Category Archives: Second Language Learning

Spanish Phonology – is neither hard nor dry

To achieve success in the learning process of a second language, students need to acquire a high level of understanding of the phonological features of the language they’re studying. This can be done in the medium to long term by direct and continuos exposure to the sounds patterns of that language; conversely they can endeavour to systematically study those patterns and their properties.

Phonetics and phonology are two aspects of the nature of language in relation to second language teaching and learning that I find extremely fascinating. There are so many aspects to consider when we focus on the true nature of the spoken language; I mean the type of speech used on daily basis by a given human group or what is also called a dialect of a language.

The study of the phonological patterns of the Spanish language can be seen from many angles. From the amount of sounds that exist in its language varieties or dialects, Spanish doesn’t have the sound complexities of English for example. Most of the sounds found in all Spanish dialectical forms, are quite easy to master for most second language learners.

Standard Spanish has very few sounds that may represent a major learning problem for most people studying it as a second language. These learners soon find out, for example, that in this language variety a prominent distinctive sound pattern is the one represented by letter z in combination with any vowel and c with e and i. This is perceived that way mainly because those phonological features of Spanish are not pronounced in the same manner in the Peninsular (European) and American Spanish dialectical forms.

As a matter of fact there are several distinctive sound patterns among the Spanish dialectical forms; however, the case mentioned above is one of the first sounds that students become more aware of or may be presented with in the language classroom. As soon as they start to find out more about the nature of the other sounds that are found in the American Spanish dialectical varieties, like the aspiration of s in final positions or the several pronunciations for ll, they realize that the phonology of this language rather than complex is rich and varied.

In my long experience as Spanish teacher to adults, I have always taught Spanish phonology based on a structured yet simple way which uses the International Phonetic Alphabet as the main methodological tool. However, I’ve always presented the subject based on a general or standard model, except in relation to the sound of z and c in the manner referred to above. It has only been through my own study and classroom practice that I have managed to get into the finer aspects of the phonology of my mother tongue.

A few moths ago I was trying to find some information about a particular sound and I came across a link containing an almost complete description of all the sounds patterns of the main dialectical varieties of Spanish. The link is by the University of Iowa.

It was only in one of those moments of hunger for learning that I decided to study what there was in the link. And to my amazement I came to understand quite a few other aspects of the Spanish phonology that weren’t still quite clear to me. The link presents the Spanish phonological patterns in a detailed and illustrated manner that provides audio-visual aids to understand the finer linguistic terms associated with the scientific study of language.

I found the information provided by the University of Iowa on the classification of the properties of the sounds of the Spanish language to be one of the most thorough analyses of the phonological patterns of this language that I’ve ever encountered. It provided me with a much defined panorama of this subject especially in relation to getting acquainted with the linguistic jargon associated with the complex nature of the phonetics and phonology fields.

I have added here a link to the excellent chart of the phonological properties of Spanish language provided by the University of Iowa. It’s not only easy to understand; it’s also an intellectually refreshing challenge for the student of Spanish as a second language, since it’s presented in Spanish!

The study of Spanish phonology can be a very fascinating endeavour for any person interested in getting a fuller understanding of this subject. This type of study, however, must go beyond a quick glance at the convoluted and often superficial explanations of the sounds of Spanish as given by most dictionaries or to just trying to make some sense of the complex range of  the phonetic symbols listed in the general IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) chart.

The Spanish personal pronouns tú and vos

Many modern American Spanish language varieties use the personal pronoun vos instead of when referring to the grammatical second person. The pronoun vos is the predominant, if not the only form used by an enormous amount of Spanish speakers in many countries. This usage is especially evident in ordinary day to day oral language exchange.

The Spanish verb forms experience changes in their structures: Vos users say, for example, vos tenés or vos sabés instead of tú tienes or tú sabes.

The pronoun vos is used in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and all the Central American countries with the exception of Panama. Speakers in some countries make a selective use of this pronoun. In Chile and Colombia for example, is also used. On the other hand, vos is used by everyone in Argentina or Uruguay in daily speech.

The historical reasons that gave origin to this language phenomenon are far too complex and convoluted to be examined in detail in a short post like this. However, I must add that it’s very important for all users of any Spanish language variety, to have a clear understanding of the basic nature of it.

