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!


  1. How honest! Do you also get fed up with hearing “the next ‘doze-day'” when what the student(s)y really mean(s) is “this Tuesday/Thursday”?

    • Hi Mark, there’s a whole range of things not confessed to that drive me mad!! Teaching is acting, as I’m sure you know very well!

      • 🙂 Quite!

        Go on then – spill one or two beans. An example, perhaps?

      • Well, when I’m teaching Spanish – “What does venga mean?” comes high on the list, along with “I heard someone say something the other day which sounded a bit like “@x?mt&%fwÇ” What was it?” and also “I used that word you taught us the other day, and they understood me!” (said with utter amazement) Don´t push me any further!!!

      • I can just imagine ;-}

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