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.

Posted by: janecronin | June 26, 2016

Word Order

One of the hardest things about learning a foreign language is coming to terms with differences in word order. This is particularly difficult for those of us who were brought up as monolingual.  Given that our thinking processes are conducted in our own language, it is logical that our thoughts should follow the same sequence as words do in our speech.  When we come across a sequence of words in another language which is different from our own, this can produce a sort of mental paralysis.  If the words don´t follow the same order as the way we think, where on earth do we start?

Some of the examples of this phenomenon in Spanish are well known, for example the fact that adjectives usually follow nouns rather than precede them.   The example often quoted is a “beer big” (cerveza grande) rather than a “big beer”.  However normal the English version seems to us, I’m inclined to think that it makes more sense to name something first and describe it afterwards: “the car … big and green” (el coche grande y verde) is possibly more logical than “the big, green …. car”, if you see what I mean.

Another difference that can create a stumbling block is that in Spanish we do not split verbal phrases by placing other words between them.  For example, in English we can say “What is your friend doing?” whereas in Spanish the word order is “What is doing your friend?” (¿Qué está haciendo tu amigo?): we cannot split the verbal structure “is doing”.

There are other more complex grammatical structures that require us to practically think backwards.  For example, a sentence like: “Me lo dijiste ayer”, if we were to say it in the same order in English, would be “To me it you said yesterday”.  If you happen to be learning these wonderful things at the moment, namely direct and indirect object pronouns, please take heart that you are not the only one who has ever had major problems with them.  The logic is relatively straightforward, once it has been explained clearly several times, but the fact that the word order is so different from English creates a big stumbling block for most of us at first.

Many years ago I did a short course in Esperanto, an artificial language invented in the nineteenth century by a Polish ophthalmologist.  I always thought it was brilliant and still regret the fact that it was never adopted as the international language of communication instead of English.  One of the best and most intelligent things about Esperanto is that words can go in any order and still make sense.  Thus, it can be spoken by people of different languages in the order of their own thoughts.


Posted by: janecronin | June 19, 2016

Building Bridges

When we talk to others we make unconscious adjustments to our speech to communicate.  Without even thinking about it, we always simplify and slow down our language when we speak to children, we often raise our volume to older people and possibly clean up our speech if we are worried about offending.  We may also modify our regional accents when speaking to people from other areas of the country.  Something I have often noticed with some amusement is how English people “Spanishify” their names in an attempt to make them more understandable to the Spanish.  We often get rid of diminutives so that Pat and Bert would introduce themselves to a Spaniard like this: “My name is Patrrisshhhaaaa and this is my husband Al-beeeerrt”.   Some years ago I had a student from Bristol who also insisted on pronouncing it “Brrristaall” when she was speaking Spanish (changing the final “o” to an “a” for reasons I could never quite understand!)

A similar phenomenon occurs with the Spanish who are used to dealing with English people in their everyday lives.  They soon notice which Spanish words are understood and which go right over our heads, and so they adopt a kind of “Englishified” Spanish to get their message across.  An example of this is their use of the verb “comprender” for “to understand” in preference for the verb “entender”.  Both verbs exist, but “entender” is most commonly used when we are talking about understanding language.  However, when the question “¿entiende?” is met with a blank stare whereas “¿comprende?” is met with an enthusiastic nod, it doesn´t take long to catch on.  Another example is the suppression of the more common “la semana que viene” (next week – the coming week) for the more understandable “la próxima semana”.  Again, both forms exist, but the one most often addressed to us foreigners is the one we respond to, not the one more often used amongst the Spanish themselves.  The strangest example I have ever heard of this phenomenon was when I overheard a Spanish market stall holder selling children’s shoes to some expats and saying that they were for a “bambino”.  Possibly both parties thought that “bambino” meant “child” in the other person’s language, although in fact it is Italian.  Further aberrations that come to mind are “finito” and “kaput” – Italian and German respectively, but here forming part of the common bridge-building lingo, when knowledge of the other person´s language is little or none.

I like to promote another form of bridge-building, which is available to all of us, whether we are currently studying Spanish or not.  One is to ask the question: “¿Cómo se dice en español?” (How do you say in Spanish?) whilst pointing to a particular object or product.  People are usually really happy to teach you the Spanish word, and whether you are likely to remember it or not, it just sounds so much more friendly and intelligent than shouting the English equivalent at them with a Spanish accent.