Firstly, the pronoun vos is as legitimate as since it’s used by a vast amount of speakers in many countries of the new world.

In the second place, contrary to the official position of Spanish language academies, the pronoun vos should be taught alongside as synonym structure for the second person singular in all modern Spanish grammar texts. Doing this would not only contribute to enrich the Spanish grammar as taught in the school system, but it would – more importantly – recognize a language usage that some people pretend that it doesn’t exist.

For students of Spanish as a second language it’s extremely important to know about this language aspect, especially in circumstances that require them to be in Spanish speaking regions or countries where vos is used.

The aspiration or loss of /s/ syllable final in spoken Spanish

The aspiration or loss of the /s/ sound in a final position of a word is a natural phonological feature found in many varieties of Iberian and American Spanish.

This language phenomenon is marked by an aspiration or dropping of the /s/ when speakers articulate structures like los niños, las casas or las tiendas grandes. An approximate phonological transcription for these structures may be: loh niñoh, lah casah and lah tiendah grandeh.

I’ve heard quite often people commenting about this issue in a negative way. Some of them think that some native Spanish speakers aspirate the /s/ due to pure linguistic laziness and that such speakers must make an effort to correct their speech. Whenever I can I point out to anyone making this type of comments, that this phonological phenomenon – like all other aspects of language – is neither wrong nor right. That speakers resorting to this kind of linguistic structures are just making use of language in a way suitable for them.

At the end of the day what really matters for speakers of a language quite independently from the conventional features such as standard pronunciation patterns, is that the linguistic structures being used in any given situation must be socially accepted in the setting where they’re using such structures.

Thus it doesn’t really matter whether some Spanish speakers say lah casah instead of las casas as long as they are mutually intelligible.

In the language classroom, however, students must be taught to pronounce the standard /s/ whenever necessary in their spoken Spanish.

Ladino: A Judeo Spanish-Iberian language preserved for more than five centuries

I’ve always been aware of the existence of Ladino or also known as Judeo Spanish, but it was only today that I managed to have a first contact not only with its written but also its spoken forms in a simultaneous way. And it couldn’t have been in a more magnificent fashion than through music…and a beautiful voice.

Today I bought two compact disks by Yasmin Levy. One is called Romance and Yasmin and the other Mano Suave. The music and the lyrics are a heavenly affair, as its instrumentation and Yasmin’s voice are soothing and bewitching.

On the other hand, every song is for me an exploration of how late fifteen century Castilian Spanish may have sounded in the streets of Toledo, Granada or Seville. It’s like going back in time!

A quick glance at the song’s written lyrics has allowed me to notice that from the etymological point of view the language (I’m talking about some simple language structures found here) seems pretty much the same as any modern Spanish variety. I could be walking in San Salvador, Madrid or Lima and if I met a person speaking to me in Ladino there would only be some little trouble in communicating in a casual ordinary manner if I had to talk to them, or them talking to me.

This is of course my first impressions. I’d have to do a proper study of all the structural aspects of this language in order to have a clearer idea of its intrinsic nature.

In the meantime I searched on the internet and I found at the website some essential reading about basic features on the history and nature of Judeo Spanish. A very interesting point here is that Ladino – as far as I know – is the only language derived from Spanish, which has also been written in a script different to the Latin alphabet.

The language is also known by many other names and has several dialects spoken in many countries. These dialects also have a great influence from Portuguese regarding words and grammatical structures according to, above.

Ladino is a Spanish-Iberian language that deserves to be preserved, taught and learned by any person interested in language studies, but more so, by all native Spanish and Portuguese speaking people as it can teach us quite a few interesting aspects in relation to the nature of Spanish and Portuguese as the two major languages originated from the Iberian Peninsula.

Judeo Spanish has a very complex and varied history. That fact seems to be reflected in the grammatical, lexical and phonological features of the language that I have perused today in a very brief manner.

I intend to study and learn more about this charming Spanish-Iberian language variety.

PS: I may also be walking in Sao Paulo or Lisbon and speak Portuguese with a Ladino speaker without much problem in our mutual understanding.

Read excellent posts & comments on the blog Hablas español from the BBC

The BBC website has an excellent page named Los blogs de BBC Mundo. Obviously all the blogs are written in Spanish, although some commentaries are sometimes written in English.

