Sunday, October 19, 2008

"Yo estoy" or "Estoy yo": word order, subject pronouns, and the sticky question of whether all text books take the wrong approach?

In my lovely grammar-book-in-progress, I make a point to put the subject pronouns after the verbs in all verb charts: hablo (yo) / hablas (tú) / habla (él), etc.

I do this for several reasons:

  • To break the speaker's habit (from English) of looking for subject pronouns before the verb

  • Because it is perfectly common in Spanish, as evidenced by the y-terminal "yo" forms (doy/estoy/voy/soy) which originated from "do yo / esto yo / vo yo / so yo/ etc.

  • To help avoid confusion when enclitic object pronouns are introduced, since "me quieres tú" is easier to parse if you're used to "quieres (tú)" than if you're used to "(tú) quieres"

  • Presenting "estoy yo" suggests, unconsciously, that the verb form ("estoy") determines the pronoun ("yo"), rather than that the pronoun comes first and the verb form second. I think this subtly helps prepare students for the fact that Spanish usually omits the subject pronouns, meaning that the verb form is the only source of subject information.

I consider these reasons sound. The only reason I can see for doing it the other way ("yo hablo / tú hablas / etc.") is that it will allow transfer from English. However, I see this as an anti-reason, and I wonder if teaching that focuses on drilling "yo amo / tú amas / etc" encourages other, incorrect transfer, such as "*ella hablas español" (there, the student has transfered both word order and the conjugation from English).

Given this, I'm sad to say I've never seen a Spanish text book that presented the subject pronouns as I do. Has anyone else? If not, are there reasons I'm not thinking of why teaching beginners to say "tú quieres" is a good idea?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Spanish spelling errors in English, and viceversa!

One of the things I focus on in my Spanish teaching is phonetics -- I focus there partly because understanding the phonetics of Spanish will allow my students to have a better accent, but largely because I believe a better grasp of the Spanish phonetic system enables students to understand authentic Spanish much better.

I'm often excited when I see students make the very errors I try to warn them off of in their interpretation assessments, because it lets me reinforce that the phonetic patterns I'm teaching are real (they often seem to only half-believe me). For example, when a student transcribes a Spanish "r" as a "t", "d" or "l", and when they transcribe an intervocalic Spanish "d" as a "v", it's a great opportunity for me to talk about what the Spanish "r" and "d" actually sound like (the "d" being transcribed as "v" is particularly interesting -- the English phoneme that matches the sound is spelled "th", of course, but students know "th" is unavailable as a Spanish phoneme so they hear another voiced fricative -- "v" -- in its place, until, that is, they've internalized the pattern that intervocalic "d"s are like our voiced thorns).

Anyway, today in my geek blog reading, I read the following in a Spanish-speaking hacker's blog:
Benchmarking software is not an easy thing to do. It may look trivial, but it requires a bast amount of time and effort when you want to do it right.

Notice the "b" for a "v" there. What that tells me is that Alvaro almost certainly learned the word "vast" orally, rather than through writing, since his spelling is otherwise impeccable, and that, in spite of being literate in English, he is still hearing English with Spanish phonemes. Which is to say, he hears the voiced labiodental fricative ("v") as a voiced bilabial fricative (β), which he understands as the intervocalic allophone of the phoneme /b/.

Of course, one possible reading of this is to say that Alvaro appears to be a fully functional English speaker who has not internalized the English phonetic system... which suggests that the typical Spanish student who does not understand that, for example, the Spanish phoneme /d/ encompasses something very like our "d" as well as an allophone that is exactly like our phoneme /ð/, which we spell "th", may not be in such a bad situation.

Nonetheless, I think it does make a difference... a student who hears the phrase "de dónde eres" as "devonderes" is surely at a disadvantage (and that error is not that atypical in my experience, provided you provide students with actual examples of Spanish speech, and not with typical American-Non-Native-Speaker-Spanish-Teacher pronunciations.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Dialect and the VP Debate, taken up by a real expert

Who better than linguistics-populizer Steven Pinker to take up my rambling thoughts after the VP debate in an articulate Op-Ed on the style and content of Palin's speech. He agrees that the "en" vs. "eng" is a conscious dial of informality, but clarifies that the accent is authentic (however much it annoys me).

Thursday, October 2, 2008

VP Debate

So I hadn't really seen much of Palin until tonight. My God, it felt surreal seeing her on stage with Biden. I also hadn't seen too much of Biden before, who was remarkably sharp. She seemed completely out of place.

I'm struck that I have no idea how affected Palin's speech was. The high frequency of "-in" (in place of "iŋ") for the "-ing" ending and the phrases like "you betcha" and "gosh darnit" are the obvious things about her speech, but she also has quite a strong noticeable accent.

Thinking about the "-in" vs. "-iŋ" distribution, I realize that there's an interesting intersection of accent and formality here -- in this case, (nearly) all speakers use both endings in informal speech and avoid "-in'" in formal speech. What this meant was that Palin's constant use of "-in'" seemed not just like her accent, but like a deliberate attempt to seem folksy, or, alternatively, like a failure to take the debate seriously.

This leaves me wondering about the rest of her accent — it also struck me as out of place in the debate. The question that leaves is, is that just prejudice against her accent, or am I right that her accent was not just non-standard but obnoxiously informal.

Regarding the content of the debate... I'm a bit shocked now to be watching the PBS talking heads suggesting that the debate was a wash... granted, expectations for Palin were low, but she looked rather incredibly outclassed, outsmarted, and outspoken to me.