How Teaching English in Spain Has Improved My English

Teaching English in Spain was never a dream of mine. I’ve ended up here through a series of choices, coincidences, and a fair amount of luck. Nonetheless, while I may not wish to pursue this career path after my time in Spain comes to an end, I know that teaching English has helped me in many ways, including in my knowledge of English. Yes, my English grammar and semantics have improved as a result of me teaching English here.

Auxiliares de Conversación en España
Gee, what a great cultural ambassador I am

No, I didn’t confuse your and you’re, and I most certainly never wrote to instead of two or too. And while I used to be a bit more of a grammar fascist, I’ve come to realize that I’m more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist. Nonetheless, while other people may talk and write without following the “rules,” I choose to try my best to follow the rules. Thus, I have been thrilled to find that teaching English has allowed me to brush up on certain facets of the English language.

Present Perfect

Have you ever said “I’ve drank so much coffee this week!” or “They’ve sang that already?” If so, you’re in good company: mine. I too have been guilty of misusing English’s present perfect. Last year, however, I got a quick review while my sixth-grade students were going over the present, past, and present perfect. They had lists of verbs written out in their notebooks, like so:

  • Sing, sang, sung
  • Begin, began, begun
  • Eat, ate, eaten
  • Drink, drank, drunk (at which I couldn’t help laughing from time to time)

Never again will I commit the error of using have + past tense!

Word Confusion

  • Envy vs. jealousy—Envy is wanting what someone else has (e.g., a car), while jealousy is a bit  more fear-based, which can be applied in boyfriend-stealing situations. In Spanish, this is clearer. When I first started dating Mario, I would often say, “Tengo celos” or “Estoy celosa,”
  • May vs. might—I had no idea these were supposedly different until my students started saying things like, “Well, might is less certain than may, right?” Wait, what? Is this a thing? Apparently it is, and I’m just late to the realization.
  • Bring vs. take—Spanish is very strict on this rule. You can’t “bring” something to a party, unless you’re already at the place where the party is going to be. You should say, “I’ll take chips to the party tomorrow,” not “I’ll bring chips to the party tomorrow.”

Subjunctive

Just remember that Oscar Mayer got it right in the song: “Oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener …” It’s not “I wish I was,” people! There isn’t a lot of subjunctive in English, so sometimes it hurts our brains to try to remember when to use it in Spanish. But we do have it! Here are some examples of the present-tense English subjunctive:

  • I insist that you leave now. (You see how, in present tense, it would be he leaves, not he leave?)
  • I am running fast lest she catch me.
  • The teacher recommends that you join the club.

Teaching students about the English subjunctive has taught me a lot about the English subjunctive. See how that works?

Latin Roots

Origins of English WordsSource

English and Spanish both derive a lot of their vocabulary from Latin (Spanish more so than English). There are many words I’ve learned in Spanish that have later served me in English. You know which words I mean, words that come up on the SAT, but words that you might not always use in everyday speech.

  • Exculpate—Here was I word that I recognized from a similar word in Spanish, culpable (guilty). I guessed (and found I was correct!) that it meant to show one was not guilty of some wrongdoing.
  • Infallible—I think I knew this one before, but if you know the Spanish word fallar (to fail), it would be a logical step to concluding that infallible means incapable of failing.
  • Lachrymose—Do you know the Spanish word for tears? It’s actually lágrimas. Thus, if you know Spanish, you could easily infer that lachrymose means tearful, or at least has something to do with tears.
  • Verisimilitude—Similar to the Spanish verdad (well, at least it has the ver- stem), this word means “having the appearance of being true.”

Oh, British English

I say this with love in my heart, because sometimes, when I think an answer is incorrect—surprise! It’s actually British. “At weekends” is a good example. Saying, “What do you like to do at weekends?” is apparently perfectly acceptable to them. I had no idea until my first year teaching English! (See also: half ten, for half past ten … while we Americans just tend to stick to saying ten-thirty.)

I guess it’s funny that moving to Spain and becoming an English teacher has improved my English, but it’s true. ¡Viva España!

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5 comments

  1. Due to my tranlastion studies I had to be very careful with Spanish (as target language) and I therefore became a grammar nazi; I still do trust the RAE but I obviously also admit very proudly the regional and temporal variations of the language (which are far more entertaining than what the RAE says is correct Spanish). When I worked as an auxiliar de conversación abroad I liked explaining and discovering my language at the same time that I decided to go to postgrad school and did my master’s on teaching ELE. I’ve noticeably learnt vocabulary from Latin America. I like those accents!
    When teaching English I use every opportunity to revise and relearn things. :) I love studying languages!

  2. when i see a post about the Queen of England’s tongue i feel like a little boy walking with his mum, then he turns his head and sees a candy’s shop on the other side of the street….he begs his mum….this is how i feel…..with a burning desire to comment :-)

    while my English has not really improved with these blogs, i must admit that sometimes i come across some new word, or a new meaning of a word that i already know, above all north american usage, so honestly yes! i do improve it……although my main source is to read books or watch films so i can get new and old things.

    even i have my own favourite book and movie phrases that i love so much, here there are some of them:

    1. don’t turn your back on me woman!
    2. we must away ere break of day.
    3. i’d been in the army less than a year when that unholy hell arrived!
    4. faithful servant yet master’s bane,
    Lightfoot’s foal, swift Snowmane.
    5. mourn not overmuch! mighty was the fallen,
    meet was his ending, when his mound is raised,
    women then shall weep. War now calls us!
    6. i’ll burn your damn house down!
    7. down the swift dark stream you go,
    back to lands you once did know.
    8. fifty years watching those hydro rigs suck our planet dry.

    and last but not least, being involved with British people for some time teaching them Spanish has improved my English, and working on a golf course where almost every customer is British also helped me to improve it.

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