Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

A theory what I have

I was asked if I'd ever written a post about learning Spanish. To be honest I wasn't sure. Normally my blogs complain about my inability to construct an error free phrase, which Spanish people understand, rather than anything on the methodology. I had a quick search through the blog and I couldn't find anything specific. So, here it is but, before launching into it, I should say that there are tomes and tomes on the theory of learning languages. People who know how brains work have theories about how to learn languages or language acquisition in general. They know much more than me. They are right and I am wrong. This attempt is going to be, relatively, short. It will contain lots of generalisations and it's a personal and not a researched view. And, of course, you need to bear in mind that my Spanish is rubbish.

Learning a language is easy. The vast majority of children do it. The method is also pretty obvious. The children listen to the words and phrases. They grasp that there is an idea behind the word or phrase. Maybe it explains something, maybe it is to give a command or order or maybe it is to transmit information. They learn the words or phrases and then build on those to express their own questions and views on the world. Later they learn how to read and write.

So, one of my first beliefs about learning a language is that it is just one big memory task. Unless you know some words then you won't be able to speak, read, write or listen. You have to learn lots of words and lots of phrases. This is especially true of idiomatic expressions. I use an example with my English language learners. OK, let's get the lead out, let's get cracking and put this baby to bed. It makes sense to me but it would be a bugger to understand if I were Spanish. The Spaniards do the same. Simple combinations of ordinary words that have completely different meanings to the sense of any of the individual words that they are made up of. They are easy to overcome though, you just have to learn them. You'll know a method that works for you for learning things. It is not a fast process. Learning a language for most people takes thousands of hours.

It's not just knowing the words and phrases - it's saying them adequately enough so that they are understood. It doesn't take much to make a word incomprehensible. For instance a Spaniard, speaking English, once asked me for some un-irons. There was no context to help - the word was onions. We English have plenty of trouble with lots of sounds that are easy for Spaniards. I'm not talking about the ones we know are difficult like the double rr or the y that sounds like a throaty j. Take the letter o and the way that you just voiced it to yourself - like oh. So for our town, Pinoso, we tend to say pin-oh-so when the sound is more like pin-oss-oh. What seem like quite small mistakes to us make words incomprehensible to Spaniards who have been brought up with a language that ties the sound of the letters to the sound of the words. Spaniards have a systematic and almost unbreakable set of rules for speaking Spanish. That's why they have so much difficulty saying would, friends or soap. So that section in your Spanish books that gives you examples of how to say the letters and vowel combinations is really, really important.

There's another little aside to speaking a language that is the rhythm that a language has. Think of the way that Italians sing as they speak or how Australians stress the end of a sentence, the way Swedes sound like the chef from Sesame Street. We have a cadence to English that is confusing for Spaniards. English speakers need to try to mimic the Spanish rhythms and tones. Without doing that you're going to have a lot of trouble, for instance, asking a question. ¿Estás de acuerdo?

I'm not a big fan of grammar. The rules for most languages, other than Esperanto, came after the language existed. Google tells me that the first English dictionary was published in 1604, the year that the Hampton Court conference laid down the rules for the King James Bible. That means the language was pretty well established by then. The first decent English dictionary was Samuel Johnson's in 1755. That's the one that Baldrick mentions in Blackadder, the one without sausages in it. The grammar that gets reproduced in grammar books is a description of the way the language is used rather than the rules from which a language is constructed. A bit like the difference between Common Law, based on societal customs recognised and reinforced by the judicial system, and modern laws which are drafted in intricate detail. I can't deny that grammar is useful. I teach grammatical rules in English and you have to learn the basic rules of Spanish grammar if you are going to speak Spanish. You need to know how verb tenses work how genders agree and hundreds of other things but there is a point when the exceptions to grammar rules, in my opinion, make them almost useless. So, again in my opinion, there is good grammar, useful grammar, and almost useless grammar. In an English context think about Tesco and Sainsbury's who speak good English. Nonetheless, they used, in the past, to have ten items or less tills (countable nouns should use fewer) and McDonald's who also speak good English, say I'm loving it despite knowing that stative verbs aren't generally used in the continuous form. On the other hand the difference between the use of you're (you are) and your (belonging to you) is big grammar. Big grammar is something that Tesco or McDonalds can't play with. 

One of the areas of Spanish grammar that confounds most English speakers is the subjunctive. Old people, like me, still use the subjunctive in English from time to time - it is important that he learn the rules or I wish it were sunny - but the form is definitely on the way out. On the other hand it is very much alive and well in Spanish. The rule says something like the subjunctive is used when the meaning of the main clause makes the events described in the subordinate clause "unreal" i.e. not known to be a reality at the time of the sentence. So, for instance if you see a T shirt with a picture of Kurt Cobain on it in a shop window and go into the shop and say that you want the T shirt with the picture of Kurt on it you use the indicative but if you're not sure that the shop has a T shirt with said picture then you have to use the subjunctive - busco la camiseta que lleva una foto de Kurt (you're sure such a shirt exists, indicative) and busco una camiseta que lleve una foto de Kurt (the shirt may or may not exist so you use the subjunctive). Now you tell me that any ordinary person learning Spanish is going to be able to work that out from first principles in the heat of the confusion of trying to construct a sentence and buy a shirt and I'll be happy to call you a liar. On the other hand most subjunctives come after little set phrases - es posible que - for instance, is followed by a subjunctive as are hundreds of others. If you're willing to slog it out and learn all those little introductory phrases then you will get the subjunctive right as often as most Spaniards. We're back to memorising the language.

So, my advice on grammar is to learn the stuff that you use in nearly every sentence you would ever use. Learn how to use articles, adjectives, adverbs, how to decline verbs and, indeed, learn as much grammar as you like and as you possibly can but, as soon as it seems to be becoming too esoteric, fall back on how children learn language and learn some phrases as the basis for other similar phrases.

Something else I would recommend is that you read things in Spanish and listen to things in Spanish. Spaniards and Britons do not use the same language to express the same idea. What the language learner is after is how to express what they want to say. Most Britons can say "good morning" in Spanish but if they were to overthink it then they're actually saying goods days - "buenos días". I sometimes despair when a fellow Briton is complaining about a Spanish waiter asking "¿Qué te pongo?" because, the Briton says, that the phrase means "What I put you?" Alright, the first definition of poner in the Spanish-English dictionary may be put but it's not the only one and, for heaven's sake, the question is obvious enough. Consider that the idea is "what do you want?" or "what can I get you?" even though there aren't a lot of directly translatable words in the phrase.

Just to finish off here are some disconnected jottings in no particular order and mainly for people living in Spain. I like classes because, once you've signed up, you feel you have to go. The people who employ me in Pinoso at Academia 10 would be very happy to sell you a class. Text books, learn Spanish type text books, vary in quality but most of the modern ones I've seen are pretty good. In Pinoso there is an intercambio session - half an hour of Spanish in return for half an hour of English every Monday evening from 8.30 at the Coliseum in Constitución. Talking to yourself is good because you realise the words you can't pronounce and you can often hear yourself making mistakes. Describing things as you walk around might help. Reading things like signs and number plates as you do the shopping is simple and easy. Five words or phrases at a time rather than the first two pages of your new vocabulary book. Start by watching TV ads rather than feature films. If you like reading Mills and Boone better the Spanish equivalent than starting with Episodios nacionales. Maybe set your phone or Tom Tom to Spanish rather than English. And a long etcetera.

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