I've had a lovely week switching between Spanish and English classes. I've just started back at the Academia, where I do a few hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and have also this week taken on some adult Spanish learners - by which I mean, of course, adult Spaniards who want to learn English and not 'adults who want to learn Spanish'.
In English, I think the hardest thing is to teach pronunciation as there are so many different ways to pronounce certain letters - think of English vowels and how there are always two ways to say each one, then add the various combinations that give the diphthongs, then add the 'magic e' to the end of words like mad, war, sit, rod... and so on. Compared to the five basic vowel sounds in Spanish, English has either an rich abundance or a minefield of different sounds. And that's just the start.
And if you can successfully get the pronunciation right, how on earth can one explain English spelling and how words that look different but sound the same or worse, look the same but sound different? (For example, homophones such as 'mail' and 'male' or homonyms such as 'wound' (oo) and 'wound' (ow))
This week, in one class of beginners (children), we were doing parts of the body. Most of them could remember 'ear' so I thought it would help memories to link the word 'hear' with 'ear'. Firstly we had to practice making the sound for 'h' as it is silent in Spanish. (It's spelt 'hache', pronounced 'atchay', so to spell it out, you have to say 'hache con (with) hache' otherwise how can anyone know that there is an 'h' at the beginning of the word?) The linking seemed like a good idea for my beginners but in the next class, one up from beginners, we were reading 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' - and, oh dear (like 'ear'), everyone pronounced 'bear' to rhyme with 'ear' (so 'beer'!) ...so then we had to go through words that looked like 'ear' but sounded like 'air' (not like 'are' though, unless the word started with a consonant, such as 'bare' or 'care' or 'share') - and of course, it is always possible that you'll confuse them (and yourself) by trying to find a logical reason why bear is NOT pronounced like ear.
Local accents can play a part too. The last English person to teach the children at the Academia was from Liverpool, but to be honest, there's no detectable Scouse twang in the sounds they make - I'm a bit disappointed about that, it would have been rather nice - but the vowels sounds are definitely northern, like my own, so no 'barths' or 'parths' in this part of Spain. However, the local Spanish people tend to miss the final 's' off their own words, so numbers such as 'dos' and 'tres' (2 and 3), come out as 'doh' and treh' and no one ever says 'buenos dias' - no, just 'bueno' - nada mas. The 's' can disappear from mid-word too - 'hasta luego' becomes ' a'ta luego' (silent 'h', don't forget) and so on. It's highly contagious and I find myself dropping 's's all over the place when I speak. Hard final consonants such as 'd', 'g' and 't' are alien to the Spanish - so imagine trying to pronounce 'dogs' - some of the best attempts still sound rather like 'doh..' or 'dohs' if they remember the 's'.I think I already mentioned the pleasure I get in asking the children to say 'crisps' and 'wasps' - and the tongue-twister, "She sells seashells on the seashore!"
In my Spanish conversation classes, a common complaint is that the locals don't seem to understand even the simplest of sentences when it's spoken by an English person. A carefully prepared and delivered sentence can be met with a '¿qué?' - and to be fair, the words might have been Spanish on paper but uttered aloud, using English pronunciation and stresses, the words do not sound Spanish enough for them to be recognised by other than the most sympathetic and understanding of ears. Embarrassment is sometimes a restricting factor. People simply feel silly trying to roll their 'rrs' or making the necessary lisping and throat-clearing sounds that are part of the Spanish alphabet.
And speaking of embarrassment - there are lots of words that are the same or almost the same in both languages - those that share a common, latin root, for example. Knowing some of these is really helpful to learners but even more important ones to learn are those that look the same or seem the same - but are not at all the same. Take 'embarrassed' - the Spanish word that fools the English is 'embarazada' - and most people feel confident that this would be a fairly safe guess. Potentially embarrassing for a woman to make the mistake but downright bizarre if the man does - it means 'pregnant' in Spanish. Though I like the idea that there might be a connection somewhere...
Very difficult for the English learner is the 'gender issue' - nothing to do with feminism - but the need to understand that all nouns are either masculine or feminine and that any adjective used to describe it must also take the masculine or feminine form as appropriate. And you'll just have to believe me that there are lots of words that mean something very different it you get the gender wrong - not just male or female things. One of my class confessed that for some number of weeks, she had visited her local butcher to buy a chicken, always asking for a large one because the small ones were very small - and wondered why the butcher and other customers always smirked and muttered when she spoke - until one day she was taken aside by a little old lady who explained her dreadful error. She had mixed up the gender of the chicken - which is masculine and therefore 'un pollo', with the feminine (???) version, which is a slang reference to the male member. She now buys her chickens prepacked at the supermarket.
A really difficult one that I understand in principle, but which I often get wrong in practice is the Spanish equivalent of the verb 'to be' - there are two, which is the problem - SER and ESTAR. Basically, the former is used to describe a permanent state whilst the latter is usually for a temporary state - though it's not quite that simple- it never is. Both are irregular verbs and both need to be learned as they are commonly used. And it does seem, in both languages and possibly in languages the world over, the more common a verb, the more it veers away from the regular. The English verb 'to be' has eight forms (am, are, is, was, were, being, been and be), compared to the usual four of most regular verbs (- 'to talk', for example, has only talk, talks, talking and talked.)
It's one thing to get SER and ESTAR mixed up but getting the language a little bit wrong can also lead to the utterances of a strange sort. You may have heard of the man who mistook his wife for a hat* but I once got confused with a church. Yes, the title of this piece is one of my own mistakes, made many years ago. I wanted to tell someone I was an Englishwoman - and knew enough to use 'soy' - from the verb SER - as my being English and a woman were both permanent enough to qualify for that verb - but I did confuse 'inglesa' (English woman) for 'iglesia' (Church). And in my few months of experience in teaching Spanish to English women, I've met several more churches. Are there any more out there, I wonder?
* 'The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat' - a book by Oliver Sachs, the neurologist who wrote about the case histories of some of his patients - fascinating stuff.