Posted by: janecronin | July 16, 2017

Aprender


Since the object of this series of articles is to learn something new, I thought the verb meaning “to learn” that is “aprender” would be a suitable place to start.

This form of the verb “aprender” ending in “-er” is what we call an “infinitive”, that is the equivalent of “to learn” in English.  However, whilst in our language “to learn” has very few forms (learn, learnt (or learned) learns, learning), “aprender” has multiple forms, although it is in fact completely regular throughout all its changes.

I usually teach this verb to beginner students in a form we can label “present participle” or “gerund” which means “learning”.  Here is the sentence I teach, which some people find hard to get their tongues round at first: “Estoy aprendiendo español”.  It simply means “I’m learning Spanish” and I recommend it as a way of communicating to a Spanish person who might be a bit impatient with our efforts, or who we simply feel we would like to explain ourselves to.

It is interesting to realise that many other words, such as nouns and adjectives, in Spanish are based on verbs.   In the case of “aprender” we find the word “aprendiz” which means “learner”.  We can trace the connection to the English word “apprentice” which to all intents and purposes means the same thing, even though for us “apprentice” refers to a particular role or position in the work place.  “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Spanish is “El Aprendiz de Brujo”.   A learner driver is also “aprendiz” although for some reason of international law, Spanish learner drivers have to have the letter “L” for “learner” on their cars.

The word for the period or process of learning or apprenticeship is “aprendizaje”.  We can talk about our “aprendizaje de español” or someone else’s “aprendizaje de ingles” (Spanish learning and English learning) and living in Spanish of course is a learning process – “un proceso de aprendizaje”.  As far as I know, that is the only equivalent of that odd English phrase “a learning curve” which personally I have never really understood.

A phrase that is used when referring to the learning process is “aprender a aprender” (learning to learn).  Apart from reminding us that there are all kinds of learning techniques to help us learn, this phrase also serves to remind us that the verb “aprender” is followed by the ubiquitous word “a” when it goes before another verb.

 

Posted by: janecronin | July 9, 2017

Motivation


Motivation is, of course, the key to all learning.  When it comes to learning Spanish it can be all too easy to lack motivation, especially for those who live in an area where there is access to English food, English speaking businesses, English TV and radio, English newspapers and English social activities.  From the point of view of motivation, it would be better if everyone was plonked right the middle of a Spanish environment and had no choice but to speak Spanish to survive.  This is what usually happens in the world when people change their country of residence and why so many people do manage to pick up other languages so quickly.

Another disincentive to learning is the belief that we are too old to learn another language.  It is true that many people experience a slowing down of thought processes as they get older, but I personally think that this has more to do with our brains being out of practice than with age itself.  Learning a language gives our brains a good work-out, forcing us to understand new concepts, which is not always going to be comfortable.  Perhaps even more important than lack of mental elasticity is lack of self-confidence.  This can truly be a major obstacle and I find that one of my biggest challenges as a teacher is to help students regain their confidence as language learners.

So, let’s look at the issue head on – have you got what it takes to speak Spanish?  What are the essential ingredients?  Well, first of all you need a voice.  I’m sure the vast majority of readers possess a voice in reasonable form, although our vocal chords and other speech organs, our throat, mouth, tongue and lips are only used to speaking your native language.  They need to be taught to behave slightly differently to produce new sounds, but all the necessary muscles are there.

We also need a memory.  This again is a challenge for all of us, but rather than berating our fading brain power, it would be better to look at the problem from the opposite angle.  If we apply our minds to learning a language, we are actually providing our brains with exercise and slowing down the process of deterioration.  There are all sorts of memory techniques, but a good general tip is to be relaxed and to adopt the principle of “little and often”.  Don’t set your goals too high and then be disappointed and accept that even the best language learners need constant repetition.

We also need social skills, the desire to interact with other human beings.  We all possess that to some degree and we should never forget that the actual words we speak are only a small part of communication.  Tone of voice and body language are far more important than we tend to realise, and we can use these to cross the language barrier when words fail.

