Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Language Acquisition: Spanish Edition

Some good friends of ours are hosting a 12-year-old orphan from Columbia for the summer, so we here in the Darwin clan have all been doing our parts at trying to pick up a little Spanish. I have no good explanation as to why I never picked up much of any Spanish before. Growing up in Los Angeles, with one of my parents of Mexican ancestry, I somehow managed to pick up less Spanish than MrsDarwin did growing up in Cincinnati. I think that because Spanish was so omnipresent in Southern California, learning it never seemed like the sort of exclusive knowledge that fascinated me. Being able to say "I speak Spanish" didn't so much say "intellectual" as "works in construction".

Learning a spoken, modern language which is so directly related to Latin, has been interesting. Reading through a grammar text (more familiar to my Wheelock-formed Latin background) while listening to Pimsleur conversational language records is an interesting contrast, and leaves we wondering what the differences are between how grammar is presented to natives in elementary and high school grammar versus in a formal language acquisition course for outsiders.

I'm curious if any of our readers know: Would one sit down and study the forms of first, second and third conjugation verbs as a native Spanish speaker? Are the conjugations even formally named except by non-native speakers? Or is it more common to simply talk about -ar, -er and -ir verbs and then irregular verbs?

I am rather charmed by having two version of the verb of being, one for permanent conditions and one for characteristics which are had at the moment. It seems like all sorts of fun could be had with those distinctions. For instance, while some might say, "El coche está sucio," in my case it would be more accurate to say that, "Mi coche es sucio," as my vehicle has become permanently scruffy.

Though perhaps what seems to the beginner to be cleverness would just come across as grammatical incompetence.


Big Tex said...

I did take Spanish for practical/pragmatic reasons. In Texas, we had a large Hispanic population, much like LA. What I recall from my days in Spanish class... we learned the infinitive (-ar, -er, & -ir) verbs as the present tense conjugations. Later on, we learned the past and future tenses (which I am still quite fuzzy).

Additionally, having several Mexican classmates in grade school, it was a priority of ours to learn how to curse in Spanish. Sadly, I still remember quite a bit of that.

Enbrethiliel said...


I have many relatives and friends who speak fluent Spanish, having grown up with the language. Whenever I asked any of them for informal lessons, they almost always said, "I don't know anything about grammar," followed by, "Spanish is so easy. You can be fluent in two weeks, if you really apply yourself!"

I think the former is a reaction to the way Spanish is taught as a foreign language (i.e. with "unnatural" conjugation drills) and the latter is jut their own modesty speaking.

Needless to say, my Spanish is nearly non-existent.

Sally said...

I did take cinco anos de la clase de espanol en la escuela...well, that right there is about the extant of my fluency these days.

"ar, -er and -ir verbs and then irregular verbs?" That is how I remember them being presented. The mnemonic we used to remember the conjugations were that some were "shoe" verbs although I don't recall what that meant. I was very confused by all the cases (subjunctive, future perfect, etc) because I went to grammar school in the 1970s and thus learned absolutely no grammar at all. I didn't even realize English had grammar until I took Spanish.

And most of what I remember of Spanish were the swear words I learned from my Hispanic friends. I can say some very bad things in Spanish.

1990bluejay said...

Well you raise a host of issues, Darwin. Much like we get in our grammar, the tenses are made distinct but Spanish actually uses more of the compound tenses as well as the subjunctive. The subjunctive is what kills students. ;)

As for speaking Spanish for "having grown up with" it is an issue. Having taught Spanish for years at the university level, I had lots of students who were fluent speakers but were no further along in reading or writing than the general student population - often they were worse. I considered these speakers at near fluency "heritage speakers" - having the ability to speak in Spanish but not having learned the written grammar. Many were from the border areas, not surprisingly. In other cases I had fluent students who had lived in a Spanish speaking country and their grammar was dead on since they received formal grammar.

The "shoe" verbs have an vowel change to maintain proper stress and the roster of verbs ought to look familiar since some of these same verbs were odd / irregular in Latin. In other cases the orthographic verbs, better known as "stem change", are trickier. Essentially an orthographic change is utilized to maintain the phonetic pronunciation. For instance, "c" before a,o, & u has a [k] sound, while "c" before e & i has a [θ]. Buscar "to look" has a "stem change" in which the c [k] becomes "qu" before e or é. Why? The "qu" will maintain the same sound as the "c" [k]; if the written change didn't occur the "c" before "e" would not produce a [k] sound, rather the Castillian zeta or an Andalusian / Latin American "s".

More later...

El Danimal said...

I can't speak to your question, but I have a piece of advice. Consider going to a Spanish mass (if there's one in your area) from time to time -- it'll give you some practice, some cultural context for the language, and you'll meet some new, interesting people.

1990bluejay said...

To clarify - many of the verbs that are called irregular because of the orthographic/spelling change are in in fact perfectly regular in terms of phonetics. Texts books do an awful job in this regard and I found that it helped many pet past their intimidation with these super common verbs.

TS said...

I'm not fluent in Spanish, but I can say 'burrito' with a Spanish accent when ordering at McDonald's.

comingoutcatholic said...

Well, to directly address your question, yes, a native speaker being instructed in reading and writing would study verb forms much the same way non-native speakers do. It's like grammar instruction for any native speaker of a language, some take it more seriously than others. Do you know what subjunctive tense is in English? If you do, it's likely you were instructed in it. If not, it doesn't mean you can't read or write. It's just part of the inherent differences in learning a language as a child vs. learning as an adult--as a child you learn more "intuitively" and retain knowledge of grammatical structure even if you are unable to label the structures or even describe the mechanisms of conjugation. You still know what the sentence means, and you still are able to create novel sentences, you just aren't able to explain by what linguistic mechanisms you did it.

Adults have it a lot harder, however, with few exceptions. You lose your ability to intuitively adapt to a language as an adult for reasons linguists and neurologists alike don't fully understand. That means you must overtly learn the grammatical structures, usually prior to being able to create novel sentences (as opposed to repeating memorized sentences). There's some debate over how this works in the adult mind, and so teaching methods vary, but essentially, you are being taught from day 1 grammatical structures overtly, whereas a native speaker does not usually encounter grammar instruction until years after he's acquired the spoken language. Assuming infant acquisition of language, age five is the earliest most children begin to be formally introduced to a language, which the more difficult aspects of grammar not being introduced until age 10 or later.

I think that was probably way more information than you asked for, and you probably know most of that already, but I couldn't help it. :) I just love language acquisition.


J.C. said...

ColOmbia, not Columbia! :) I've got Colombian "ancestry." All these posts will serve to encourage me to speak to my children in Spanish and Portuguese for fluency and plug away at Latin for grammar... Sorry to be of no help!