Category Archives: Foreign Language Learning

On learning Spanish for specific or special purpose


Last month I wrote a post here, about the nature of Spanish for travel courses. A Spanish course for specific or special purpose doesn’t have the same characteristics as a typical Spanish for travel course as presented on the post in reference. On the other hand, a lengthy Spanish for travel course can certainly be classified within a specific or special purpose category.

A Spanish course for specific or special purpose usually requires a complete learning of all the language features necessary to achieve language competence in a given field. A medical doctor or an electronics engineer, for example, has specific language needs which must be fulfilled by a course designed to satisfy their particular needs.

No course of this nature is exactly the same even if they are intended for an identical field. A biologist may need specific language structures that may differ with a course designed for an enologist (wine industry scientist).

Spanish courses for specific or special courses require that the student learn all the general aspects of Spanish before engaging in the acquisition of the specialized features needed to become an effective user of Spanish in both written and spoken language.

As stated above, to be really effective, a Spanish course for specific or special purpose involves that a student must fully learn all aspects of the language. This implies that the learning process can be time consuming and that the student must be prepared to do a good amount of homework, apart of engaging in a constant tuition arrangement with an experienced Spanish language professional.

Letter ‘ñ’, the ‘ü’ and vowels carrying graphic accents in Spanish domain names

Letter ‘ñ’ is an integral part of the Spanish language. I wasn’t aware until last week that this letter and many other characters used by Castilian Spanish and other languages from Spain, were still not allowed to register in Spanish domain names.

But reading El Mundo last week, I’ve found that all of that has been changed since June this year. And it’s not only letter ‘ñ’ that can be registered; the list includes vowels carrying the graphic accents and the u with dieresis (‘ü’). Apart from letter ‘ñ’ the list of incorporated new characters affecting Castilian Spanish is: ‘á’, ‘é’, ‘í’, ‘ó’, ‘ú’ and ‘ü’.

Spanish is a language that requires all the special characters listed above in its standard written forms. Thus ‘ñ’, ‘ü’ and the graphically accented vowels as essential parts of the language were sorely needed for registering correctly Spanish domain names requiring such characters.

According to El Mundo, RAE – the Spanish initials for the Royal Spanish Language Academy – is celebrating this milestone as a great cultural achievement for the Spanish language.

This change will surely contribute to promote a proper usage of standard written Spanish on the web as well as making it easier to search for Spanish terms using correct spelling that also includes proper graphic accents.

Where did the Spanish ‘v’ go? Do you pronounce it like a b, a v or…?

Some of the phonological (sound) patterns of Spanish can seem at first sight an insurmountable challenge for a student learning this language. For lots people who are just starting to learn Spanish, and who are native English speakers, it’s a bit of a shock to find out about the inherent differences that exist between the sounds patterns they know compared to some of the sounds used in the Spanish language. Some of these contrasting sound patterns include the pronunciation in Spanish of the letters b and v.

As a native Spanish speaker I was never fully aware of the nature of these sounds until I started teaching the language and students began to question mi pronunciation of these two letters during their Spanish lessons.

Spanish stopped using a clear differentiation between b and v a long time ago. However it still has two ‘b’ type sounds, but none of them is pronounced as the English v. It can be very helpful to have in mind from the outset, that there is only one of these two sounds which is actually shared in both languages. This sound is the one represented by the letter b as used in English. The letter v as used in a Spanish word does not sound as the English v !

Using the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols, the Spanish letters b (‘be’) and v (‘uve’) are both represented by either /b/ or /B/. Therefore you must notice that the letters b or v can sound either /b/ or /B/ depending on where they are found in a word. As a result of this, neither of the two letters can exclusively be represented by only one of these two phonetic symbols.

The letters b or v, are pronounced /b/ in words with structures as those found in vino, beso or banco. But when these two letters are found in words such as oveja, cabra or abeja, their pronunciation uses /B/. This sound doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English, so the student very often requires expert help from a language professional in order to achieve acceptable pronunciation ability.

In general terms, achieving the right pronunciation of /B/ is not a very hard task to accomplish. In most cases native English speakers learning Spanish can acquire an acceptable pronunciation of the /B/ sound quite quickly during the initial stages of their learning process or later by direct imitation of native Spanish speakers.

Are Spanish for travel courses really effective?

The label ‘Spanish for Travel Course’ can mean many things depending on the content and length of such course. It’s not the same, for example, a short course of five or even ten lessons than a year long course of forty lessons.

