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





James Torrens, s.j.
UIA Tijuana

Translating from one language to another is really slippery. You can't just put a Spanish word into an English look-alike. "Revelar" means "to develop film," but "reveal" does not; "actual" means "contemporary," but not in English; nor does "compromiso" carry over as "strong commitment;" "embarazo" is not a safe equivalent of "embarrassment" (!); and "frontera" often translates in English as "border," not "frontier." "Historia" may not mean "history" at all but rather "story." The slight shifts in nuance are the hardest to spot.

A big challenge to thinking in a second language comes in what you might call a "split." The verb "hacer" in Spanish splits into "do" and "make." "Do" connotes action, whereas "make" connotes a kind of artistry or physical shaping of things. That blunt distinction, however, relatively easy to grasp, only begins the fun, because the words occur in hundreds of idioms, such as "do your duty," "do your best," "make a fuss," make a nuisance of yourself," etc., etc. Logic only goes so far in getting it right!

Spanish gets its revenge in the split of the verb "to be" into "ser" and "estar," which also can be clearly explained but devilishly hard to apply. The present writer has never really mastered them. A lesser split of this kind comes with "quality," which appears in Spanish mostly as "cualidad" but sometimes as "calidad," to mean, "prime (or inferior) quality." Here's another one that comes up all the time and takes a real shift in one's programming. The singular noun "gente" goes into the plural, "people," in English. It's very hard to get used to.

In its written form, English seems to enjoy multiplying the obstacles, most of them by way of crazy and unpredictable spelling. Many words of the same spelling have different sounds, like the two versions of "read" or "lead." Many words of similar spelling have different sounds, like "beat" and "great," plus the notorious series of "through," "though," "tough," "trough" and "thought." English has twice as broad an inventory of vowels and a huge vocabulary, much of it Germanic and much more of it French or Latin in origin, thanks to multiple invasions of the British Isles. If any general statement can be made about spelling differences, perhaps it consists in this, that English abounds in double consonants, like "mission" and "application" and "effect," but that Spanish avoids them like the plague, except for the double 'c,' as in "sección" and "fracción," and an occasional double "r" (¿correcto?).

But the challenges of written English do not stop there. Three observations, in particular, are worth making. First, the apostrophe is completely foreign to Spanish and tends to remain so. The difference between "it's" and "its" remains a mystery to many capable writers of English as a second language. The same can be said of other such bugaboos as "there's/theirs" and the difference between singular and plural possessives ("my sister's car," "my parents' insurance policy"). Second, following the tendency of German, English tends to jam words together in various ways. That includes compound adjectives, joined by a hyphen, as in "sweet-smelling flower" or "heavy-handed action." It includes using nouns as modifiers of other nouns (as in "ski slope," "auto race"), often making hyphenated compounds of these (as in "candle-holder," "pace-maker"), or even joining the two words completely (as in "farmhand," "workplace," "seashore"). This tendency of English is at work in the simplest conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, such as "however," "therefore," "into," "someone," "everybody." The Spanish speaker will hear, and often write, these as two words-"sin embargo," "por lo tanto," "dentro de," "cada uno," "¿por qué?"

Thirdly, to open Pandora's box very wide, let's take the matter of capitalizing. It is minimized in Spanish, maximized in German, and in English used for all proper nouns, and proper adjectives. "El inglés," "un país latino," "un alcalde mexicano," "el presidente Fox" becomes "English," "a Latin country," "a Mexican mayor," "President Fox." The same tendency to capitalize affects the titles of books, articles, poems, etc., which tend to start with a capital in Spanish, and that's all, whereas they will have many more capitals in English. El laberinto de la soledad, by Octavio Paz, becomes The Labyrinth of Solitude.

There are multiple other features not just of writing, and spelling in English, but of thinking in this deceptively simple language. One is the love of those verbal nouns, the gerunds, which in Spanish tend to mutate to infinitives or to simple nouns. "Boxing is on T.V. right now" becomes "El boxeo se está mostrando en la tele." "Parting is such sweet sorrow" might become "Es amargamente dulce despedirse." "Despedirse" displays that Spanish love of the reflexive verb. How often the reflexive takes over in place of that very common feature of English, the passive voice. "My wallet was found in the lavatory" comes out "Se descubrió mi cartera en el baño." The distancing of actions from their agents by means of the reflexive form-as in "Se me cayó el vaso," "I dropped the glass"-is a wonderful quirk of Spanish, and no doubt the very best place to let this whole subject lie (not "lay"!).

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Posted on

February 16, 2015