EDUCATION ON THE BORDER: The myths and realities of teaching on "La nueva frontera"





James Torrens, s.j.
UIA Tijuana


This thoughtful and humorous article analyzes the complex process of learning a language and specifically addresses the particulars of learning a second language, in this case learning Spanish and English. It offers clear examples of how thoughts are processed according to the cultural context of the language and with these contributes to the understanding of language formation in the border region.


Este artículo de reflexión y con sentido de humor analiza el proceso complejo de aprender un idioma y específicamente trata sobre las particularidades de aprender un segundo idioma, en este caso el de aprender el español y el inglés. Ofrece ejemplos claros de cómo se procesan los pensamientos de acuerdo al contexto cultural del idioma y con éstos contribuye al entendimiento de la adquisición de lenguaje en la zona fronteriza.


What an infinity of detail is involved in learning a language! One needs a musical ear, the memory of a twelve-year-old and a librarian's ease with systems. And then, when all the essentials are in place and working-somewhere further along in language learning-one needs to start thinking in the other language. This is not just an abstract requirement, as if Cubans, Thais and Iranians all go through the same process to think in English. No, each one has to start with a set of contrasts-has to step out of the mother tongue into a different way of managing one's verbal expression.

After teaching English to Spanish speakers, I am struck by recurrent difficulties they have in crossing over. Suppose we start with the handling of verbs, and specifically with modals. What seems to be the greatest simplification of English, its almost complete absence of inflection in the verbs, opens the field to all those one-syllable helpers, the modals-"can," "may," "will," "would," "should," etc. The present tense of the modal takes the simple form of the verb-"I may come," "I should write," "They will remember." The urge to insert "to" after the modal is strong. (Some modals, of course, actually include "to," as in "I'm going to," "you ought to.") But the harder part is getting the right combination in the past tense-modal + "have"+ past participle, as in "he should have married her," "they might have done it." Not so easy to master.

Questions in English introduce the modal in a quaint way, one that does not depend as much on the tone of voice as does Spanish. English uses the "do" family-"do," "did," "don't," "doesn't," "didn't" as signals, or counters, with no meaning of their own, to set up the question: "Do you mind?" "Doesn't it look nice!" (Partially a question), "Didn't they come?" The other modals can be put to similar use, keeping their own charge of meaning: "May I come in?" "Shouldn't it be open?".

English verbs always call for a subject; the subject noun or pronoun can't just be understood, as in Spanish. "Parece sencillo," "Hay problemas," "Me comprende bien," in translation, all need subjects or the subject fillers "it" and "there." In English we expect "It seems easy," "There are problems," "She understands me well."

To an English-speaker, Spanish grammar has one real quirk when a verb takes a person as its object (not an animal or plant, not a thing, not an abstraction). Consider "I greeted Charlie," "I see your aunt every day," "I telephoned your boss." In Spanish all of these verbs+objects call for an intermediate "a"-"Saludé a Charlie," "Veo a tu tía diáriamente," "Llamé a tu jefe." In English, the Spanish-speaker has to excise this pesky "a." He or she has to form a different habit.

English is known as a word-order language. All languages have a characteristic word order, of course, but English depends on it more, since it has lost so much of its power of signaling with its loss of inflection, not just in the verbs but in the nouns and adjectives as well. Concerning adjectives, they go regularly before the noun they modify, whereas in Spanish they often trail after. "Un paisaje maravilloso," "una tarea difícil," "unos alumnos listos" become in English "a beautiful landscape," "a hard task," "some smart students."

Here is another big change. An abstract noun, unless it has one very specific referent, tends to drop the article-"a," "an," "the"-in English. Examples of such abstract nouns not normally preceded by "the" are the following: "freedom," "brotherhood," "history," "faith," "society," "work," "collaboration." Examples of where that changes (and "the" is called for) would be the following: "I like the freedom I have here," "The doctor just took that patient's history," "The Muslim Brotherhood is active in Egypt." Spanish never drops the article. (When it comes to language, "never say never," but you get the idea.)

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Posted on

February 16, 2015