenomenon is quite common, but if you claim to be a beginner when strictly speaking you are not, you can create a dilemma for a language teacher.  However rusty, badly remembered or impractical your knowledge of a language might be, there is a world of difference between you and a person who has truly never come across a language before.   People who are learning a language for the very first time will take far longer to understand, assimilate and remember new words and concepts, whereas a “false beginner” usually only needs to have their memory refreshed once or twice for the same expressions to stick.  This difference in speed of learning can create problems in the classroom, depending on the attitude of the student.  If a “false beginner” is happy to keep quiet when necessary and be patient, they can gain from the class without intimidating others, but someone who says they are a beginner but who then proceeds to demonstrate knowledge beyond the rest of the group, and who also learns far more rapidly, is inevitably going to intimidate others in the class.

One of the problems with the expression “false beginner” and the reason you may never have heard it, is that although it is an accurate description of a learner from the point of view of the teacher, it does rather sound as though the person is being in some way deceitful.  I have rarely made the mistake of “accusing” someone of being a “false beginner” as they are likely to take offence and go into long explanations of how little they actually know!  In the academy I first worked in, we politely named a group as “post-beginners” which is actually a little more advanced than “false beginners” but covers the situation without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Posted by: janecronin | March 26, 2017

A means to an end

Language is one of the basic tools that we humans use to survive.  As we are social animals we need language to communicate with each other and deal with the many complex tasks that come our way from day to day.  This is why the study of language in the classroom is basically an unnatural activity.  We learn our own language as small children: in some cases we may need to acquire two or more languages to deal with events in our everyday lives and this learning takes place through the process of real communication.  It is through this practical daily use of language that our proficiency in it develops.

Herein lies one of the problems of studying a foreign language as adults.  We really need to find a practical use for it in order to develop our linguistic skills.  Speaking from the point of view of a Spanish teacher, I believe this is why many people drop out of class after the initial stages.  In my courses, we always start with very practical things like “get-by” phrases, how to order things in a restaurant or buy things in a shop.  The great thing about this is that my students can then go out and use the language they are learning straight away, and often come back to subsequent classes full of anecdotes about their successes or failures in communication.  Once the level of the language gets slightly more complex, it is important that students continue to find ways of making use of what they are learning, for it to remain meaningful.  This might take the form of a language exchange partner or joining in some social activity where new language can be learnt and practiced.

The same principle is applied in modern language teaching methods with children.  Rather than forcing a child to memorise words and phrases that have no application, it is far more effective for the child to learn something else, a practical skill or even the rules of a game, using the new language as a vehicle of communication.  This is also the principle behind bilingual education.  As far as the child is concerned, the knowledge of a second language is incidental as they use it to develop their learning in other areas.

With all that said, as adult language learners it is of course very important for us to focus on the new language itself:  to understand how it all fits together, doing language exercises and memorising new words and phrases, but we should never lose sight of the fact that our whole purpose is to apply the language to real situations, and it is in doing so that we will make genuine progress as we use language for what it actual is – a tool for communication.

Posted by: janecronin | March 19, 2017


Globish is actually the trademarked name for kind of simplified version of the English language which has been developed for the use of non-native English speakers when communicating with each other in English.  It is a combination of the two words Global and English.

The issue of what kind of English many people actually need to communicate with each other is very relevant for those of us who are teachers of English.  Many English textbooks require students to learn all manner of expressions and idioms which are appropriate if they wish to integrate into British or American society, but are way beyond the needs of someone who is engaging in international trade, politics or even diplomacy.

The person who developed and patented Globish, an IBM executive called Jean-Paul Nerriere, noticed in the course of his work that non-native English speakers used a simplified kind of grammar and vocabulary when communicating with each other which was not only highly effective, but also far easier to learn and use in many international contexts.  Globish, he claimed, is not an artificial language, and neither is it in any way incorrect English, it is simply the description of a simplified version of English, which he aimed to describe.

Several people have taken up the Globish gauntlet (which is probably not an acceptable Globish expression!) including a very informative book written by Robert McCrum in 2010 entitled Globish.  If you are a bit of a language freak like me, you will probably find it quite entertaining reading.

Despite Nerriere’s assiduous work in codifying Globish, the word is often used generically to describe a diluted form of English recognised the world over in popular culture.  There are a number of criticisms of the system as well as several alternative initiatives in creating a lingua franca.

There are two aspects of the Globish concept which particularly interest me.  One is, as I have already mentioned, what kind of English we teach to students in the classroom.  This is also related to what the students themselves are aiming for, but all too often examination systems expect an idiomatic knowledge of the language which may not be strictly necessary.

The other aspect is that fact that the people who have most difficulty in learning Globish are in fact we native English speakers.  Most people are completely unaware of the difficulties their native language presents to foreigners in international contexts, and therefore need to learn exactly how our language needs to be adapted to make it understandable to the majority.   I think some people are likely to resist this concept, perhaps fearing that it would dilute or contaminate our wonderful language in some way.  However, this really is not the case.  We can still enjoy novels, poetry and plays; irony, comedy and films using all the sophistication our language has to offer, but without needing to inflict it on those for whom none of this complexity is strictly relevant.

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