Posted by: janecronin | July 2, 2017

Tongue Twisters


The Spanish word for “tongue twister” is “trabalenguas”.  Rather than twisting your tongue as in English, in Spanish they trip it up.  In just the same way as we have things like “she sells sea shells” and “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled paper” so the Spanish have a few faithful “trabalenguas” to test out the dexterity of their tongues.  Probably the best known of all is to do with sad tigers.  Here it is: “Tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en tres tristes trastos, tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal”.  In case you’re wondering, it’s all to do with sad tigers eating wheat in a wheat field, as they do.  Another “trabalenguas” which helps to practise “r” sound is as follows: “Por la calle Carretas pasaba un perrito.  Pasó una carreta y le pilló el rabito.  Pobre perrito, como lloraba por su rabito”.  If you’re trying this at home, remember that the strong rolled “r” is needed where the letter is doubled and when the single “r” appears at the beginning of a word, such as “rabito”.

Of course when we learn Spanish we don´t really need anything to trip us up especially, we can do that quite easily on our own!  An early difficulty for students is the name of the letter “y” – igriega.  After a while, that seems easy, and we then struggle with the name of the one place we all have to go to sooner or later: “ayuntamiento”.  Of course the key is to break with word down into syllables and pronounce them slowly in sequence.  This works because Spanish is a phonetic language made of syllables which do not vary irrespective of where they appear in the word.  “Izquierda” and “peluquería” are two more challenges.  One of the key things to remember here is that the “u” after the “q” is not pronounced, in other words that the “qu” combination is like a “k”.

Later on you can progress to some of the harder words.  One that I was very pleased to conquer was “concienciación” which means “awareness”.  Several years ago in the Adapt association in San Pedro we organised an Awareness Day for disabled access so I had to keep saying this word over and over on the radio and on microphones.  Consequently, I can now say it as though it were second nature.

Next in my sliding scale comes the word “impermeabilizaciones” which, believe it or not, means “waterproofing”.  It was written on the side of a van I used to walk past every day.  And finally, one that I freely admit I still can’t stay without looking it up first.  The ultimate Spanish tongue-twisting word, meaning “ear nose and throat specialist” which is: “otorrinolaringólogo” and if said specialist were a woman, would be “otorrinolaringóloga”.  I think once I can say that without hesitation, I will regard myself as a native.

Posted by: janecronin | June 25, 2017

Using what you’ve got


These days I spend my time teaching elementary Spanish to mainly British people who have come to live in Spain.  One of the most satisfying parts of my job is when students come along with little anecdotes about how they managed to communicate with a Spanish person using what they had learned in class.  This happens all the time in all sorts of small ways, but the satisfaction and increased confidence these incidents bring to students are always great to hear about.

Here is one example from a while ago that has always stayed in my mind.  A retired gentleman was about half way through my complete Beginners course.  He had learnt to say the days of the week and we had also done some work on talking about our families, including the words for alive, “vivo” and dead “muerto”. The gentleman concerned was a keen fisherman and one day went to buy some live bait from a fishing shop.  When he came to use it he found that all the bait was dead so he took it back to the shop, showed it to the shop keeper and said “lunes vivo, miércoles muerto” – “Monday alive, Wednesday dead”.   Of course the man in the fishing shop understood immediately and sorted the problem out in the appropriate way, (by that I don’t mean that he revived the bait).

Another favourite of mine was when one day we were talking about going to the hairdresser and a lady, whose husband is completely bald, asked me how she could say to the hairdresser “a bit more on top” while she pointed to her husband’s head.  I suggested she said: “un poco más arriba”- all words we had learnt early on in our Beginner’s classes.  A few days later she told me she had gone to her usual hairdresser with her husband by her side and said just that.  There was a stunned silence while it dawned on the hairdresser that this elderly English couple was pulling her leg, and then she burst out into hysterics along with them at such an unexpected joke!

One final example was another student who learnt the expression “ni fu ni fa” meaning “neither here nor there” or “neither one thing nor the other” in one of my classes.  He wasn´t the greatest of students, as he admitted himself, but he took a liking to this rather drole expression.  I bumped into him several years after he had left the class and he regaled me with all the times he’d made Spanish people laugh by using the only bit Spanish he’d remembered from my class, namely “ni fu ni fa”.  It seems to get him awfully long way in making contact with people by making them smile, and in a way, that to me is what it’s all about: using whatever you’ve got to communicate more than you think is possible, including your strange English sense of humour!

 

 

Posted by: janecronin | June 18, 2017

European and South American Spanish


Just as there are very big differences between British and American English, so there are equally enormous variations between European and South American Spanish.  I would venture to suggest that the differences are even greater, or at least more complicated, because of the number of South American countries that are Spanish speaking, each with its own peculiarities of accent, vocabulary and grammar.

