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.

5 comments:

drlynch said...

This is why I am pretty much an advocate of learning to speak first before you ever see anything written. If a language learner is hearing and reproducing the sounds (as best they can), the spelling is easy enough to teach.

I remember in Portuguese struggling with the nasal sounds. At some point, I was begging my friend to spell a word. She refused, saying that I would never say it right if she did.

Spanish is much more obviously phonetic than Portuguese (in some accents, certain sounds could be spelled a couple of ways) but I still feel strongly about learning to hear and speak without distraction.

This said, I am sorry to say that most teachers of Spanish in this country (myself included) have terrible accent and little feeling for the nuances of the language or grammar. I think you are fighting a pretty tough battle.

Tom Hinkle said...

You're right about speaking -- I've never had occasion to teach in an environment where I could begin without my students having already been exposed to written Spanish, but I do start every class with speaking drills where the written words are conspicuously absent. Without fail, writing the words on the board leads students to begin committing new English-influenced pronunciation errors.

I play with using phonetic spelling on occasion to help emphasize the fact that spelling is not, in fact, phonetic -- students are particularly amused to see English spelled out phonetically.

That said, I still struggle. There's something in many of my students that wants spelling to be spelling, whatever language it is... today I watched a student actively cross out a "j" and write in an "h".

"That J is just weird", he said. "It should be an 'h'".

"But the 'h' is silent in Spanish", I reminded him.

"Whatever," he said. "Spanish is dumb." And he went on to make other "corrections" to the Spanish spelling....

drlynch said...

Now that I am working in the shadow of Melvil Dewey, I can appreciate this even more.

I think it can be hard for people--kids and adults alike--to understand that letters just represent arbitrary sounds. J is only a symbol and could represent anything assigned to it. You know this, but how do you explain it to a student?

When I did teach, my students rebelled the first day against immersion. It took work and trust to get to the point where we could ignore the book and just attempt to speak and this worked best with the eighth graders. Meanwhile, my experiences in Brazil showed me how fluent a teenager could become with top notch curriculum (or Top Notch, as we actually used this book series).

Both you and I learned to make certain sounds in Spanish--especially the d, t, and n--from oral exposure at an early age. In those elementary school Spanish classes, there was almost no writing. Why do they suddenly switch when kids hit middle school?

doshimaitri said...

Learning Spanish immersion that also in the learning schools is a very nice experience. As it would give student's a proper guidance in each and every difficulty, and to learn something in that place and atmosphere would be much quicker.Again there would be many student's who had just came there for learning languages with some good aim and some who are aimless hence teacher would also be prepared to tackal such students.Again teaching by phonetic's is really a good way of teaching a new language.

Manoj Sharma said...

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