There are several blogs dealing with the topic of languages. The more interesting blog for me is Hablas español, because of its focus on issues about the Spanish language, which is of course the subject of my blog here. However, Hablas español is mainly focussed on issues related to Spanish speakers living in the United States.

The blog Hablas español is a first class resource to get to know about the views of Spanish speaking people living in the US on issues connected to their language and culture. It’s also an excellent site for students learning Spanish to practice their reading skills with the aid of real language usage by native Spanish speakers.

As commentaries are not corrected from the grammatical point of view by the moderators of the blog, students need to be aware that there may be spelling and grammatical errors in the comments.

The blog´s posts are written in standard Spanish by BBC staff.

I’m adding the BBC with its Hablas español blog to my Blogroll here.

The lexical wealth of the Spanish language

In my long experience of teaching Spanish, I have witnessed the amazed reaction of students learning this language whenever the issue of synonyms and the abundant number of idiomatic expressions with which Spanish is endowed arises. I’d like deal in this post with the richness of the lexical or vocabulary aspect of Spanish.

The Castilian language possesses a very rich array of lexical terms particularly in relation to nouns and verb forms. I always like to mention in my Spanish classes, for example how the noun pig, can be said in Spanish using a large variety of synonyms. Thus the words cerdo, puerco, marrano, cochino, tunco, cuche, chancho, are some of the words used to name a pig in Spanish.

In the verbal area, the language of Cervantes also possesses a very ample variety of terms from which to choose. There are also in this category abundant quantities of synonyms.

This is a very important feature of Spanish as it contributes to make language usage interesting, entertaining and varied.

The vast amount of synonyms has given Spanish a literature characterized by an elegant and florid language usage immortalized in gold script by giants of Castilian language letters such as Miguel de Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez, Federico García Lorca, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Calderón de la Barca, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Teresa de Ávila, Rómulo Gallegos, San Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross), Rubén Darío, Claribel Alegría, Jorge Luís Borges, Rosario Ferré, Nicolás Guillén, Julio Cortázar…

From the practical point of view, the availability of a large amount of synonyms may seem an insurmountable obstacle for the students of Spanish, due to the extra amount of words that they need to learn. However, after the initial learning stages and a constant exposure to written and spoken Spanish and especially when the students are becoming more fluent in the language, they realize that this feature, rather than a hindrance, is a great contributor to the goal of achieving full language competence in Spanish.

The intrinsic value of speaking other languages and of being bilingual

A few days ago I read an article in The Age connected to the importance of languages in general and second language learning, in particular, for individuals and people. The article also says that 2008 has been declared the International Year of Languages by the United Nations.

A language of any type, especially a natural one – i.e. a language learnt and spoken natively by people – is an amazing tool for creating and exchanging meaning, with no parallel in any other area of human activity involved in the civilization process.

A language, then, as a special way of organizing thought in the spoken and written modes and as a communication tool is a very important human feature that deserves to be learned, or at least be studied by non natives of that language. Reading ‘Empires of the Word a Language History of the World’ by Nicholas Ostler has helped me to understand these aspects in a clearer manner.

In Ostler’s book there are detailed descriptions of the role that languages – used either as native or second mean of communication – have played in shaping human history since the most ancient of times until now. Since the very early beginnings, individuals and social groups, living in normal conditions, have taken as a goal to learn the languages of their neighbors as a way of conducting trade, commerce and diplomacy or simply for showing goodwill to speakers of other tongues.

In modern times people still learn languages following similar paths as the ones described above. However, they also learn a second (or third or forth…) language for fun, namely, the great intellectual satisfaction that is obtained by communicating in the same language with people whose native tongue is different to ours’.

I became a bilingual person in my youth. Now I can exchange ideas in at least five other languages. Nevertheless, I consider myself a truly bilingual person due to the fact that English and Spanish are the languages that I use on a daily basis.

Both Spanish and English are essential parts of my identity now. In both languages I find an immense array of intellectual satisfaction. I can move in the two worlds with ease. This is something of great value if we take into consideration that each of these languages are repositories of vast bodies of language and knowledge to keep a letters’ lover attached to them forever.

I don’t know any longer what the feeling of being a monolingual person is. What I do know however, it’s that knowing other languages and being fully bilingual is a feeling which is not only unique; it’s humanizing to the highest degree.

