linguistics

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.

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Grammar “Mistakes” Spaniards Make

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What? Mario makes mistakes?

We all make mistakes from time to time. For example, do you know how to properly use lay and lie? It’s confusing because lay is the past tense of lay and laid is the past tense of laid. Confused yet? Most people do it “wrong,” and I put wrong in quotation marks because I don’t believe in labeling a person’s way of speaking as wrong or right. Dialects and pidgins aren’t wrong, and grammar snobs are just that: snobs. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love speaking well and even learning about grammar, but since I got a bit more educated, I’ve tried to stop being annoying about “correct” and “incorrect” grammar. (Related: hypercorrection and prescriptive poppycock.)

In Spanish, I am always on the hunt for unknown-to-me phrases/words as well as mistakes. Sometimes I find what I think is a mistake in the newspaper, but I’m not sure whether it actually is. So I ask—who else?—Mario. He almost always knows, but sometimes I mistake a find stumps him. This usually means it’s an error that’s become ingrained in people’s daily speech. I find these linguistics quirks fascinating. So if you do too, please read on to see if you’ve heard these “mistakes” when speaking to Spaniards or reading in Spanish.

Mario would like to note that he helped me with this, and so if you’re a Spaniard reading this, I’m not saying you speak “wrong” in any way, just that I find linguistic curiosities fascinating.

  • “Dile a mis padres” / “Le dije [a Sergio y Víctor] que …”—I love this one. Mario does it all the time. But so does everyone else I know: Mario’s family and friends, teachers I work with, and people on the street. It’s technically wrong; it should be “Diles a mis padres” and “Les dije [a Sergio y Víctor] que …” but it’s usually said like I wrote above. Listen for this one!
  • “Nada de esto hubiera sucedido si él no hubiera hecho lo que hizo.”—This one too is quite common. Of course, the correct way to say it is “Nada de esto habría sucedido si él no hubiera hecho lo que hizo.” It’s said both ways. I’m not sure if there’s a difference in connotation or if it’s simply a way of expressing oneself in a different way.
  • “Fijaros bien” / “Estaros quietos”—I hear the vosotros form a lot, as I work in classrooms where the teachers are always addressing groups of children, so I get the chance to listen and see if they say “fijaros” instead of the correct form “fijaos” or “estaros” instead of the correct form “estaos.” I suppose this comes about because “fijaos” and “estaos” sound a bit odd and are a bit more difficult to pronounce, but I’m no expert.
  • “Hablastes con ella?”—This definitely isn’t as widespread as the above-mentioned examples, but it does happen, although I think people are more aware of the fact that it’s an error. It should, of course, be “¿Hablaste con ella?” The Cervantes Virtual Center speaks of this, citing as a grave error that has even begun to invade the written word. (Oh the horror!) I do love that they call it a “vulgarismo,” a vulgarism.
  • “Sal para fuera” “Sube arriba” / “Baja abajo—These are not errors in such, but rather redundancies. Of course, in English there are many examples of this phenomenon: “free gift,” “end result,” “future plans,” and “safe haven,” just to name a few. We’re taught in composition classes to eliminate redundancies in order to smarten up our writing.

I tried my best not to include obvious ones that most educated people know are incorrect, like the confusion of “b” and “v,” “laísmo” (even though “leísmo” is accepted), saying “habían” when it should be “había,” etc.

Have you noticed any other “mistakes” that native speakers make?

All Atwitter

I tweet, do you?

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Now, in my everyday life, I come up against a lot of resistance to Twitter, which I just do not understand. People tell me, “What do I care about if you just went to the grocery store or ate something delicious?” I just want to stomp my feet and yell, “You do not understand Twitter! The purpose is not to tell others what you ate for lunch or about your latest trip to the bathroom!” But then I struggle to explain to them what, exactly, it is about.

I admit it—I love Twitter. Much more than Facebook, actually, although Facebook does have its uses. Why Twitter? Well, because Twitter makes me aware of things. Twitter has been the way I’ve learned breaking news stories. (Thanks, Trending Topics.)

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  • Twitter is a democracy. Celebs often interact with us plebes. You can talk to anyone (though they may not talk back). People who don’t know you can follow you, just because they’re interested in what you have to say, even if you’d never be “friends” on Facebook.
  • You can get instantaneous feedback. You can ask your followers a question and get tons of responses, like when I asked for opinions on where I should go in Italy.
  • Hashtags. I love using hashtags, which are just words or phrases preceded by #. If you add # before something, it’s instantly searchable. My favorite hashtags? #IUBB, #Spain, #ESL, and #learnSpanish. Apparently, some people really like #TTOT, or Travel Talk on Tuesday, where you can ask/answer questions about travel every Tuesday at certain times.
  • Education. I love linguistics. This is no secret. I follow a lot of linguistics blogs on Twitter, and I’m always to find something interesting to read.
  • Pure entertainment. Sometimes I get bored. Luckily, I have a smartphone and Twitter! This is a winning combination for curing boredom. I just hop on Twitter, laugh at my friend’s tweets, and write something inane, hoping someone will gratify me by replying.

