Posted by: janecronin | November 13, 2016

Mistranslation technology

I’m hoping that quite a few of my readers will agree with the following reflection.  Why on earth don´t people check their translations with native speakers?  This question applies as much to Spanish business proudly proclaiming “English spoken” as to those English businesses in Spain whose publicity clearly demonstrates a mixture of Google and a well-thumbed copy of their Sunny Spanish phrasebook.  Hardly a day goes by without coming across an example of someone who has parted with good money to create a sign or print an advert without checking their Spanish with a single one of the country’s 46 million inhabitants or their English with the scores of people who walk past their front door every day.

Here are a few examples just in my most immediate vicinity.   About 500 metres from my home there is a business with a huge permanent sign pointing to its entrance.  It tells me on its premise I will find an “exposure” of its tiles.  Someone looked up “exposición” in the dictionary and discovered it could be either “exhibition” or “exposure”, and rather than asking one of the many local English speakers, they just chose the translation that sounded most likely to them.   Exactly the same process occurred in the bar down the road.  Whenever I go there for a snack with English speaking friends we are presented with the “carta” in Spanish and the “letter” in English.  “Carta” in English is either “letter”, “menu” or “card” so they went with “letter”, probably because it was the first word in the list.

I’m sure you can cite hundreds of similar examples.  In my very first year in Spain in the eighties I had a work colleague who used to go to read a local restaurant menu, just to cheer himself up when he felt depressed, because it made him laugh so much.  I remember that one of his favourites was “squid in his ink”.  I even once came across an estate agent who advertised “casa” as “he/she marries” and “cocina” as “he/she cooks”.  Another great memory was getting an attack of giggles with my mother in a very posh hotel in Galicia which was serving “fairy octopus”.  Well it was funny at the time, especially as very serious member of staff sat and glared at us.

The British in Spain are far from immune to the same mistakes.  Many times I’ve been asked to look over a website or advert that someone has translated through Google and had to tell them that the whole thing needs to be rewritten for it to sound anything like something a Spanish person would recognise as their own language.  The truth is that no matter how much translation technology is developing, and it has made the most amazing advances, it still cannot replace human intervention.   The complexities of context, tone, register and cultural differences mean that reliable translation is still in the hands of the language native speaker.   The good news is, there are plenty of them or us around.

Posted by: janecronin | November 6, 2016

The Spanish phonetic alphabet

Last week we talked about writing Spanish words phonetically and the difficulty of doing so.  By the term “phonetic” I meant a way of writing out an equivalent sound as though we were reading it in English, which gives us a rough indication of how the word should sound.  However, there is another common meaning to the word “phonetic” as used in the term “phonetic alphabet”.  This means the code words that represent letters of the alphabet used mainly when speaking by radio or telephone rather than face to face. The best known system is called the NATO phonetic alphabet and is the official international code used by speakers of all languages.  As we all learnt from Z-Cars (showing my age again) the alphabet starts with “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta …”.

Apart from this international alphabet, the Spanish also have their own version of the phonetic alphabet, which is commonly used in more informal circumstances, especially on the phone.  Although it is true that in general spelling is less of an issue in Spanish as words are written as they are pronounced, there is always that moment when you have to spell out a name and some confusion arises between “b” and “p” (be, pe) or “m” and “n” (eme, ene).

So, here are the most commonly used words in the unofficial Spanish phonetic alphabet, with thanks to my fellow CB News columnist Graham Shelton for passing them on to me.

Alicante, Barcelona, Cádiz, Dinamarca, España, Francia, Granada, Huelva, Italia, Jaén, Kilo, León, Madrid, Navarra, Oviedo (Orihuela is a local alternative) Pamplona, Queso, Roma, Sevilla, Tarragona, Uva, Valencia, Washington, Xilófono, Yeso, Zaragoza.

You will notice that most of the words are place names, either provincial capitals in Spain or the word for Spain itself.   Especially difficult for the Spanish are the letters K and W, which have very limited usage in the Spanish language, and are never found in place names. “Kilo”, is one of the few words that start with a “k” and for “w” they have resorted to an American city.   A notable absence from this list is the “ñ”.  You are highly unlikely to ever need to spell this out in the phonetic alphabet, but if you do, I recommend the word “ñoño” which means “wimp, crybaby” or “´ñu” which means gnu, as in wildebeest.   They’re just two words I happen to like!

