Sobre el español paraguayo

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Mientras hago el curso de guaraní de Duolingo, estoy participando en el foro, y entre otras cosas, escribí dos posts sobre el castellano en Paraguay. Como el tema tiene mucho que ver con este blog, voy a compartir el contenido de esos posts con ustedes a continuación.

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Segundas impresiones del guaraní paraguayo

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La última vez que escribí sobre el curso de Duolingo de guaraní paraguayo tenía hechas 10 unidades (la primera sección del curso). Ahora ya tengo completadas las primeras tres secciones y ando por la cuarta, que es la mas larga. Las notas explicativas siguen brillando por su ausencia, por lo cual se me ocurrió escribir una segunda parte de mis impresiones. (También es porque el idioma es realmente fascinante y me hace pensar mucho.) En este post va a haber un poco de todo, como en el otro, pero va a haber un poco mas de morfología que la otra vez. Específicamente, voy a hablar mas sobre los verbos.

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Primeras impresiones del guaraní paraguayo

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Duolingo acaba de abrir al público el curso de guaraní paraguayo para hablantes de español en versión beta. Es la primera vez que pruebo una versión beta, y es claro que al curso todavía le hacen falta bastantes mejoras. Sin embargo, es claro que me ha picado el bichito, y ya tengo hechas las primeras 10 unidades. Siendo que hace rato que no escribo algo nuevo, y que el curso prácticamente no tiene notas explicativas, voy a contarles un poco mis impresiones sobre el curso y sobre lo poco que se sobre la estructura del guaraní.

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Spanish R for non natives

AKA Spanish Rs for non natives

This post is for learners, and is targeted to native English speakers. But hopefully it can also be of use to teachers hoping to explain this to their students, and to speakers of other languages as well.

I’m sure this is gonna ring a bell. You’re learning Spanish. Everybody told you it would be a breeze, what with the cognates (thank William the Conqueror for that), the similar word order (…sort of) and the general openness of the Spanish speaking peoples. Then you met Spanish pronunciation. Maybe the JA-JO-JU-JE/GE-JI/GI thing was a little hard – until you realized that you could do an English H sound and everybody understood, and that’s how Caribbean native speakers (among others) pronounce it anyway. You carried on, and then, oh dear, your Spanish speaking friend told you you had to learn to pronounce your Rs more like they did it, or else it’d be like carrying around a banner with the words SOY EXTRANJERO Y HABLO INGLÉS on it.

So you got it into your head you had to learn to “roll your Rs”, whatever that meant. You watched a bunch of Youtube videos, you asked said friend to help you, you bought a copy of Zen and the Art of Rolling your Damn Rs. People told you to “relax your tongue” (not a bad piece of advice, actually), to “say drdrdr a lot really fast”, and other such arcane formulas. Finally, thanks to, or in spite of, those recommendations, you learned how to do the long rolling motorcycle-like sound otherwise technically known as an alveolar trill.

So there you go! You know how to pronounce a Spanish R! Or do you? You’re still having trouble getting people to know whether you just said “dog” (perro) or “but” (pero), and it’s so confusing maybe you don’t even know for sure which spelling corresponds to which. You don’t know how long your “roll” ought to go on for on any given word. And your friend is still telling you something isn’t working.

This is where you need to stop, take a breather, and actually analyze the situation. Here’s the rub: there are actually two different R sounds in Spanish. Here’s the good news: one of them is going to be relatively easy for you to pronounce right off the bat, especially if you speak American, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand English.

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Vowel reduction in Spanish

Spanish does not have the kind of vowel reduction that many Germanic languages (like English) have, but it does have vowel reduction. The difference is that English has the kind of vowel reduction that neutralizes differences between vowel phonemes, and Spanish has a kind of vowel reduction that still maintains the differences of the five vowel phonemes found in most accents of Spanish.

In other words, the stressed allophones of /a o u e i/ are distinct from each other, and so are their unstressed allophones.

To go into a bit more detail, the fact is the pronunciation of vowels in any language is influenced to some degree by the other sounds adjacent to it (as well as other paralinguistic factors affecting the vocal organs – smiling, for instance, tends to spread the lips). Because of this, when discussing a vowel phoneme, we have to consider the different allophones; we can also think of a vowel as occupying a “vowel space” containing its different allophones. In a language like English, with more vowels and a higher degree of neutralization of vowels in certain environments, the vowel spaces will be smaller and have more overlap. In Spanish, the vowel spaces are bigger, and do not overlap. In other words, in Spanish, vowels allow for more allophonic variation, and are less likely to be misheard as other vowels by native speakers.

First off, some facts about stress in Spanish. In Spanish, stress is mainly indicated by three factors: tone, volume and vowel length. Syllables carrying stress have a higher volume and a higher tone, and vowels in stressed syllables are longer. However, Spanish being a syllable-timed language, the difference in length between a stressed and an unstressed vowel is not quite so pronounced as in English.

Let’s talk about the stressed and unstressed allophones (the Spanish vowel space) in more detail.

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Teaching Spanish pronunciation: pronouncing D

Ask a native English speaker from America to pronounce todas las noches and they will likely say

tʰoɾaz laz notʃes

While a native speaker from Lima, Peru, would instead say

toðaz laz notʃes

And I, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, would say

toðah lah notʃes.

Assuming the speaker gets all the vowel sounds right or close enough, and leaving aside the aspiration on the t, what sticks out like a sore thumb is the pronunciation of the D as ɾ (that is, like a Spanish ere, i.e. an R, specifically the R in hora) instead of as ð (that is, like a Spanish intervocalic de, i.e. a D).

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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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