How to not understand what you’re reading in Spanish


One of the worst mistakes that students can make when reading in Spanish (or any second language) is to look up all the words they don’t know in the dictionary. I understand that this is very tempting to do. However, it is a terrible reading strategy for several reasons. One: you do not need to know all the words on the page in order to understand a story. In general, the more words you know, the better, but it’s not necessary to know every single word. Two: looking up words in the dictionary is a very distracting process. You need to find the right meaning of the word for that particular context, and most words have multiple meanings. Finding the right meaning may take some time, and even if you’re really fast, it is a distraction from the process and flow of reading. Three: when people read fluently, they don’t read word-for-word but rather in chunks. Looking up individual words will essentially prevent you from reading in chunks (i.e., fluently). So, if I’ve convinced you to this point, let me give you an example of how to skip unknown words and still understand what you’re reading. This is the first sentence of a novel we read in Spanish 4, Cajas de Cartón:

La frontera es una palabra que yo a menudo escuchaba cuando, siendo un niño, vivía allá en México, en un ranchito llamado El Rancho Blanco, enclavado entre lomas secas y pelonas, muchas millas al norte de Guadalajara.

Let’s assume you don’t understand the words in red font. Don’t look them up! Think about what that entire phrase is doing in the sentence: it describes El Rancho Blanco. If you don’t know the words in red, you can keep reading and still know that El Rancho Blanco is located many miles north of Guadalajara. You are missing some details, but you can keep reading. The main point is that skipping words is generally a much better  reading strategy than looking up many unknown words.

When will I be fluent?


This is a question that language teachers often hear. First, let’s clear up some terminology. The question should really be phrased as “When will I be proficient?” There is an important difference between fluency and proficiency, although the average person tends to use these terms interchangeably (fluent= highly proficient). Fluency has to do with speed. In terms of language production, fluency can be measured in terms of words per minute, the number of pauses, hesitations, and fillers (um…). In second language acquisition, it is possible to be quite fluent and yet inaccurate. For example, a learner may be able to speak without hesitation (fluently) but make many errors in verb endings or gender. For this reason, language teachers often try to balance ‘accuracy’ activities with ‘fluency’ activities. The latter are intended to allow the student to communicate successfully, even if they make a lot of mistakes. The point is that as a language learner you want to be proficient, not just fluent. Proficiency is, simply put, your ability to function in a given language in a variety of situations. Novice learners, that is, those who have low proficiency will be able to function in highly predictable situations in which they can rely on memorized language chunks (e.g., ordering a beer at a restaurant). Highly proficient speakers, on the other hand, can produce language in a wide range of situations and on various topics, including abstract ones. One of the benchmarks for Advanced level proficiency (according to the ACTFL scale) is the ability to narrate in all major time frames. Likewise, learners with Advanced proficiency can produce extended discourse (e.g., sentences connected together coherently). The time it takes to reach Advanced (or Superior) proficiency is really difficult to estimate because it depends on so many factors (e.g., learner motivation, aptitude for language learning, hours of independent study). For a category I language like Spanish, I’ve read estimates ranging from 650 to 960 hours of instruction to reach level 3 on the ILR scale of proficiency; the Center for Applied Linguistics estimates 720 hours to reach the Advanced level on the ACTFL scale. These are sobering estimates if you add up the hours of instruction offered by a typical language class (estimate 5 hours per week X 10 weeks per quarter = 50 hours per quarter). That amounts to approximately 300 hours by the end of 6 quarters of instruction. This is precisely why classroom instruction must be supplemented with considerable outside exposure to the language, preferably including a study abroad component.

Is Spanish an easy language to learn?



This is a thorny question. First, I’d like to start off by pointing out that learning any language in adulthood (as a second or third language) is a difficult task. Many researchers debate whether adult learners can ever reach the competence of native speakers. But that’s a debate for another entry. So, learning any language well–including Spanish–will require hundreds and perhaps thousands of hours of exposure to the language, opportunities to produce the language in meaningful situations, and the motivation to keep honing one’s skills. That said, the task of learning Spanish is relatively easier than learning other languages that have few similarities with English. First, the sheer number of cognates (e.g., politics = política) will facilitate the learning process. It also shares the same alphabet as English, so the task of learning a new script is not an obstacle. So in this sense learning Spanish will be easier than learning Arabic or Chinese. The experts at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) recognize this in classifying languages into categories for the purposes of training government personnel. For example, a category I language (Spanish) will require less instructional time than a category III (Russian) or category IV (Japanese) language. At the Defense Language Institute (in Monterey, CA), those learning Spanish and those learning Japanese are expected to reach the same level of proficiency in speaking, listening, and reading–but the Spanish course is 26 weeks and the Japanese course is 64 weeks (note: these are intensive courses with 8+ hours of instruction per day).

However, being easier (in relative terms) does not mean that Spanish is easy to master. Being proficient in any language will necessarily involve knowing a large quantity of vocabulary–probably around 8000-9000 word families. This is a monumental task, even if you can rely on cognates to get you started. When in comes to grammar, Spanish has a number of obstacles for the English-speaker, including more flexible word order, grammatical gender, and highly inflected verb paradigms (each verb has 48 forms for the simple tenses alone). In addition, learning any second language requires you to make distinctions that are ignored in your native language. For example, the Spanish verbs ser and estar get translated as “to be” in English although they have very different meanings. Learning to make new distinctions in a second language, and doing it consistently, is not an easy task. Other distinctions in Spanish that cause major problems for the English speaker are aspect (preterite vs. imperfect) and mood (indicative vs. subjunctive). There are hundreds of verbs that convey differences in meaning depending on the presence of the particle ‘se’ (e.g., despedir=to fire; despedirse=to say goodbye). These are just some of the complexities of that are not easily mastered by non-native speakers, which casts doubt on the idea of Spanish being “easy.”

Why is Tequila Masculine?


There is some question as to whether or not “tequila” is in fact a masculine noun, but native speakers who know tequila will inevitably use it with masculine articles (el or un). Further evidence is the fact that the adjective endings are masculine in noun phrases like “tequila añejo” or “tequila reposado.” Now the explanation for this apparent exception to gender patterns has generated some really silly answers. Consider for example: “Por la violencia que causa la bebida y debido al hecho de que es fuerte, los hombres de México querían llamarle “el Tequila” y dijeron que fue algo “verdadero macho, macho.” Certainly this cannot be. The Spanish language doesn’t assign gender to nouns based on the meaning or uses of that item–Spanish grammatical gender is not based on semantics (would these men also object to “vestido” being masculine?). A better explanation is the following: Tequila is a type of liquor from the town of Tequila (state of Jalisco), so by asking for a tequila, you are actually asking for “un licor de Tequila.” For the sake of economy, the noun gets dropped and you end up with “un tequila.”