There are no easy or difficult languages. There are languages which are easier or more difficult for you depending on what your mother tongue is. Learning Spanish for a French or Korean person does not mean the same amount of effort. Your brain automatically applies principles of your native language to a second one. Professional linguists call this linguistic interference and mention that it may be a negative or a positive phenomenon. Being aware of your own linguistic influences will definitely make learning more effective and help you to avoid frustration.
English speakers might find learning Spanish daunting if they try to swallow it all at once. However, with a little knowledge of the language structure, you will grasp it very quickly. Here there are some key aspects you ought to take into account when you are approaching Spanish.
A grammatical gender is one of the most confusing things in Spanish grammar. One British friend of mine is always grumbling at Spanish nouns: “How can a “mesa (table)” be female and a “coche (car)” male? They are inanimate objects. It’s illogical!” I am a Russian native speaker and this phenomenon seems normal to me except that in my language it is the other way around: a “coche” is female and a “mesa” is male!
Spanish places more emphasis on gender than English does. The rule of thumb with Spanish nouns is that every word ending with «o» is masculine and with “a” is feminine, but you will find there are many exceptions to the rule, for example “día”. The category of grammatical gender is adopted from nouns by adjectives and articles. The best advice in learning Spanish gender would be memorizing the words with their articles: “el día”.It is masculine.
Amo, amas, ama, amamos…
Spanish verbs follow the strict rules of conjugation. The meaning is basically transmitted by the verbs’ terminations. For this reason the word order, which is crucial in English, can normally be changed in Spanish without affecting the meaning. A common mistake an English speaker makes is the overuse of pronouns. In English something like “stroked the cat” is incomplete. In Spanish, on the other hand, the verb form already includes the person, so actually saying the pronoun is not needed. It often sounds old-fashioned or too formal to native listeners.
To be or not to be?
Ser or Estar? Two verbs, one meaning. Do Spaniards have dual reality? Not likely. To find the reason why two verbs peacefully co-exist in Spanish we must go back to the Roman Empire. In classical Latin the “formal” verb “to be” was “esse”, while in vulgar Latin there were two verbs “sedere” (to sit) and “stare” (to stand). “Esse” was combined with “sedere” and that was the origin of the modern “ser”. And “stare” gave birth to the modern “estar”. Standing in one place perhaps did not inspire enough consistency, and in the modern Spanish the verb “estar” mainly transmits temporary states. It is unlikely that the historical background would help you to resolve the problems with usage of these two verbs. Here there is nothing to do, but learn the rules. However, if it helps as a consolation, Spanish speakers have lots of problems with English “to do” and “to make”. So, we are all even!
Spanish and English share many words with Latin roots. It makes learning vocabulary easier, even if you don’t know the word itself, you would probably guess what the meaning is. Sometimes, however, the words take a separate path in each language and acquire new meanings. This can lead to either a small confusion “large” – “largo” (long) or big misunderstandings like “embarrassed” – “embarazada” (pregnant!). The only way of avoiding unpleasant situations is to know your false friends by sight and study them religiously.
Finding your favourite Spanish word!
Good news! Spanish pronunciation does not cause many problems, as the English phonetic system is more complex. The challenge however might be the rolling and very charismatic “rr”. My “irritated with Spanish nouns” British friend mastered the art of pronouncing Spanish “rr”. He did it in one week by choosing a special word «horario». The word was difficult for him to pronounce and he kept practising until it became perfect. His word also helped him to remember that “h” is always mute in Spanish. However, you can find your own! Native speakers of Spanish are very forgiving when it comes to pronunciation mistakes and accents. Most of them find British and American ways of speaking Spanish attractive. The best thing to do if you are aiming for a good pronunciation would be not to worry about it at all. As Lewis Carroll once said: “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”
There is a separate branch of linguistics – comparative linguistics – that studies the differences and similarities of languages. Every language is a system and most of the problems arise where their elements differ. Focusing on these areas will be the shortest way to perfect grammar. Seeing the differences shows similarities.
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