Those are my reasons for using Twitter. What are yours? I’ll leave you with some of my favorite Tweeters (I’ll spare you my #IUBB tweeters, as that’s not this blog’s audience, but rest assured I’m wholly obsessed with the Hoosiers):

  • @CyLesVida: Castilla y León es Vida tweets all about one of my favorite comunidades, Castilla y León. I love keeping up with the news. Plus, they retweeted me!
  • @LongReads: Long Reads tweets out “the best long-form stories on the web.” I save these on my Kindle and read them when I have a free moment.
  • @WinesfromSpain: Wines from Spain tries to raise awareness about the deliciousness of Spanish wine in the US. Although I need no convincing, I love reading about Spanish wine nonetheless!
  • @Fundeu: Español Urgente is where I learn matices of the Spanish language. Sometimes I disagree with their prescriptivist perspective, but that’s just how Spain approaches the Spanish language nowadays.
  • @GeoffNunberg: Geoff Nunberg is the resident linguist for NPR’s Fresh Air, and I always love his segments. I am hopelessly addicted to linguistic blogs, so this just feeds my addiction.
  • @GuiriBullshit: Guiri Bullshit is hilarious if you’ve ever worked as an auxiliar de conversación. As they say in their self-description, “Over 2,000 Americans go to Spain every year to teach English in public schools. Far less of them have a clue.” Truth. But they don’t tweet enough!

Of course, there are always my friends. I want to include you all … but I can’t!

But I’m a Girl! … and Other Spanish Language Mishaps

I really enjoy the discussions that arise from posts like last week’s about my Rookie Mistakes (written in all caps because it’s a BFD).

As you know, I like to think about all the important, totally unimportant things in life.  Although Spanish is important—being the second-most spoken language in the US—the stuff I contemplate is really not. Except to me, thus making it, like, oh my God, super-mega important. Got it?

As you may well know, Spanish has something called grammatical gender, which actually doesn’t have to do with gender; it’s just a name we use. (Confusing? Yeah.) If you don’t know what this is, just think of the terms fiancé and fiancée. One means a man engaged to be married (fiancé), while the other means a woman engaged to be married (fiancée). So if I called a man my fiancée—oopsy, that would be wrong.

For the most part in English, we don’t deal with this, especially since we pronounce fiancé and fiancée exactly the same way (or at least I do). Hence, when we native English speakers learn a language that does employ grammatical gender, we usually have slip-ups. If you don’t, I officially hate you. Don’t call me again; I’ve blocked your number.

Right now, I’m what I’d call an advanced speaker of Spanish. (I’m even better at writing!) But I like to talk fast in English, so I try to speed up my Spanish as well. I hate being the person everyone listens to like, Come on! Cough it up! Right? Don’t you hate that? Naturally, though, this leads to missteps. I often autocorrect myself, because I’m very self-aware in this area, but sometimes I don’t catch it.

The most common way to tell if something in Spanish is masculine/feminine is to say how the word ends. If it ends in –o, it’s likely masculine; if it ends in –a, it’s likely feminine. Ya with me? However, this is not always the case. (See: la mano.) Easy peasy, lemon squeezy?

In my rush to speak, I sometimes call Mario a girl. No, I don’t say, “Eres una chica,” no. I just refer to him with a feminine adjective. I’m sure this sounds rather odd to him, as this whole grammatical gender thing is ingrained in his speech, and has been since he was a wee little tot with glasses. (Cutest kid ever.) So it has to be jarring when I do this. I like to compare it to when my students would refer to males as “she” or females as “he.” Yes, it happened, and it always seemed so weird to me. Don’t they get it? Well, of course they do; they just mix it up—just like yours truly.

Gender is a tricky thing in Spanish. Here are some examples:

  • It’s el agua/águila/arte, but las aguas/águilas/artes.
  • La mano vs. el mapa
  • Words sometimes change meanings, depending on whether they’re preceded by el or la:
    • El cura (the priest); la cura(the cure)
    • El herido (the wounded man); la herida (the wounded woman/the wound)
    • El frente (the front); la frente(the forehead)
    • El capital (the capital [money]); la capital (the capital [of a country])
    • El mañana (the future/tomorrow [but tomorrow is really an adverb]); la mañana(the morning)
    • Sometimes words are both—la/el mar (both are still used) el/la calor (la calor is seen as archaic). Apparently, la mar is more poetic. That’s because females are more poetic, did you know that? (Okay, I lie.)

Okay, I’m going to stop here. I tend to start writing and just keep going and going, because there’s always more I want to say. But I shan’t. Please, tell me about your grammatical-gender-based mishaps in the comments!