In terms of accent, one of the most obvious differences is the pronunciation of the lisped “c” (before an “e” and an “i”) and also the “z” in standard European Spanish which is uniformly replaced by the “s” sound in South America.  Another significant difference, in some areas, is the “y” and “ll” sounds which can almost sound like the English “j” particularly in Argentina.  In more general terms, a South American accent can sound slightly more nasal and also more sing-songy that the more monotonous European intonation.

Another difference is the use of the informal “tú” and more formal “usted” meaning “you”.  “Usted” is generally far more common in South American and in some parts the “tú” form doesn´t exist at all.  Again in Argentina they have another “you” word which is “vos” which is a word that has completely dropped out of modern European Spanish.

Then there are differences of vocabulary, and these really are huge with every country having its own name for every day things.  For example the word for car, “coche” in Spain, is “auto” in Chile, and “carro” in Mexico (a word that means “cart” in Spain) whilst in Spain the verb to drive is “conducir” and in South America is “manejar”.  My daughter who is currently in Chile has had to get used to a lot of differences which can give rise to many misunderstandings.  One of her favourite words means “plaster” which is “tirita” in Spain and “parche curita” (little cure patch) in Chile.

Between American and British English there are words that are quite acceptable in one country but quite unacceptable in others.  We all know that the American have “fanny bags” whilst for us a “cock” still has the basic meaning of “male hen”, whilst in the States this bird can only be called a “rooster”.  The same thing happens in Spanish.  The Spanish word for shell is “concha” which unfortunately also means the “c” word in South America.  The fact that here is it also a woman´s name (the abbreviation of Concepción) is a little alarming for South Americans, whilst the perfectly innocent word “coger”, “to catch” or “pick up” in Spain, means something much cruder in Argentina, so I have been told.  For “take” they use the less dangerous word “tomar”.

So yes, in case you didn´t have enough to worry about, you must definitely not pick up a shell when you cross the Atlantic, or at least, please don´t talk about it, just in case.

Posted by: janecronin | June 11, 2017

Assimilation


Learning a language is completely different from learning any other subject, or indeed any other skill.  In my years at school History and Geography lessons basically consisted of large amounts of information that we had to digest, memorize and regurgitate for examination purposes.  Then there were subjects such as Maths which required us to perform mental operations in order to come up with solutions based on set rules and patterns.  There were practical skills such as domestic science, which again meant acquiring skills to achieve predictable results.  Other subjects such as art, physical education and music also trained us in other areas of ability, or lack of ability, as they case may be.

When it came to languages the approach was rather similar to that of History and Geography.  We had to memorise words and grammatical structures, we were required to translate to and from our own language and if we were lucky we might also learn to imitate some sounds.  I can remember having to stand up at the beginning of French classes and repeat a series of vowel sounds in a long list with absolutely no reference to any kind of meaningful context.  In retrospect we must have sounded like a herd of cattle with head colds.

The problem that still occurs in language teaching today is that it is so often still treated as an academic subject that requires mechanical responses such as doing grammatical exercises, memorising vocabulary or translating texts.  This is fine if all we wish to do at the end of the process is pass an exam.  The problem with this kind of teaching is that it doesn´t take us to the next level, which is actually assimilating the language so that it becomes something we can use to express ourselves.   This is the process that is unique to language learning; in other words, the realisation that all those rules and lists that I am memorising and practising are actually just tools or means by which I can communicate my own  thoughts and ideas.

Sometimes in class I find that a student reports being absolutely amazed when they have used something they have learnt in class in a real situation and have been understood.  I sometimes pull their legs about this, but in reality, it is only when we have that experience of using language as a means of communication that the process of assimilation has really taken place.

Posted by: janecronin | June 4, 2017

Spanish dialects


As well as containing various languages, Spain, as I imagine is true of all other countries in the world, is full of different dialects.  Of course when we start learning Spanish we are completely unaware of these and are unable to distinguish a standard word or expression from some local peculiarity.  It may also take a long time for us to recognise different accents and I think it is extremely difficult for anyone who has come to the language later in life to ever fully appreciate all the possible nuances of accent and dialect that make up the language as a whole.

Having lived and worked in the coastal areas of Murcia and south Alicante for many years, I tend to break the news to my students that if they really want to live in a place where classically standard Spanish is spoken, they should move to the region of Castilla y Leon in the north west of Spain, to cities like Salamanca or Valladolid; the only disadvantage being that there are no beaches and winters are extremely cold and generally snow-bound.  Most people decide to stick with good weather and take the Spanish as it comes.

