Monday, December 31, 2012

Speaking in tongues

If you are still working on your Spanish I'm willing to bet that you get the gender of words wrong from time to time and that you have trouble deciding when to use which of the two “to be” verbs. Probably verb tenses occasionally cause you problems too. Then there are those words that sound properly Spanish when you say them this way and properly Spanish when you say them the other way – farmacia being an example. It's a tricky language at times.

It's the same for Spanish speakers learning English. I teach some English and there are mistakes that turn up time and time again. From now on it's us and them.

Generally English verbs are easy. Mix the four parts of the verb - walk/walking/walked/walked or take/taking/took/taken - with a few other words like to have, to be and to do and you can produce nearly every tense, question and statement in English. The trouble is that there's the pesky s in the present tense when it's he, she or it. Even the most advanced speaker forget that s from time to time.

We groan at the Spanish subjunctive. They groan at phrasal verbs – how can the verb take off apply to aeroplanes, clothes, success and imitating your boss?

They groan at prepositions, in, on, at, by, from etc. and so do we. The only way is to learn them as you go but most of my students stubbornly insist that they've been in the beach all weekend.

This is where I feel sorry for them. Pronunciation. First there are the letter sounds. The Irish and Scots use a gargling sound for lough/loch but, so far as I know, we English don't have anything similar. Spaniards have plenty. When they laugh they go – ¡je, je, je! – the sound is like bringing up phlegm. It's the same with Y which they give a dje sound. The English h is another hard sound for Spaniards. S at the beginning of a word is usually mispronounced as ess but most of them can correct that. It's not the same with w, particularly in the word would/wood which seems to be nearly impossible for the majority  – it comes out like gwud.

Next come the vowel sound combinations which are nearly indistinguishable to Spanish ears. Ship and sheep, hungry and angry, bear and beer, soap and soup, cold and called. I have a lot of fun with bare bears going into bars to ask for beers.

My personal favourites though are the words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently. Take red and read or reed and read. Yesterday I read that the Reds were going on a canal cruise but now I read that their boat got stuck in the reeds. Or live: I live in Culebrón and Bruce Springsteen is Live in Madrid. I wind my watch yet I get blown down by wind.

There's a variation on this theme. Take two letters, one of them o. Go, it rhymes with so (sew/sow – the verb not the female pig) but it doesn't rhyme with do – that would be goo - or to – that would be toe (or tow the verb but not the cloth). Good grief, just two (too) letters.

There, their – never mind.

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