Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Reflections on learning about Spanish linguistics

So I recently finished reading "El español a través de la lingüística: Preguntas y respuestas" ("Spanish Linguistics: Questions & Answers"), edited by Jennifer D. Ewald and Anne Edstrom. You might guess from the Gringo names that this book is written by Gringos for Gringos. If so, you'd be mostly right - this book is written largely by American scholars of Spanish, for American students of Spanish linguistics, at American universities.

This book actually has about 30 different authors, only about one-third of whom have anything resembling a Spanish name - for either their first or last names. These chapters are written almost entirely in Spanish, and are thus geared towards students of Spanish beyond the beginning levels, who are already familiar with the basics of Spanish grammar. Nonetheless, these essays are, by and large, written by Gringos for Gringos - explaining difficult Spanish words with the equivalent English words in parentheses, and answering the kinds of questions that are most likely to come from Gringos learning Spanish as a second language - rather than from native speakers of Spanish, for whom the grammatical features discussed are familiar and taken for granted, and not something that would be looked upon as strange (as might be the case for an English speaker). Why, then, did I place such value on learning it? Put differently, if the Spanish of native speakers is the most instructive for second-language learners (and it usually is), then why would I read something written largely by people who aren't that way at all?

Partly because the content of the essays gives fascinating insights into the Spanish language - and often, language in general. These essays are supported by research from linguists in many fields (not just the particular linguistics of Spanish), and so provide the insights gained from scientific research into many of these topics. From accents & pronunciations, to differences between regions, to the psychology of how our brains process language; they discuss many aspects of the field we call "linguistics," and provide this discussion in Spanish to boot. This allows one to get (at least some) practice with the language while reading about the different topics, and absorbing the content of linguistic science along with the needed practice of the language itself (even when it is written by Gringos, which it often is).

The book, in short, is fascinating; and answers a number of questions that many an English speaker has wondered while learning Spanish - such as why Spanish nouns always have gender, or why Spanish has both an imperfect and a preterite tense (rather than just one past tense), or why there are "so many irregular verbs" (which there really aren't, as things go - but that's a subject for another post). The questions might seem basic - and perhaps even somewhat strange, to someone who grew up with the language, and thus takes it for granted that "it's that way" - but the answers are more in-depth than one might suppose, and sometimes even provide historical context that is new even for many native speakers (like in explaining how the difference between ser and estar came to be). These questions might seem basic, in short, but with the book being written almost entirely in Spanish, it assumes a familiarity with the Spanish language that would not be found in the newest of the beginning students, and is thus geared towards students who have already mastered the features being discussed here. If it were targeted towards true beginners, one might note here, it would have explained these things in English instead.

I am a student of linguistics as well as Spanish, and so found much interest in the many topics discussed here. Rather than go on about this, I thought I might provide an English translation of the titles of all 24 essays, to give you an idea of what this book is about.

Table of contents (translation mine)

  1. They tell me I have to take a linguistics class. That's about grammar and conversation, isn't it?
  2. Spanish speakers talk as if they were in a hurry. Why does Spanish sound so much faster than English?
  3. How is it that un vestido (a dress) is masculine, and una corbata (a tie) is feminine?
  4. Why are there two ways of talking about the past in Spanish? It's not that way in English. This business about the imperfect and the preterite is confusing.
  5. I think I understand the use of , usted, ustedes, and vosotros. But what do I do with vos?
  6. On a beach in Acapulco, I asked some Mexicans: "¿me decís dónde puedo comprar un zumo?" (Can you tell me where I can buy juice?) Why did they laugh?
  7. They told me that Spanish is easier to learn than other languages, but now that I'm studying ser and estar, it seems harder. Where does the idea come from, that one language is easier than another?
  8. They tell me I sound strange when I say yo all the time. Why isn't it necessary to use the pronoun?
  9. When I study abroad, I'll be going to live with a Hispanic family. What do I need to know about courtesy?
  10. Spanish speakers interrupt me a lot. Don't they know it's disrespectful?
  11. Why do they use phrases like "hacer clic" and "el parking" in Spanish?
  12. When I speak to a Spanish speaker in Spanish in the United States, they often answer me in English. Why?
  13. I know that English influences Spanish and vice versa. What happens in regions where Spanish is in contact with other languages?
  14. It's difficult to understand the Spanish of my Caribbean friends. Why would this be?
  15. Durmió, puedo, era, sepa: Why are there so many irregular verbs?
  16. How is it possible that an Italian understands almost everything when I talk to them in Spanish?
  17. I wish I'd learned Spanish when I was a kid. Is it too late now?
  18. I understand when people talk to me in Spanish, but it's very hard for me to respond. Why?
  19. Do I need to study abroad to learn another language well?
  20. I usually write first in English, and then translate into Spanish; but even though I translate word for word, my professor finds many errors in my writings. Why?
  21. Why do they offer a Spanish class for Spanish speakers?
  22. I think my Spanish professor should correct all the mistakes I make when I speak. It's their responsibility, isn't it?
  23. Tango, history, tomatina ... What does the culture have to do with learning Spanish?
  24. I don't like talking with my classmates, because they make as many mistakes as I do. Why do we have to work in groups?

I would recommend this book to any wanting to learn about these kinds of topics, and would say that it's user-friendly despite its scholarly nature. It does not lack for scientific rigor or validity, but it is still accessible and readable despite this, and would give much insight into language generally.

If you're an intermediate Spanish learner, you might benefit from picking this up, and finding out the answers to some of these seemingly impertinent questions you might have. It might even help you to scratch the itch in your brain.

Book on Amazon

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