Is there a need in oral Spanish for using the Castilian Spanish sounds of letter z and the clusters ce/ci?

Letter z combined with any vowel and letter c in the clusters ce/ci are pronounced as [Ө] (the sound of th in the word thin) in Castilian Spanish. This sound is an intrinsic phonological feature of this language variety. American Spanish users do not normally use [Ө] in ordinary speech; these speakers replace the [Ө] with [s].

There are many reasons explaining why American Spanish users lack the phoneme [Ө] in their daily spoken language. It has been quoted that the main reason is related with the geographical origin of the people that first moved from Spain to the New World. Most settlers and bureaucratic aides in the colonial period came from southern Spain, an area where the sound [Ө] was not a native language feature.

In linguistic terms the sound [Ө], as used in Castilian Spanish for the combinations listed above, is a great asset if we take into account that the sound of a letter plays an important role in conveying meaning as well as for contributing to the enrichment of the phonological resources at the disposal of a given language.

In my teaching experience I have found quite challenging, for example, teaching about the difference between pairs like casa/caza or coser/cocer, without the help of [Ө]. A student learning Spanish as a second language may be confused when hearing a sentence such as ‘hoy voy de casa de caza’ or ‘mis pasatiempos favoritos son coser y cocer’, if the words here containing z and c are not pronounced with [Ө]. I usually explain to students that American Spanish speakers tend to use these kind of words in context  –or that they would normally explain further about what they mean –  therefore language misunderstandings are very unusual.

But when asked by my students about what would I recommend in relation with the problem presented by the necessity of distinguishing between [Ө] and [s] in situations such as casa/caza or coser/cocer, I tell them that they can always use the standard Castilian Spanish sound patterns. Most native Spanish language users should be able to understand and follow up the communicative process whenever [Ө] is used.

I’d like to write a few more paragraph about this subject matter, however, I’ leave that for another post.

On the usage of the preposition in and its Spanish counterpart en

All languages have some grammatical features for which learners find extremely difficult to achieve a complete command. The English preposition in is one of them. I must admit that after spending over half of my life in Australia I still find myself in many situations in which I can’t decide exactly whether to use either the prepositions in or on when they are required especially in the written language.

I could say that I’m now able to use English in an equal footing to Spanish my mother tongue – except of course in relation to the ubiquitous in! The other day I decided to look up in an English grammar textbook of my university days to refresh my knowledge on this preposition, thinking that I would be able to find a complete set of usage rules in a brief manner. To my surprise and bewilderment I was presented with so many entries about it that for a moment I thought that whole book was only about this preposition.

After that I decided that I didn’t have the time or the will to pursue a way to get to know all I need to know in order to possess a complete grasp of this grammar feature. I was really put off by it. I have found that there are other more useful ways for my particular case, to become a better user of in. One of those ways is paying particular attention to the language used by journalists or broadcasters. In spite of this, it can be at real trial for me when it comes to making sure that I’m using in correctly in most instances.

May be a reform of the convoluted rules on the usage of the preposition in can be a very welcoming relief for second language speakers of English like me.

For the English speaking student learning Spanish as a second language, usually there is not any major problem in connection with the usage of en. Some of them think that is quite strange that Spanish doesn’t have a preposition with the exact meaning of on as they know it. I repeat to them over and over how lucky they are when I tell them about the uphill battle that speakers of English as a second language like me have to face in relation to the preposition in.

But then there is always por and para, two Spanish prepositions that most English speaking background students find very difficult to use, even when they have achieved a high level of proficiency. This seems to be a reverse situation in relation to the difficulties the Spanish speaking background users of English find for in. But this is material for another post.

P.S: I always welcome any advice on ways of enhancing the ability to use in:-)

Does the term ‘Latino’ mean anything?

It is really sad and shameful to hear, or read that people who should know better – especially in the media – still insist on using the term “Latino” when referring to Latin Americans. This term is not only culturally inappropriate, but it also has the ugly undertones of a racist profiling of people.

The term “Latino” does not mean anything. I have written a post here some time ago, in which I list some reasons explaining why people, in particular journalists and broadcasters should stop using this term.

Whether we like or not the real name for the people from any country of Latin America is simply: LATIN AMERICANS.