In my own experience as Spanish language tutor, I’ve found that lots of people wanting to learn Spanish for travelling purposes tend to assume that a short course – even one of five lessons – will equip them with the necessary skills to get by when travelling to a Spanish speaking country. That assumption maybe relevant if the student wants to learn the language at a superficial level, which involves learning a fragmented form of the language or what I call ‘gimmick Spanish’. This is the type of language presented by popular commercial language travel guides and the typical short courses offered by language schools.

Those guides and courses present the student with language structures such as:”Quisiera una cerveza, por favor” (“I’d like a beer, please”) or “¿Hay una estación de tren cerca de aquí?” (“Is there a train station nearby?”). Guides and courses of this type may be very convenient for the rushed traveller, but as to how useful the language learnt may be for communication and language development purposes, is entirely a different matter.

Any Spanish for travel course which focus on fragmented language and which is not followed up by continuous learning prior to travel cannot provide the student with firm foundations to tackle the whole body of language. This is so because proper learning and acquisition of language implies that the student in any given situation of spoken language exchange must be able to express ideas with ease. I always explain to my students that by using language as clear as the two examples above, more often than not, they run into the risk of being taken by a native Spanish speaker, as users of language that are in possession of full fluency in Spanish.

I put to my students that the reply to a clear request or question – as the two cited above – may be so overwhelming and so long, to the point that the answers apart of not providing any help may instead contribute to get them into an even more confused situation. Answering an open ended question is a complex process which is very rarely straight forward. For the examples above, requesting a beer may involve the waiter or barman asking in return questions -in Spanish – such as: “What brand of beer would you like”; “Do you want a local or imported beer?”; Would you like a glass for your beer?”; “Would you like to eat something with your beer?”; “Do you want an ale or a lager?”. This is not what the traveller expected! But this is what normally happens. The answer to a question asking for the location of a place may be even more complex.

Short Spanish courses for travel – or labeled any other way – do not provide the necessary language skills for anybody wanting to use Spanish in a natural way with native Spanish speakers. Short Spanish courses can only be effective when they can be followed up by further learning prior to travelling. On the other hand, knowing some Spanish, even in a fragmented way, is better than not knowing Spanish at all.

If short Spanish for travel courses aren’t of much use, what about a long course? A long course implies getting to know more about all aspects of language that facilitate full development of oral and written skills. Read more about this subject later.

Tell us about your own language experiences while travelling within a Spanish speaking country.

Which Spanish accent is the best?

Throughout my career of teaching Spanish at Tres Culturas and elsewhere, I have often been asked by my students about what accent should be the best for them to use in their spoken Spanish. Without any hesitation I usually reply that they can use any accent they fancy as long as what they’re saying is properly pronounced following the Spanish particular sounds and stress conventions on words, as well as natural speech patterns (i.e. the way that the majority of people normally speak).

The accents people use in their speech respond to a range of linguistic features far too broad to explain briefly. In general terms, accents don’t make any difference to the main role of language, namely to communicate and exchange ideas. A factor contributing to the existence of accents is connected with the intrinsic characteristic of language to differ even within itself, which can happen very often regardless of aspects such as the size of the territory that it’s being considered.

In Spanish, there are a vast amount of accents depending on the country or the particular region a group of its speakers come from. Countries as small as El Salvador, for example, have enough range of accents to keep a linguist studying them, busy for years.

Accents make a language varied and contribute to its ‘charms’ – or ‘detracting’ features – which are very important for the cultural study of the people that use it. However, the aesthetics of the spoken language doesn’t represent a defining factor for its effectiveness; nor does it make the accent used by a group of Spanish speakers better or worse than the accent used by another group in the language. As an accent does not provide any particular objective feature to consider it either good or bad, all accents used by Spanish speakers constitute cultural and mostly natural features that are legitimate by their own nature.

It’s practically impossible for a student to learn or for a teacher to teach all the accents that exist within the Spanish language. So whatever accent the student ends up learning, is always a good accent as long as it’s understood by other native and non-native speakers of the language.

How many varieties of Spanish accents do you know?

Is there a proper type of Spanish?