‘I love chocolate’ …I know that, but do you know about the origin of the word chocolate?

In my professional teaching experience it’s very common to find out that many students are often unaware about lots of the aspects relating to the nature of the Spanish language vocabulary when they start their learning process.

For example, they often find it surprising that a Spanish word like chocolate or tomate comes from Pre-Columbian languages. Most of them tend to assume that terms like these are naturally derived from English words; so when I explain to them that these structures come from Native American languages they take it as a very new fact to them.

All the native tongues from the American continent – either dead or still in current use – have made an outstanding contribution to the enrichment of the Spanish language. There is a vast amount of words which have already been officially included into Spanish dictionaries; however, there still are an even larger amount of them which are still waiting to be incorporated into such dictionaries.

These language structures are commonly referred to as Americanisms. All these terms come mainly from Amerind (or Pre-Columbian) languages, which have found a path into spoken and written varieties of Spanish and are generally used by native Spanish speakers in their daily language. Because of this factor, they must be included into dictionaries as a matter of fact.

What it really matters from the linguistic perspective it’s that the terms to which we are making reference here, are vernacular items belonging to the lexicon of a regional or national group of native Spanish speakers; thus there is no need to apply other considerations in order for them to be included into any particular type of dictionary which may be released by a publishing house or for the words to be admitted by a Spanish language academy.

The main purpose of any language dictionary is to provide a complete list of all the words which are actually used by any sizeable amount of its speakers.

Two Pre-Roman phonological features adopted permanently by Spanish

The trilled (very marked and rolled) sound of the combination rr as found in perro, barro or tierra and in letter r as in dormir or tener, is one of the most difficult – if not the most difficult – sound encountered by most people learning Spanish as a second language.

Well, I must tell my students from now on not to blame the ancient Romans for their predicament, as this particular sound was brought into the developing Castilian tongue by Basque language speakers in medieval times.

I always thought of the trilled r as a feature of the Latin language that was inherited by Spanish. But just last night in ‘La Página del Idioma Español ‘ at, I read an article by Sergio Zamora in which he names this sound and the dropping of the phoneme represented by f in ancient Latin words but since then substituted by a silent h, in words like harina, hierro and humo, as two features of the Basque language adopted by Spanish very early in its gestation process.

Zamora points out that the suffixes rro, [rra, rre, etc] and the absence of the phoneme for f, were two clear traits of Basque before they were transferred as phonological features of Castilian Spanish.

Basque is an ancient Non-Roman language that has left its imprint in these two phonological properties still present in all modern Spanish varieties. These two language aspects made a significant contribution towards distinguishing Castilian Spanish from all the other languages derived from Latin such as Galician, Portuguese and Catalan that were developing simultaneously in the Iberian Peninsula.

Corpus of Spanish offering 100 million + words

I’ve just opened an email from reporting of an interview with Dr Mark Davies from Brigham Young University in which he talks about the benefits that his work on a corpus of the Spanish language, can provide to people interested in the aspects of written and spoken Spanish.

The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics by P. H. Matthews defines the term corpus in the first sentence to this entry as
Any systematic collection of speech or writing in a language or variety of a language.

Spanish possesses a vast oral and written corpus which can, with the help of the new IT technologies and the arduous work of academics like Dr Davies, be now available to the general public and Spanish language researchers.

This excellent corpus del español ( is an invaluable tool to research aspects connected to the evolution of the Spanish language as the documents entered in its database comprise a very large amount of historical material going as far back as the 1200′s.

Any word, phrase, or combination of words in any given form can be searched for at the corpus del español website. Apart from the historical aspects connected with the language structures a person may be searching for, they can also search for terms as used by academia, the news, fictional writing and oral language.

Like for the corpus of any language, Dr Davies’ work is complex and therefore difficult to explain its mechanisms in a brief post like this. The best approach – in my opinion – is to spend some time at his website and follow the instructions given there.

I’ve only been able to have a quick look at this website. I’m pretty sure that I’ll be using it at a regular basis. I’m adding it right now to my links here.

The Corpus of Spanish by Dr Davies is a primary resource for any person wanting to know in detail aspects relating to the historical, syntactic, and semantic nature of the Spanish language.


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