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Help! I Talk Like My Students

After teaching in Spain for over a year and spending the majority of my week in the classroom with native Spanish speakers, it’s not hard to believe that they have influenced me. Primarily, I’m referring to the odd syntax and grammar structures that naturally occur when trying to learn and speak a second language. It’s an uphill battle to constantly correct such errors, especially when I find myself using the same poorly translated Spanish phrases in my daily life.

This is, of course, in addition to the montón of Spanglish (look, I did it again!) that just pours out of my mouth while the English translation is temporarily blocked in my mind. For many people this might be fun and exciting, a sign you’re grasping a new language. However, when this mind blank occurs while standing in front of a class of business execs hanging on your every English word, terror is the more appropriate emotion.

Here are a few examples of how my English has been slowly eroding. My students are constantly prefacing their statements with “in this moment”, “in my opinion”, “for example”, and “the normal is”. Having a decent understanding of Spanish and common phrases, I don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that these phrases are direct translations. In my experience teaching, I’ve come across much worse like students simply dropping the last “o” or “a” of a Spanish word and trying to pass it off as an entry in a Webster Dictionary. Many of these erroneous translations persist because they have become fossilized due to lack of error correction in the formative years of learning.

However, I am most embarrassed by my inability to properly ask questions. In Spanish most questions are formed by simply adding the word “no?” pronounced with a questioning upswing of the voice. For example I catch myself saying, “We have bread, no?” instead of “Do we have bread?” I’ve also overheard in Spanish a question broken down into just two words “Tenemos pan?” which is literally “We have bread?” Once I was even called out on this bad habit by an Australian while traveling in Europe. Based on my Spanish styled question, she exclaimed, “Oh yeah, you do live in Spain!” 

The worst part is that these phrases sometimes sound okay, and I don’t cringe like I used to. One HUGE problem is when talking about going to a café or bar. In Spanish the verb tomar, which literally means to take, is used casually for all such instances. It is incredibly common to hear my students describe their weekend as, “Friday I went out with friends to a bar to TAKE a beer and food.” I used to chuckle to myself by the brief mental depiction of my student snatching a pint from the bar and then running out the door. In case you’re wondering the appropriate translation would be to have or to get a beer/coffee. 

Now I’ve just shared a few of my favorites, and this doesn’t even begin to cover the variety of Spanish slang and swear words that more than pepper the daily dialogue of any self-respecting Spaniard. Unfortunately these have made their way into my speaking as well, but that’s for another blog post. In this moment I will try to be extra cautious to not take a coffee from any café, no?

Have you taught abroad and picked up something from your students?

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