As I’ve already mentioned, this system is unofficial, but widely used.   If you look up “alfabeto fonético” on the internet you will only find the official NATO version.  There is also a lot of help with pronunciation for non-English speakers.   It’s typical of us to assume that words like “Charlie” and “uniform” are going to be completely straightforward for everyone to pronounce!  However, the presence of “bravo” “sierra” and “tango” are helpful for the Spanish.  I have a feeling that Foxtrot is likely to be the hardest of the lot!

Posted by: janecronin | October 30, 2016

Writing “how it sounds”

I made a decision quite a long time ago about how to deal with the pronunciation of written Spanish.  Before explaining my decision, let’s look first at the most usual method employed by some writers.  No doubt you have in your possession a Spanish phrase book which writes the “phonetic pronunciation” of words and expressions.  Here are some typical examples:  “Quiero café con leche”  “Key-air-o, kafay con lechay”.   “¿Dónde está la estación?”  “Donday estah la esta-thee-on?”  Now, if I were travelling to a country where I didn´t speak the language and just needed a few basic phrases to get by for a week’s holiday, then I would definitely use this kind of phrase book.  However, if I decided to stay in that country for any length of time, I would dispense with it as soon as possible, and find out how the language is actually pronounced.

The problem with this so-called phonetic spelling is that all it ever does is give you the nearest English equivalent of a sound and the fact of the matter is that English sounds and Spanish sounds have important differences.  For example, in many English accents we use a lot of diphthongs, that is double vowel sounds, whereas in Spanish each vowel represents a single sound.  Therefore, if you say “kafay con lechay” the Spanish are actually hearing “cafei con lechei”.  Obviously if you’re sitting in a bar when you say it you will undoubtedly be understood, but if you continue to use those sounds as you progress with the language, you are giving yourself a huge handicap as the Spanish will struggle to understand you.

Let’s look at the “phonetic” spelling of “está” where the emphasis expressed by the accent on the “á” is replaced by an “h” – “estah”.  Most English speakers will read that as a lengthened “a” sound, in other words we would make it rhyme with “bar”.  In Spanish this lengthened “a” sound doesn´t exist at all.  There is only a single short “a” sound, so the correct pronunciation is much more clipped that the way a phrase book could possibly indicate.  Again, if you’re on your holidays and looking for a station, some pitying soul is bound to help you, but this pronunciation is absolutely no basis for further learning and communication.

So, with this in mind, what was the decision I made about explaining pronunciation when writing about Spanish?  Well, I have written a lot of articles specifically explaining the structure of Spanish pronunciation, including my e-book A to Z of Spanish.  I have also made some videos about Spanish pronunciation which are free to view on my website  All my on-line course material includes audio files and in addition I do my best to explain particular features of pronunciation when the subject arises.   That might not give immediately gratification to my readers, but at least I can sleep at night knowing I haven´t made a travesty of Spanish language!


Posted by: janecronin | October 23, 2016

Non-sexist Spanish

The concept of challenging sexism in language is well established in English.  The historical linguistic assumption in words like “fireman” “policeman” and “chairman” is that these jobs are exclusively performed by men so when a woman fulfilled one of these roles, she was either obliged to maintain the male-biased title or the job name was altered to “firewoman”, “policewoman” and “chairwoman”.   The feminist argument was that there was no need to specify the gender of the person fulfilling an occupation, so the words “fire fighter”, “police officer” and “chairperson” are now in common use, along with many other similar changes.

Another area where gender assumptions are challenged is in the use of the personal pronoun “he” when the gender is unknown.   Here is a typical example:  “If your child is upset at school, he may need to be encouraged …”   Some writers have chosen to replace “he” with “she” to redress the balance: “If your child is upset at school, she may need to be encouraged ….”  However, nowadays the singular use of “they” has become increasingly accepted: “If you child is upset at school, they may need to be encouraged …”

Challenges to male linguistic domination are very significant in the Spanish language as well.  In many cases the reasons are even more justified since women were excluded from so many areas of social and professional life during Franco’s dictatorship.  However, the Spanish solution has been to create equivalent female job titles, rather than to eliminate gender references.  This is the case with “abogada”, “fontanera”, “directora” etc. where the linguistic form easily lends itself to  gender change.  More awkward are solutions like “concejal” “concejala” (local councillor); “jefe” “jefa” (boss); “juez” “jueza” (judge) and so on.  Some people reject these forms on linguistic grounds whilst the feminine movement in general strongly defends them.