New technologies and the fostering of minority languages

Last week I read an article in The Age that describes how a software program being developed by the State Library of Victoria is helping minority language groups to preserve and maintain their language and culture. Developing this type of technology can contribute to arrest the decline of many languages spoken by small ethnic groups.

By being able to use technological progress to aid the preservation of minority languages, humanity may be able to care for the treasure found in the rich linguistic and cultural contents of every language spoken in the world especially when a language is in danger of extinction. Preserving written forms of traditional oral stories are worth any amount of effort. These oral traditions are unique; they are able to explain views on life and reality unknown to most people.

The software being developed by the State Library of Victoria – according to the article mentioned above – is also providing the tools to write a language that has not yet had a written form. This aspect of technology, namely to serve the linguistic and cultural needs of minority languages, is even more important when we consider that every language through their particular grammatical structures convey a special form of codifying meaning.

Another welcoming feature derived from having useful technologies helping the preservation of languages with small number of users, is that such languages can be disseminated using the internet and by doing so have the potential to reach many of their users  or be readily available for people interested in language studies or that are learning about  particular features of not very well known languages.

Living in a global village and having with us the help of new technologies, I think is a great way of helping minority languages not only to be preserved, but also of helping them to flourish, spread, and be studied. Every human being will in the long term benefit by this process.

Let’s talk about the Spanish subject pronouns

Students learning Spanish need to have a clear understanding about the general aspects of the way in which subjects pronouns are used. This includes being fully knowledgeable about their written forms and meanings, the pronoun’s particular individual features as well as the relationship existing with the subject pronouns of the students’ mother tongues.

I want to focus on this post on the relationship between the Spanish subject pronouns and English subject pronouns – referred to from here as SSP’s/SSP and ESP’s/ESP, respectively.  In general terms, the SSP’s and the ESP’s have their equivalents in both languages. The exceptions are here the feminine plural forms – nosotras, vosotras and  ellas. There are also the situation related with the lack of English specific equivalents for usted, ustedes and the pair vosotros/vosotras.

The first person plural of the SSP’s has two forms in Spanish: nosotros (masculine) and nosotras (feminine). On the other hand, English does not have feminine ESP’s. Because of this feature of the English language, the same situation for vosotras, the second person plural and ellas, the third person plural, is observed. For the SSP’s pair vosotros/vosotras, beginner Spanish students need to be able to identify what their real meanings are in Spanish. This however, is easier said than done, as by general rule it takes a little while for learners to understand this particular concept.

The third person formal singular SSP’s usted is normally translated into English as you. This ESP is also used for the plural form. According to my own experience in the classroom some beginner learners of Spanish usually find it quite daunting relating to the differences between and usted or ustedes and vosotros.

In addition, some beginner students of Spanish sometimes can get confused by the written structures yo/you by supposing that yo means you ; they can also find ella ,the feminine singular third person SSP, difficult to fathom; or even thinking of the pair ella/ellas as structures that supposedly have feminine verb conjugation forms.

Once the students manage to sort out the obstacles presented by the aspects described above, they are able to move forward with ease.  Most students of Spanish at the intermediate level – in possession of a detailed knowledge of the special particularities of the SSP’s – should be able to use this grammatical feature without getting confused.

Through proper teaching and their own learning efforts, students can manage to establish a clear understanding of the basic usage and nature of the Spanish subject pronouns. I will come back to this subject on a future post.

Dalí Concocts a ‘Liquid Desire’ of Language and Culture at the National Gallery of Victoria

Last Sunday I went with my advanced Spanish class to see “Liquid Desire” an exhibition of an extensive collection of works of art by Salvador Dalí the celebrated Spanish surrealist artist at the National Gallery of Victoria. A full range of programs of this exhibition can be found at

This exhibition has brought to Melbourne many of Dalí’s work belonging to all the periods of his long and illustrious career. There are many things that I’d like to write about this prolific and complex artist and his work but I rather leave that for another occasion. What I want to concentrate on this post is about the language learning opportunities that exhibitions such as this can present for the Spanish student.

There are many ways to use works of art for language learning and teaching. In fact the National Gallery of Victoria runs special programs for schools. Tres Culturas Spanish was invited to participate in the educational programs organised for this particular exhibition.

Apart from those special programs, there are an immense amount of language activities that can be carried out based on art exhibitions. It is up to the teacher’s own creativity and imagination and the student’s enthusiasm to make the most of this particular learning field.

