Three basic patterns

I have taught English to Spanish speakers and Spanish to English speakers. Because of this, I am quite familiar with common pronunciation problems these learners come across, as well as lexical difficulties. Today, though, I’m going to concentrate on one aspect of Spanish and English syntax that trips learners up, comes up very early in the learning procress, and I consider absolutely basic if you want to get closer to mastering either of these languages.

Let’s start with English. In English, there is a very important syntactic difference between declarative sentences, negative sentences, and yes/no questions. Some examples:

He speaks English
She does not speak English
Do they speak English?
I am Argentinian
She is not American
Are they American?

A declarative sentence in English must contain an overt subject (either mentioned outright or expressed with a pronoun), followed by a verb, and optionally followed by an object if the verb requires it. In some cases, the subject pronoun is dropped, but these cases are, compared to the amount of subject pronoun dropping in Spanish, few and far between.

Spanish speakers have to learn right away not to drop the subject pronoun, and to use subject it (as in it is big), and to use “dummy” subject it (as in it’s raining), and to pay attention so as not to mix up he and she. There is no subject it in Spanish, and consequently no dummy subject it, and since the subject pronoun is so often dropped, it is inserted as a sort of afterthought when speaking English, therefore creating many mixups of he and she, despite the fact that they correspond to Spanish el and ella.

An English negative sentence, on the other hand, must contain not and the auxiliary verb do (conjugated for person in the present, having the alternative form does for the third person singular, i.e. he/she/it), which in turn, as is the case when using auxiliary verbs, means that the main verb will not be conjugated. This is unless the main verb in the sentence is be. In that case, there is no auxiliary verb. So the negative equivalents to declarative he speaks English and I am Argentinian are he does not speak English and I am not Argentinian.

Spanish speakers have to learn first the difference between no and not in English, which does not exist in Spanish, and then how to use the do auxiliary, and then the different word order.

An English yes/no question will have the do auxiliary like in negative sentences, unless the main verb is be; and will have a very different word order from a declarative or a negative sentence. So the yes/no question versions of he speaks English and I am Argentinian are does he speak English? and am I Argentinian?

Because Spanish forms yes/no questions in a much simpler way (see below), Spanish speakers typically have a hard time getting used to using the English yes/no question word order.

These are what I call the “three basic patterns” of English syntax. If a learner does not master them, they will have a hard time getting to anything resembling nativelike syntax.

If we were to show how negative sentences and yes/no questions differ from declarative sentences in Spanish, we will see a much more straightforward process:

(El) habla castellano
(El) no habla castellano
(El) habla castellano? / Habla castellano el?

As you can see, the question word order can vary, the difference being pragmatic nuance. The non-marked (i.e. more common) word order is the one on the left. If we just look at that one, and compare it with the declarative and negative sentences, we will see that the negative sentence is identical to the declarative one but with no before the verb phrase, and the yes/no question is identical to the declarative sentence and differs only in having a rising “question tone” at the end. The only difficult things for an English speaking learner here are the more complex verb conjugation and the optional (but incredibly frequent) subject pronoun dropping. Typically, an English speaker will dramatically overuse subject pronouns when speaking Spanish.

So these syntactic patterns are not particularly difficult for an English speaking Spanish learner. However, this is when things get curiously symmetrical. There is another group of three patterns which are very basic and important in Spanish syntax, and which in turn often trip English speakers up. These are the following:

(Yo) hablo castellano
(Yo) me levanto a las 9
(A mi) me gusta la fruta

In English, these correspond to I speak Spanish, I get up at 9 and I like fruit.

The first thing that gets in the way is subject pronoun dropping. The usual, unmarked version of those sentences omits yo and a mi. English, lacking a complex verbal conjugation that would render subject pronouns redundant, is very “subject pronoun retaining”. But the fact remains that until learners start dropping their pronouns when necessary (i.e. most of the time), they sound very, very foreign. Typically, subject pronouns are only mentioned for emphasis, or for contrast, or to clear up a possible ambiguity; all things that in English are expressed mostly just by intonation.

Moving on to meatier stuff, Spanish expresses those three sentences in a very different way, while in English their syntax is identical. The first one is the most similar to English – subject (though often dropped if in pronoun form), verb, sometimes object. The second one, however, has a compulsory pronoun before the verb (in addition to the optional subject pronoun). English does not have what we call in Spanish grammar “reflexive” or “pronominal” verbs (verbos reflexivos/pronominales). Whenever a Spanish-speaking learner of English complains about phrasal verbs and about how “hard” they are, I tell them about how English speaking learners of Spanish agonize over pronominal verbs. It doesn’t stop the complaining, but it provides a certain amount of perspective. Pronominal verbs are conjugated exactly like their non pronominal counterparts, except a compulsory reflexive pronoun must go along with them, usually before them, but sometimes after. But wait, there’s more! Some doublets of a pronominal and non pronominal version of what on the surface looks like the same verb have radically different meanings, like in the case of ir, meaning go, and irse, meaning leave. Throw in the fact that in English sometimes go can be used meaning leave (as in I have to go), and you end up with a deep well of possible learner mistakes.

And what about (A mi) me gusta la fruta? It looks nothing like English I like fruit. Apart from the compulsory definite article, the syntax is just remarkably different. The verb matches the thing liked, not the person doing the liking; there is a compulsory indirect object pronoun (which do not match the reflexive pronouns in the case of the third person) matching the person doing the liking; and in the emphatic version, you have to say a mi, a el, a ella, etc, instead of yo, el, ella

These patterns repeat themselves over and over in the course of learning, using, and encountering Spanish. There are oodles of reflexive verbs, and verbs not usually reflexive can be “reflexivized” to express some kind of nuance of expression; likewise, there are many more verbs that behave like me gusta, like me encanta, me interesa, me aburre, me duerme, me fascina, me afecta, and many more. Reflexive verbs and verbs like me gusta are likewise used in all the verbal tenses that “normal” verbs can be conjugated in. The same goes, of course, for the three English patterns described above; they remain different from each other in every tense.

So the moral of the story is: if you want to learn the language, there is no escape from this. You will either be assimilated, or keep on speaking like a foreigner forever. Relax, accept the fact that Spanish (or English) is just different, and try to assimilate the different patterns by extensive reading, listening, writing and speaking. In time, these patterns will become second nature, and you will learn to even enjoy their quirky and expressive nature. You will start getting compliments about “how well you speak the language”. And eventually, you will just blend in, and people will not even compliment you, because they are too busy paying attention to whatever interesting thing you happen to be telling them. They will not pay attention to how you are saying things but to what you are saying.

If that is your goal, the road starts here. Get crackin’ and keep on truckin’.


One thought on “Three basic patterns

  1. acabo de descubrir tu blog, muy bueno!
    El español es mi lengua materna (variedad rioplatense como la tuya) pero vivo en un país en el que se habla inglés (variante Australiana). Y me encantan estos temas.
    Mis hijos estásn aprendiendo español (en casa) e inglés (en la escuela) al mismo tiempo. Mi hijo menor (5) especialmente comete todo tipo de errores en ambos idiomas.
    (A mí) me gusta la fruta: mi hijo dice: “Yo me gusta la fruta”. Por lo que veo tiene la mayor parte del tema resuelto, ya que no dice ni: “yo me gusto la fruta” ni “yo gusta la fruta” y tantas otras posibles variantes.



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