Teacher, teach thyself

When an English speaker starts to learn Spanish, the hard sounds are the r as in perro and arroz, the j as in jamón and ejemplo, and the g as in Sergio and Gijón. The sounds are a bit guttural, though not as hard as say the ich in High German. A bit of practice (eaten with hamón in Hihón por ehemplo) helps. When you finally get anywhere near native, it’s like a gold star from your teacher. Diez puntos as they say in Spain.HelloThankyouFor the Spanish learning English, the trouble spots are in reverse: the hard j and g as in John and Gibraltar. The s and sh sounds also get mixed up, where a kid’s tongue twister is great practice: “she sells sea shells by the sea shore.” For those of us learning Spanish, try these trabalenguas (tongue twisters): “tres tristes tigres” (three sad tigers) and “el perro de San Roque no tiene rabo” (St. Roque’s dog hasn’t got a tail). Say them fast for full effect.

To be sure, there are language rules, but they seem as much fun as a cavity filling. Knowing the three verb types in Spanish, though, is essential, as in habl-ar, com-er, and viv-ir with the regular –ar, –er, and –ir groupings, from which the first-, second-, and third-person singular and plural follows by stripping off the ending and adding o/as/a/amos/áis/an, o/es/e/emos/éis/en, or o/es/e/imos/ís/en. Fortunately, Spanish is not as inflected as German or Latin—no different verb endings for each of the six cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, and ablative).*

English is notorious for being full of irregular verbs but again thankfully isn’t as inflected as German or Latin. There is a rule to help Spanish speakers with their English past participles though, which can have only the three sounded endings /t, /d, or /id as in baked, joined, or ended. The /t and /d endings are hard to distinguish even for native English speakers (Does baked end with a /t sound or a /d sound?). But all the /id-sounded endings are from verbs that end with either a letter d or t as in bended or slanted. Easy peasy.**

Of course, the mind doesn’t work through each rule when learning a new language, for example, which of the two main English past tenses to use (or three in Spanish and French). I ate (simple past) or I have eaten (present perfect) come naturally in time.*** There’s just no beating practice, practice, practice. And most will get the meaning if you speak earnestly, apologize, and smile profusely.

In the end, it doesn’t matter a jota whether John F. Kennedy said “I am a jelly donut” in his famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate on June 26, 1961 in support of Berliners everywhere. (Some think Ich bin Berliner is correct and Ich bin ein Berliner is not, since the article is not needed and ein Berliner is a jelly donut.****)

“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum [“I am a Roman citizen”]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!”… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

Nor does it matter a jot if I keep messing up my verb endings for a while. I’m hoping I have a few more months before anyone figures out I’m not passing through.

* Mark Twain: “I would rather decline two German beers than one German noun. For an interesting discussion on some thorny German grammar, see The Awful German Language, or, “Deutsche Sprache, Schwere Sprache” in My Year Abroad, January 15, 2008.
** For a pronunciation list of regular English past tense verbs, check out AzarGrammar (Teachers Helping Teachers). Here’s a nice ProProfs quiz as well.
*** In Spanish: the pretérito imperfecto [yo comía] is the simple past [I ate] and the pretérito perfecto [yo he comido] is the present perfect [I have eaten]. In French: l’imparfait [je mangeais] is the simple past [I ate] and the passé composé [j’ai mangé] is the present perfect [I have eaten]. The pretérito indefinido has no English equivalent. I don’t know if that helps, but it’s nice to know that in Asturias, most people use the simple past.
**** For an interesting article, see John F. Kennedy’s Statement “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” was Not Interpreted as “I am a Jelly-Filled Doughnut” Daven Hiskey, Today I Found Out, April 25, 2012. Note that Kennedy used the popular Low-German dialect for I, that is, Ish (as spoken in the nothern “low” lands) rather than the Berliner dialect Ick or the standard High-German Ich (as spoken in the Alps or “high” lands).

About johnkwhi

I have worked as a writer, computational analyst, project manager, physicist, and lecturer during a 30-year career. I recently published the general trade book Do The Math! On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2012), aimed at improving general numeracy, and The House of Words (Tuttle House, 2013), a literary thriller starring New York Scrabble champ Suzy Q. I recently moved to Spain and started this Caracolas blog to record some of my experiences.
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