The Native-speaker’s Ear

So, you’ve learned a lot of Spanish and Spanish speakers understand you. Some have even complimented you. The affirmation is gratifying and you want more. (We always want more!) And you want to sound a more like a native-speaker. Maybe blend in. Who doesn’t? But is it possible?

Speaking like a native requires mucho más— much, much more—than correct conjugation of the pluperfect  subjunctive or rolling the double ‘rr’ and or elided ‘yh’ sound of the double ‘ll’. Sometimes, speaking a little too perfectly marks you as an outsider, a talking text-book, someone who knows the words but not the language as it is spoken. Listen to yourself speaking English. How many deviations from the grammar books do you hear? Developing your capacity to speak Spanish as natives do requires developing an ‘ear’ to hear the language as they hear it. This is a tall order. Think of it as a journey and not a destination. It’s worth it—vale la pena.

How we speak our tongue is part of our individual and cultural  identity. Our verbal fingerprint is there in our accent, rhythm and phrasing. It tells some people we are a part of their group and tell others we are strangers,  ‘not from around these parts.’

Novels and short stories.

Accents, rhythms and phrasing. As children, we learned to speak mimicking our parents and peers. Their sound patterns trained our ‘ear’ to recognize and mimic the language as they spoke it. I don’t mean only the grammar but the accents, rhythm and phrasing of sentences. I grew up in rural Minnesota but my urban New Jersey-born parents taught me to speak and my English still has strains of the East Coast. Minnesotans pronounce ‘orange’ as  orj but I grew up hearing it is ahranj.

New sounds are often challenging for adults and adult language learners. As we age, a part of our brain gradually tunes out sounds that don’t conform to our native tongue. Adult language learners can master grammar and vocabulary with relative ease but struggle to understand what they hear. Developing the ‘ear’ requires developing the mental circuitry to handle it.

The American South and New England have distinctive accents. Among southerners, the vowels often glide so a word like ‘ride’ is pronounced rod or rad. And you may hear ‘done’  used as an auxiliary as in ‘I done told you.’ New Englanders have a distinct speech with a broad ‘ah’ instead of ‘ar,’ as in ‘don’t pahk yoah cah in Havahd Yahd.’ In Minnesota, our accent is flatter and we are apt to pronounce ‘police’ and ‘insurance’ as ‘p’lice’ and ‘inshurns.’ In the south, the accent falls heavier on first syllables and the words you hear are ‘po-lice’ and ‘in-shurance.’ These dynamics are at work in other countries and languages. In Mexico, for example, I hear subtle (to me) differences in the Spanish of multi-national Mexico City, multi-ethnic Oaxaca and indigenous Cuetzalán of the Sierra Norte.

Idiomatic phrasing is often as telling as an accent. In Minnesota and the upper Midwest, it is common to end phrases and sentences with a preposition or an adverb. You may be asked: ‘Do you want to come with?’ Or to confirm your café order: ‘So, you want cream, then?’ Many sentences begin with ‘you know’ or an agreement ends with ‘that’s for sure’ or ‘you bet.’

Find books on areas you plan to visit.

Acquiring an ‘ear’ for the language means hearing (and thinking) the way a native hears it. This takes time and patience. Becoming a native speaker by intent is a tall order for an adult learner but who doesn’t want to do a little better? So, how can we up our game, as it were? How can we move our already competent grasp of Spanish a notch closer to speaking and comprehending native speech?

Try this: Get some books written in Spanish—not translations from English! Choose children’s or young adult novels or short stories you can easily understand. That way, you can focus on the phrasing and rhythm of the language. Especially, look for books with dialogue between characters. Then read the stories aloud (a whisper is sufficient) and pay attention to the sound. Before long, you’ll feel the rhythm of the language, the rise and fall of the speech. With this practice, you will sharpen your ‘ear’.

If you have a strong interest in a particular Spanish-speaking country, look for novels and short-stories by its authors as idioms differ from one nation to another. As you read these books, make note of how common phrases are put together. Many phrases in English have counterparts in Spanish. You may also notice they don’t translate literally but only figuratively. As you read, you may notice the distinct ‘voices’ of the characters by the words they use and the kinds of phrases they speak. Take notes. Before long, you will ‘hear’ the rhythm and acquire useful phrases inherit to a nation or a region.

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