Students can write little essays in Spanish about the life of Salvador Dalí. Do an internet research in Spanish about any particular area of his personal or artistic life. They can go to the local library and try to find if they have any literature about the artist; or they may like to translate a small article or essay into Spanish. These are only some examples the list may go on and on.

For students with a high level of language proficiency it is possible to organise lessons that focus on oral work. Each student can talk about what he knows about the artistic work of Salvador Dalí or make a list of things about him that they would like to know more about, like the years he spent in exile in the United States; his collaboration with other artists or the very special relationship he maintained with Gala, his wife.

At the actual exhibition the teacher can use the names and titles of the art works as a further learning practice. For example finding out why a name or tittle is said in different ways in English and Spanish. Students can also write a list of terms that they encounter during their viewing at the exhibition and bring them to class for further analyses and discussion.

Finally, illustration of works by Dalí obtained during the visit to the exhibition can be used to create real or fictional stories about the artist, his life and times. The teacher can direct the students to write more complex stories or essays about the topic.

Salvador Dalí Liquid Desire is at the National Gallery of Victoria until October 4.

The charming softness of the Spanish sound patterns

One of the nicest rewards of teaching a language is to be complemented by your students about aspects not directly connected to you as a teacher but to the language that they’re learning from you.

It happens to me quite often. One of such rewarding aspects relates to comments they make about the nature of the Spanish sounds; as it happened during the development of a lesson today, while going over the standard pronunciation of some words, one of my students mentioned to me how interesting and ‘nice to the ear’ are the Spanish sounds when spoken loudly.

Getting to a situation were a student can make comments about the nature of the sounds of the language they’re studying tells a lot about how well they’re making progress in mastering basic aspects of their learning process.

The student that I’m making reference to here has clearly been able to understand how consonant and vowels when combined to form Spanish words change according to certain inherent properties attached to a particular letter whether they are a consonant or a vowel.

Consonant letters in Spanish have a soft sound when they are used between two vowels – in the words abeja, guayaba, envergadura, ataviada, alabado or escalada for example, all the consonants between vowels, are pronounced in a very soft manner.

For the words from above, the sounds of the b of abeja, the v of ataviada and the d of envergadura lend to these words certain phonological properties that change their particular nature. This produces very soft oral structures that create a feeling of auditory softness when they are pronounced in a loud voice.

Understanding how the consonant sounds mix with vowels within the basic language structures – nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, etc, is for me a very delicate but appropriate area to start phonological work with any student that may be unfamiliar with the nature of the Spanish sounds.

Students can obtain great benefit in acquiring the standard basic aspects of Spanish phonology by focussing in an analytical way on the individual structure of the lexical repertoire that they are learning in the classroom, namely, to be observant about the way that any word is written and pronounced. To do this they need to have a good understanding of all the basic phonological properties attached to the sounds used in Spanish words.

As I have written elsewhere here, students must be able to relate and use the basic symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet in order to be able to succeed in their endeavour to become fluent, intelligible speakers of the charming Spanish language.

The pronunciation and written patterns of letter g in Spanish

Getting to know the correct way of pronouncing and using the different written patterns in which letter g is used can be an arduous task for the beginner learner of Spanish.  In my classroom experience I have found that most students can get quite confused about the correct pronunciation of the sounds represented by this letter. Most of their confusion tends to arise from their lack of a detailed knowledge regarding the phonological nature of g.

Letter g possesses three basic sounds: /g/ / γ/ and /x/ – represented here in the International Phonetic Alphabet (API) symbols. It requires a good amount of classroom work for the beginner student to get to correctly use these three sounds.

In general terms, /g/ is used when letter g is found in the written patterns: ga, go, gu, gue, gui, güe, and güi placed in initial positions like in gato, goma, gula, guerra, guiso, güero and güisquil. This sound can also be found in structures where the written patterns we are referring to here are preceded by a consonant sound as in the words ángulo, gorgojo or engalanar.

The sound / γ/ can be found in the written patterns that have been described above –  ga, go, gu, gue, gui, güe, and güi – when they are preceded by a vowel as in the words agarrar, egoísta, cigüeña and gigante.

Letter g is pronounced as /x/ when it is found in the written patterns ge and gi, like in the words gemela, ángel or ingeniero.

