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.

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James Craik: loans, voseo and K-dropping

There is a town in Argentina called James Craik. The locals pronounce it as if it were a Spanish word written Jamescrái or Jamescray, that is, xamexˈkɾai̯. This is the reason for the joke some people tell about the place:

-Vengo de Jamescrái.
-¡Que bien que lo pronunciái!

Several things come to my mind when I think about this joke. The first one is how people adopt loanwords. In this case it’s a place name derived from a person’s name, but in this regard it’s not different from any other loan. When people adopt a loan from hearing it, they adapt their pronunciation based on what they hear, producing the closest thing they can manage based on what they heard and on what they can pronounce; both factors strongly related to the sound system of their own language, especially if they have no knowledge of the other language. On the other hand, when people adopt a loan from reading it, their pronunciation can go in two different directions. If they are familiar with the spelling-to-reading rules, their approximation will come closer to that of a “heard” loan. If they are only partly familiar, the pronunciation will be somewhere in the middle (cases in point: the American pronunciation of the LL in Cabrillo and Amarillo as English /l/, and the Argentinian pronunciation of cd-rom as cd-room (siðiˈrum)). If they are totally unfamiliar, they will apply the spelling-to-reading rules of their native language whole cloth, as in the case of Jamescrái.

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Common mistakes of Spanish-speaking English learners

AKA Annals of English learners: the blog post

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, most of my employment consisted of teaching English to Spanish speakers in corporate environments in Buenos Aires. I did my best to teach them English, considering the circumstances, but they also taught me a lot of Spanglish. Those mistakes, common in Spanish speaking learners, were the subject of a video series on my youtube channel that I called Annals of English learners. This is a bit of a companion piece to it. This post is mostly intended for teachers, but maybe learners can benefit from it too.

1- Wait me; explain me

Saying wait me or explain me instead of wait for me and explain (it) to me. The reason is Spanish, of course: in Spanish esperar can take a person as its object without the need for a preposition, so that esperame = wait for me; the same is true of explicar: explicame = explain (it) to me. An historical aside: the use explain with me, which reminds me of the still current visit with me, used to be acceptable in English.

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