As students of Spanish you will have learnt that the masculine form is the “default” form when there is a gender mix.  For example “we” is “nosotros” when male or mixed company is referred to and “nosotras” is only used when those included in “we” are all female.  However, this too is being challenged strongly.  Nowadays most public speeches are addressed to: “compañeras y compañeros”; “amigas y amigos”; “madres y padres”; “vosotras y vosotros” and so on, with the feminine form often preceding the masculine.  In written or typed form a rather neat formula has been found which consists of using the @ (arroba) symbol to represent the “o” and “a” like this:  Estimad@s amig@s.

If you have children at school you will be aware of the AMPA (Parents’ Association).  This stands for Asociación de Madres, Padres y Apoderados (Association of Mothers, Fathers and Guardians).  However, when my children started school these were called “APA” – Asociación de Padres y Apoderados (Association of Parents and Guardians).  This was changed to specifically include mothers, which was more than justified, especially since they were the only ones who ever actually got involved!

Posted by: janecronin | October 16, 2016

Bringing up bilingual children

Despite the fact that bilingualism and multilingualism are the norm in many parts of the world, people in modern monolingual cultures often have misunderstandings about the benefits or otherwise of bringing up a child to speak more than one language.   Some people fear that if a child is taught a second language from an early age it will cause confusion and hold them back.  Nothing could be further from the truth and in fact there are many studies that indicate that bilingualism gives children a great advantage in their intellectual development.   With that said, there are some principles that need to be observed for bilingualism to be successful.

An interesting observation I have made is that, as quickly as a small child can pick up a new language, they can lose the language equally as quickly if it isn´t maintained.  You may have come across some little person who chatters away in four or five languages without any difficulty at all.  This is because at such an early age, a child has no conscious realisation that she is speaking different languages; she simply notices that she must use certain words with certain people to communicate.  If Daddy calls something a “door” and Mummy calls it a “puerta” whilst the friend down the road call it a “tür” and other children at the nursery call it “porta” a small child is happy to use these different versions in each context.  However, if one of these language sources, a parent, the friend or the nursery, were to disappear, that area of language would also be wiped out extremely quickly.

So, what principles should parents adopt to ensure a solid, long-lasting bilingualism in their children?  Firstly, I think it is very important to speak to a child naturally in your own mother tongue and never adopt another language artificially when talking to your child.  Secondly, don´t be demanding about what language the child answers you in.  If you ask your child what she has learnt at school and she answers you in the language used at school, never demand that she answer you in a different language.   You can echo the same information back in your own language so that she hears an alternative, but never give her the impression that she has said something incorrectly.  A small child will not understand that you are encouraging her to use a different language; she will just perceive there is something wrong in what she has told you.

Finally, on this complex but interesting subject, the most important thing is not to get over-anxious about bilingualism.  Family situations, linguistic contexts and children´s personalities vary, and it is far more important that a child grows up being listened to, whatever they say and however they say it.

Posted by: janecronin | October 9, 2016

The Status of Languages

The language with the highest status worldwide is English.  There is no objective evidence for this, but it is clearly the language with most influence.  Just in terms of statistics, it is spoken as a first language by about 375 million people; it is the official language of 75 countries; there are more second language than first language English speakers in the world and around 750 million people speak it as a foreign language.   In addition, 80% of the world’s electronically stored information is in English.

Bringing such overwhelming statistics to a personal level, I brought my children up as bilingual English-Spanish speakers in Spain.  This has not only given them a huge advantage professionally and academically, it has also given them a social and psychological advantage.  Since early infancy they have been envied and congratulated by their Spanish friends, neighbours and teachers for their ability to speak English.  This has meant that they have grown up with positive emotional connections with their mother’s native language and have certainly never been embarrassed by it.

Now compare this with the psychological impression a child would have living in Europe if their other language belonged to an ethnic minority.  No one would be congratulating them for speaking the language and it is quite possible that it would be looked down on, either consciously or unconsciously by their friends and acquaintances.  This could ultimately lead to their own rejection of the language, along with its culture and associations, and their lack of interest in passing it on to their own children in later life.

Therefore, we can clearly see that different languages enjoy different levels of social acceptability, with English at the top of the league table.  When it comes to Spanish, there is a lot of effort being put into raising its status in the world.  Every year there is Spanish language congress attended by academics and institutional figures from Spanish speaking countries in which they work out strategies to improve the standing of Spanish in the world.  Their objectives include agreeing points of common ground in the language itself, asserting the recognition and use of Spanish in the Internet, promoting Spanish language interests around the world and so on.  They have particular issues in the United States where “latinos” have had a second class status for so long and another of their challenges is the invasion of English words and terminology which has become increasingly pervasive in advertising and marketing, as it has been for many years in other fields such as technology and medicine.