The /x/ sound for g as used by Spanish is mainly an unfamiliar sound connected with this letter, as for the majority of speakers of other languages learning Spanish, the phoneme /x/ is applied to other letters. On top of this learners must also come to terms with the sound of letter j in Spanish, which is also/x/.

The triple phonological values of the Spanish g – two of them quite often unknown for beginner learners – and the complexities of the written and sound patterns of the structures, in which they are found, contribute to make the learning of the correct usage of this letter quite difficult, according to my own classroom experience.

Students of the Spanish language at the beginner level need to learn to use these sounds with the help of a professional language teacher or a linguist that can provide them with sufficient oral practice and written exercises of each sound.

Without an early intervention, learners may acquire wrong phonological traits when making use of the sounds of g in their oral language. I have taught many students that even though they may be quite fluent in their spoken Spanish, still do repeatedly improper use of the sounds of this letter.

Getting to master the written patterns of letter g and their accompanying sounds, is without doubt one of the most difficult hurdles that the beginner learner needs to get through in order to be able to become a competent user of spoken and written Spanish.

“Latino America Viva” Daily online News in Australia: Read Interesting Cultural Articles about Spanish Speaking People & Countries, in Spanish

I have been meaning to write a post about this Australian based website for quite a while. I don’t know exactly since when this daily news service has been on the net; but I have been getting a weekly email from its publishers which contain links to news websites that include some Australian newspapers and BBC News as well as a community events listing that may be of interest for the Spanish speaking people from Latin America living in Australia.

“Latino America Viva” is a good website to find links for news from Latin America, however, what I find more useful for the discerning reader and from the Spanish language learner perspective is its pages ‘Nuestros Colaboradores’, ‘Nuestros artistas por el mundo’, ‘Opinión¨, and ‘Comunidades latinas en el mundo’.

There are some quality articles about Spanish speaking background people connected with the literary, cultural, social and political areas. One of such articles is ‘Fallece Tránsito Amaguaña: símbolo de la lucha indígena’, by my colleague and friend Silvia Cuevas-Morales, writing from Madrid.

Most articles are written in Spanish, but there are some only available in English.

The website offers Spanish and English versions. This is a good thing for the student of the Spanish language as they can navigate between the two versions with great ease.

From the social perspective it seems to me that it’s very good to have an online site that offers information for the Spanish speaking people in Australia, particularly for those living in Sydney and Melbourne.

How important are the ‘small words’ in the learning process of the Spanish Language?

One of my students asked me yesterday if I could prepare a lesson that could deal with the nature of the ‘small words’ in the study of Spanish grammar. I replied to him that I could certainly do that, but that I could also write something on my blog about this particular subject.

For the purpose of this post I consider as ‘small words’ only those containing one, two or three letters. However, some four letter words must be included as well because they are intrinsically related as in the case of the small words grouped grammatically as articles.

Every small word can be classified in several grammatical categories. There are lots of nouns like té, pan, paz, can, luz, cal, pus, res, and fin. There are however, many other small words that fall on to certain categories that may present the student with a considerable amount of difficulties when trying to understand their role or their usage in structuring meaning in a phrase or sentence.

These small words can be classified in several groups, the most important are: articles – la, el, unas, etc; pronouns of several types – que, te , le, mío, se, etc; verbs – most of them conjugated forms such as voy, va, fui, ríe, or des, adverbs like tan, mal, , ya, allá, aún/aun or muy; conjunctions such as y, o, or ni and prepositions like por, para, a, de or en.

There are also some adjectives of several types that are also small words, such as mal, un, una, qué, mi, tu, or su.

It is obvious that a full classification of all these words can’t be presented here, especially in relation to nouns. A complete list of grammatical structures such as articles, pronouns, adverbs and conjunctions can be found in any good Spanish grammatical source.

Students must be taught about how to use these extremely important grammatical structures and try learning as many as possible of them in order to be fully competent speakers and write Spanish properly. Preferably these words should be learnt in contextual situations, but this does not exclude the possibility of learning them in their pure grammatical forms.

Making correct usage of these ‘small words’ is more important than knowing their grammatical classifications. Students can also create their own classification charts of these words if they wish to make sure that they can have a clear knowledge of the grammatical labels and language meanings that are applied to them.


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