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Teaching Spanish: Contrasting Spanish and English for Students

written by: Curt Smothers • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

Easing new Spanish students into learning a new language can be challenging. Most students respond well by building on their knowledge of English and seeing the similarities and differences between English and Spanish. This article suggests a "first-day-in-class" approach to begin learning Spanish.

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    Background

    This article is a suggested “first-day" approach for Elementary Spanish teachers. Learning a new language can be a daunting challenge to many new students, and teachers can ease the anxiety by giving students a rundown of how Spanish is both similar to and different from English and how those differences and similarities work to the advantage of the native English speaker. The suggestions provided in this article can be incorporated into the first-day lesson plan.

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    Is Spanish Difficult?

    Yes and no. Some students have an aptitude for languages, just as others have a learning style that soaks up math. Those who find language learning easy will discover that Spanish, with its consistent rules of pronunciation, vocabulary and verb usage, is easy to master. Those who do not will have to work harder, but can apply those consistencies in Spanish in a more "formulaic" approach that will help them pass the course.

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    Spanish Pronunciation

    Emphasize that Spanish, unlike English, has absolutely consistent pronunciation and spelling rules. For example, why in English do we pronounce “daughter" and “laughter" differently when there is only one letter change in both words? (There is nothing remotely similar in Spanish spelling and pronunciation rules.) Spanish also has no such thing as long or short vowels, but there are special letter combinations (diphthongs and silent letters, for example) to learn that come in handy later when learning Spanish verb spelling changes.

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    Spanish Vocabulary

    Tell students about cognates, those (mostly) friendly Spanish words that have somewhat the same spelling, similar, or (alas) completely different, meanings to their English counterparts. For example, Spanish and English share the word “hotel" and “actual" The former means “hotel," but the latter means "current, at the present time."

    Also, point out that Spanish, unlike English, attributes gender to every noun. Students must learn two things as they build their vocabulary: (1) the meaning of the word, and (2) what gender it is. For example, the sentence, “Mi hermana lee el libro y escribe en el cuaderno con la pluma. (My sister reads the book and writes in the notebook with a pen) illustrates the following: use of the feminine “hermana," the masculine “el libro," the feminine “la pluma," and the masculine “el cuaderno." The only live person in the sentence is “hermana." Remind students that learning Spanish nouns also includes learning what definite article accompanies the noun.

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    Spanish Word Order (Syntax)

    Tell students to be prepared to learn Spanish sentences where some adjectives follow the nouns and the object pronouns precede or follow (or even combine with) verb forms. There are even times when it is appropriate to place the subject of the sentence at the end for emphasis. One successful approach is to remind students to think of this “reverse syntax" as one of the many aspects of Spanish that makes it a versatile, colorful and beautiful language.

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    Spanish Verbs

    Be careful not to pile too much on in your first description of Spanish verbs. First of all, ask the class if anyone has studied Latin. If anyone has, ask the student to describe what verb conjugation means. The teacher’s first description of Spanish verbs should emphasize that the verb is the main building block to Spanish fluency and that a large portion of the course will be devoted to teaching how to conjugate and use Spanish verbs. Again, using the Latin “amo, amas, amat" approach, give the class a basic example of conjugating a regular Spanish verb and preview how person and number endings are added to Spanish verb stems.

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    Why Learn Spanish?

    Finally, poll the class and ask them why they are taking Spanish? Look for (or suggest) the following good reasons:

    • Spanish is the second most spoken language in the United States, and it is growing still. (The language tends not to die out as new immigrant Hispanic generations mature. It is the language of “la familia.")
    • About everyone south of Texas (except for Brazil) speaks Spanish. (Don’t forget the Caribbean -- Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba.) Learn Spanish and immediately gain access to millions of new people that are separated from us by language.
    • There is a "grammar bonus" to learning Spanish. Spanish learners tend to think more about language structure and grammar. This thinking and learning naturally spills over into the students' English studies.
    • U.S. business, Federal, state and local governments need Spanish speakers, because of the growing Spanish-speaking customer and client numbers.

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