So, just as in the UK you may wear pumps, plimsolls or daps and eat sandwiches, sarnies or butties, so in Spain, there is an endless variety of terms, which are often related to local traditional ways of life and different cultural heritages.  These have often been preserved in the language over the centuries because of vast geographical features that impede communication, such as mountain ranges, rivers and valleys.

Prior to moving in this area, I lived in the region of Asturias, and specifically in the village of Llanes, where they had a completely separate set of vocabulary.  They  used the word “guapo” to describe attractive things as well as people; they had a word “mancar” which meant “to hurt” and “fricar” which meant “to trap ones fingers”.  Having absorbed these words and never questioned whether they were standard Spanish or not, one summer I went to teach English to a group of rich kids in Madrid.  They laughed to derision at my “country bumpkin” Spanish every time I came out with one of these terms, much to my discomfort.  So, I found out about my local dialect the hard way.

Here in the Vega Baja there is a regular radio item on Cadena Ser where a retired teacher talks about local sayings and words that are peculiar to this area.  I must admit that I listen with interest, but I don´t commit any of them to memory.  They’re just too much for me!  As a teacher of the Spanish language I made the decision from the outset that it was more useful in the long term to teach, and learn, standard Spanish, which is understood everywhere in Spain, and leave dialects to the locals as much as possible.

Posted by: janecronin | June 2, 2017

Sid’s Adventures in Spain – the German version


“After many months of anxious preparation …” but this time, in fact, it has been several years of hard work, I am delighted to announce the brand new German / Spanish version of “Sid’s Adventures in Spain” translated into German by my friend Monika Dowling.  For the purposes of the German version, Sid´s name has been changed to Peter, and so the title is:  “Peters Abenteuer in Spanien” and it is available as an e-book on this link  www.moyhill.com/pais

It is an ideal tool for German speakers to improve their Spanish, and for Spanish speakers to learn German, in exactly the same way as the original “Sid’s Adventures in Spain” has already helped hundreds of Spanish and English speakers with each others’ languages.

The original version in Spanish and English can be obtained either as an e-book or physical book from my website http://www.janecronin.eu

Posted by: janecronin | May 28, 2017

Spanish languages


As you perhaps know, there are six official languages in Spain.  The one we generally teach and which is referred to as Spanish (español) is in fact Castilian Spanish (castellano) as it originated in the medieval kingdom of Castile (Castilla) in the north west of the peninsula.  In addition there is Galician (Galego), Basque (Euskera), Catalan, Valenciano and Balear, also referred to as Mallorquín.  In fact the latter three languages are very similar, and are sometimes just referred to as Catalán, but as you can imagine there is a lot of argument about how different they are from each other, which has a lot to do with regional cultural and political identity.

In addition to these languages, there are others which are also recognised as languages, although they do not have the same official status.  One of these is the language of Asturias, called Bable.  My children, who were brought up in Asturias, were taught Bable in primary school.  I always thought it was good fun as a language as the stories they were taught were full of folklore with mythical characters who upset your cows and stole your thimbles.  Of course, Bable also has a serious, sophisticated literature and is spoken in many areas.   One of its characteristics is that the “o” in Castillian is a “u”, so the regional capital Oviedo, is Uvieu.

If you research dialects or languages of Spain you will in fact find a huge and complex number of variations.  In Murcia, where we lived after Asturias, there is a language called Panocho.  It is full of terms connected with local agriculture and traditional ways of life.  However, the most famous Murcian words which people recognise in the rest of Spain are “acho” and “acha” which I believe are abbreviations of “muchacho” (lad) and “muchacha” (lass or maid) and are used as exclamations, along with the word “pijo” which in the rest of Spain means “posh” but in Murcia seems to be some sort of term of endearment.  I say “seems to be” as it’s one of those things that varies according to who says it, to whom and how.

Another very curious localised language is the whistling Silbo Gomero of the Canary island of La Gomera.  As the island is full of deep ravines and valleys, the inhabitants developed a language that could be heard up to 5 kilometres away based on different pitches and lengths of whistle.  I wonder what people do when they get false teeth.   This language is still taught at schools and is spoken, or whistled, by older and younger Gomerans.

As you may imagine, I have only just skimmed the surface of a huge subject, but one thing it does bring home even more is just how diverse and culturally complex Spain really is.  Those people who are still stuck on the flamenco dancing, bull-fighting stereotypes really have no idea.

 

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.

 

 

 

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