Posted by: janecronin | June 12, 2016

Understandable English

However good our Spanish is, there may well be moments when we need to express ourselves in English to a Spanish speaker whose English is better than our Spanish.   If we are struggling to communicate in Spanish it is often a huge relief when we find we can switch to our native tongue and be understood.  When this occurs we must be careful not to assume that the person who is speaking to us in English is fluent enough to be able to understand accents, colloquialism, fast speech or indeed our sense of humour.  My students often complain that the locals don´t take their linguistic limitations into account and rattle away to them in Spanish in response to a timid “Buenos días”, but just how careful are we to speak English in a way that they can easily understand?

In my previous article I wrote about the Germanic and Latin roots of English and it is a fact that the Spanish will understand us far better if we use Latin based words.  This is strange for us as we tend to think of those words as more highbrow and are inclined to use Germanic based words to simplify our message.  We would say for example: “I made a mistake” rather than “I committed an error” but the Spanish for both is “Cometí un error”.  The other important point is that we should cut out unnecessary words and get to the point directly and clearly.  Again, this goes against our Britishness which tells us that adding more words makes us more polite.

Let’s suppose you are taking a machine back to a shop because it doesn´t work properly.  To an English assistant you might say something like: “Excuse me, I wonder if you could help me.  I’ve tried this machine out several times and it doesn´t seem to be working properly.  I wonder if you could have a look at it.  I might be doing something wrong, or it may be there’s something not quite right with it.”  If you came out with that to a Spanish shop assistant, even one with reasonable English, I can assure you they will be panicking frantically and just about picking up the main point that you have faulty machine, not because of anything you have said, but simply because you have brought it back.

A far better approach would be to say something like this:  “Excuse me, I have a problem with this machine.  It doesn´t function.  Can you help me?”  We have said exactly the same thing, but used simple phrases: “Excuse me”, “Can you help me?” and key words that are similar to Spanish: “problem” and “function”.   If you combine this with slower and clearer speech (and a pleasant manner) I can guarantee you’ll get what you want far more quickly and easily and you´ll have made a friend in the ferretería as well, who could be useful in the future.


Posted by: janecronin | June 5, 2016

Language families

Nearly all the languages in the world belong to families.  Many hundreds or even thousands of years ago it seems that there were some original languages common to mankind which gradually altered as human communities moved around and inhabited geographical areas that were cut off from each other.  Languages developed in different directions but could still be identified as members of the same language family.  This process has continued throughout the ages and in fact, even the languages we speak today are not static things but are constantly changing.

A relatively recent branch of this huge family tree is the group of languages derived from Latin.  In this group are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Catalan, Italian and Rumanian along with other smaller languages or dialects. If we see any of these languages written down we can often identify words with similar roots, although when we hear them spoken these common elements are harder to recognise.  As well as individual words, the basic structure of these languages is also similar as they all derive from their Latin parent language.

In the north of Europe there is another large language family group described as Germanic.  Many of the languages in this group were spoken by the northern tribes such as the Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others, who were the ancestors of present day Danes, Norwegians, Germans and Dutch.

The English language is an interesting mixture of both of these language families.  What we call Old English was a Germanic language brought to us by our Viking, Angle and Saxon invaders.   However, although we don’t like to be reminded, we were conquered by the French in 1066 and for about three hundred years society on the British Isles was bilingual, with the ruling classes speaking French and the peasant classes speaking Old English.  Over the centuries these two languages merged into a single tongue and became the basis of modern English.  One of the strange results of this merger is that we often have two words for the same idea, the old English word being considered more basic and the French word being considered more elitist, academic, technical or courteous.

There are scores of examples of this two-tiered word system in modern English: smell/odour; give/donate; way/manner; first/primary; work/labour; child/infant to name but a few.  The first word of each pair is Germanic in origin and the second comes from Latin.

An interesting result of this mixture in English is that we often understand bits of written Spanish because we identify similar words with Latin roots in English.  For example, when you are driving along the road and see the sign “Modere su velocidad” you understand it perfectly, as you understand “Moderate your velocity”.  However, this is not what you say to your partner who’s driving too fast.  Your language in that situation will almost certainly be much more Anglo-Saxon.


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