In a global world and a free-market economy it very difficult, and possibly even counter-productive, to protect a language by legislation, but those who are working to promote the status of the Spanish language in the world are helping themselves and future generations of Spanish speakers both  professionally and culturally.

Posted by: janecronin | October 2, 2016

Spelling mistakes

Spelling mistakes are the bane or our lives, or would that be that bain, bayne or beign?  I’d better check in the dictionary – are yes, I was write, it is bane, oops know, I was right.  Well, you no what I mean.

We are painfully aware of the problems of English spelling, as well as the feelings of superiority and inferiority that can result from being good or bad at it.  The Spanish are certainly not immune from what they call “faltas de ortografía” but they are really in a different league.  Spanish has a few hidden spelling traps, but as I’ve been at great pains to explain over the last few weeks, 99% of Spanish spelling is obvious because of the phonetic nature of the written language.

There are three typical Spanish spelling mistakes which arise when there are two alternative spellings for the same sound.  Firstly, there is the old chestnut of “b” and “v”.  We struggle to hear the difference, and that is because in everyday modern spoken Spanish, there isn´t any.  Thus the Spanish themselves can get muddled and write words like “nobiembre” instead of “noviembre” or “Benir” instead of “venir”.  These are simple examples which people with a primary education would get right, but with more obscure words such mistakes are more likely.  Sometimes there can be two words which mean different things depending on their spelling.  For example “vaca” means “cow” whereas “baca” means “rack” such as the roof rack on a car.

Another typical spelling mistake in Spanish is knowing whether to add an “h” or not, since the letter “h” is not pronounced.  It’s quite common to see these mistakes in texts and tweets, when people are writing quickly and get mixed up between “a” and “ha”.  This might not look too terrible to you, but they are completely different parts of speech so, “ha visto a mi amigo” means “he/she has seen my friend” whilst “a visto ha mi amigo” means “to seen has my friend”, in other words in its written form it is meaningless, even though the two sentences are pronounced the same.

The third mistake of a similar ilk is the confusion between “y” and “ll” which are also pronounced the same as each other in modern European Spanish.  I have (albeit rarely) see “yo” spelt “llo”.  A common confusion is between the two verbs “rayar” (to scratch) and “rallar” (to grate – as in “queso rallado” – grated cheese).  Both verbs are pronounced the same but mean different things.  However, before you throw your hands up in horror at the difficulty of the Spanish language, just remember that English has – there, their, and they´re; bare and bear; stare and stair and a myriad more of the same kind of challenges, with very few guidelines to help us out.

Posted by: janecronin | September 25, 2016

Choosing a language course

I’m often asked to recommend Spanish language courses, other than my own, and I usually give the rather diplomatic answer of “it depends”.  In fact the choice of the right language course does depend on a number of important factors, such as the time you have available, how well you manage the internet and what devices and connection you have at your disposal, how much money you are willing to spend, what are your aims in learning the language, what kind of learning background you have already and what is your learning style.  Although you may have never given much thought to any of these points, they are the unknowns that go through my head when someone asks me this question.

Let’s look at the last three points a little more closely.  What are your aims in learning Spanish?  Some people have a reasonable grasp of grammar but want to learn how to apply their knowledge in practical situations.  Other people can “get by” in real situations, but want to deepen their understanding of the language and speak with more accuracy.  Also, the way you intend to apply the language varies:  do you need it just to get by in everyday situations, to join in social activities with Spanish people or do you need it for your current job or to be able to expand your work prospects?

Regarding our learning background, this also makes a big difference to the kinds of language courses that are suitable for us.  There is no point in wading into a course that uses lots of grammatical terms, if we have no idea what they mean.  This can sometimes be a problem when people go to native Spanish teachers.  Younger Spanish people are taught grammar at school so they are inclined to assume that you as a language learner understand grammatical terms.  You might end up feeling like the dunce in the class, when the real problem is that you were never taught about grammar at school.

Finally, we all have different styles of learning.  In our generation at school this was never recognised and everyone had to learn everything in the same way.  Nowadays, educators are more aware of different learning needs and where language learning is concerned, some people learn better by hearing, others by reading, and others by seeing visual images or being put in practical situations.  Different people cope with tasks in different ways and everyone learns at a different speed.

Finally, be aware that a lot of the courses on the market are teaching South American rather than European Spanish, as of course America is a much bigger language market than Europe.  I’ve given you a lot of different things to think about, but at least give some of these issues a thought, rather than just reaching for the most popular or recommended course which may not necessary work for you.

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.

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