Now and then I get phone calls or emails from people interested in learning ‘proper Spanish’. When I ask them what do they mean by the word ‘proper’ they give me reasons such as “I’ve heard that the Spanish from Latin America is not the same as the one from Spain” or “They say that the Spanish from Spain is very different from Latin American Spanish”. Trying to explain over the phone or email anything related to the nature of language, especially of complex topics like why language variation happens, it’s not an easy task; however, I do my best to help them with their queries.

The nature of language is to change and vary constantly. Spanish is one of the major world languages, spoken by hundreds of millions of people in many countries, most of them in the American continent. The vast amount of speakers creates a high degree of language variation. These variations are particularly evident in relation to the accents and vernacular regional vocabulary and idiomatic expressions used by people. Such variations are in many cases unique to a region or country where Spanish is the native tongue. The variations give origin to the many language varieties that exist within what is called ‘Spanish language’. Most people are acquainted with two broad varieties of this language: The ‘Latin American Spanish’ or in more proper terms – American Spanish – and the ‘Spanish from Spain’. Thus when people refer to ‘proper Spanish’ they may be referring to ‘Standard Spanish’ – the variety which is normally common to all Spanish speakers including native and non-native users.

Standard Spanish is a fully regulated form of this language. This variety is the language type promoted and accepted by the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language and The Association of Spanish Language Academies and it’s the type of Spanish generally taught and used by the school systems and the media. There is not such thing as ‘proper’ or ‘improper’ Spanish. There are only varieties of Spanish and they are all proper. Then when asking about ‘proper Spanish’ it’s better to ask for ‘Standard Spanish’.

Does proper Spanish mean something else for you?

The usefulness of etymology in the study of Spanish


During my many years of teaching Spanish to students from all walks of life in Melbourne, I have always stressed to them the great benefit that is gained for fast and effective language learning by knowing about the origin of words. This involves finding out where words come from; why they are used in the way they are or why they are written or pronounced in a particular manner. Dealing with the study of the origin of words in a language is the role of etymology – the branch of linguistics that in general terms studies the origin of words – put in a better way, etymology describes the historical ‘résumé’ of any particular word.

By studying a language with an etymological focus it’s possible to discover the deep roots of the word structure(s) and meanings. When students start to know more about the historic changes experienced by words, they may be able and encouraged to learn more effectively and rewardingly all the other aspects relating to the language they are studying. Moreover, being knowledgeable about the intrinsic nature of words can facilitate faster progress in the development of their oral and written skills.

To know about the origin of any particular word in Spanish, students can consult an etymological dictionary. However, finding that kind of dictionaries it’s not an easy task. Therefore, the more practical way to search for the etymology of a word is through the internet. My favorite website for my online consultations is at its excellent ‘Origen de las palabras’ page. There is a free subscription at to receive the etymology of a word at random periodically.

I find knowing the origin of words a very fascinating issue from both the professional and personal levels. Thus the website in mention has become almost a daily favorite of mine. I searched at that website for the word ‘España’Spain, a very special word considering that it is the base for the formation of ‘Español’, the main name of the Spanish language in Spanish. It was very illustrating to know that ‘España’, has a very colorful and interesting origin. tells us that this word in relation to its written form evolved from the Greek Spanía and Hispanía to the Latin Hispania and that these three words come from the Punic Isephanim. It explains that the Spain may also be derived from the Celtic span or even the Hebrew xaphano, among others, until it reached the present name, ‘España’.

In regard to the historic meaning for this word the website tells us that Isephanim, one of the most recognized words thought to have given origin to the name of Spain in Punic – the language spoken by the ancient Phoenicians in Carthage – meant ‘the island of the rabbits or the coast of the rabbits’, as the Phoenicians were in Andalucía more than 3000 years ago and found that rabbits were a very abundant kind of animal there. It also tells us that because of this meaning the Romans of the times of Emperor Hadrian represented Spain – Hispania – on their coins, as a sitting lady with a rabbit posing at her feet. This is reading of the most stimulating kind!

For a student interested in learning not just the basics, but quite a lot about the origin and meaning of many Spanish words like ‘España’ there is not a better website than Their word analyses are generally in depth; which no doubt can stimulate the eager learner to wish for more and more! Students need to have an upper intermediate or advanced level of Spanish language proficiency in order to have a proper understanding of the etymological definitions given there, since it is a Spanish language website. Knowing the original structures of the Spanish words can be of enormous help not only in the study of Spanish, but also of English and all Indo Europeans languages as they share many structural features.

Have you found the etymology of any particular word and how useful was website for you?


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