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.

Two tongues, Two Minds – Writing Bilingually

Have you ever tried writing from scratch in your second language? A letter, a post-card, an essay? What was your result? Too hard to think of the words? Frustration with the grammar? You wrote it in English and then tried to translate it to Spanish? Writing in a second language is challenging but so rewarding if you want to learn.

I treat all writing – in English or Spanish – as thinking on paper. It’s thought in a visual form. When I lay down the words where I can see them, it’s easier to watch what they do in the company with other words. Writing in Spanish, however imperfectly, also sharpens me for writing in English.

Good writers are also good readers and reading is a good place to start. Try reading a familiar English passage in another language. Chances are it will illuminate something you didn’t notice in English. For example, St. John’s Gospel starts with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …” I always took this as a poetic but abstract statement about the Divinity. I understood the passage differently when I heard it in Spanish. “En el principio existía el Verbo y el Verbo estaba con Dios y el Verbo era Dios…” Verbo means verb, it denotes a word to express action. The English ‘word’ denotes a part of speech and can be a noun, adjective, preposition as well as a verb. In other words, ‘Word’ is rather generic, even passive.  God as verbo is a different image than God as ‘word; a God of actions rather than categories.

Try this:

Read in Spanish (or your second language) a book you already know well in English. Preferably, choose one with familiar passages as in the Bible, Winnie the Pooh, Goodnight Moon, or others. As you read, look for shades of meaning in Spanish language you missed in English. What new insights or meanings do you take from this?

I began writing in Spanish during immersion. The teacher asked only for random sentences to practice verb tenses, prepositional phrases, etc. As an inveterate writer, however, I turned the requisite sentences into a short, coherent story I might tell socially. I was tempted to write it in English and then translate it but I’m glad I didn’t. The point of immersion is learning to think the language. Writing Spanish from scratch wasn’t easy at first, but became easier with each essay and oh so satisfying!

Writing forced me to think the language, and my tutor identified the habitual mistakes. That became an agenda for practice and improvement. In short, writing Spanish showed me where to focus my efforts. Writing helped me acquire the rhythm of Spanish. I wrote about things that interested me, thereby building a useable, personal vocabulary connected to my life and interests. Ultimately, I developed a writing and speaking style natural to me.

I habitually wrote English in an emotionally restrained style sometimes bordered on terseness. When I wrote in Spanish, however, I was surprised to discover my natural style was more emotional and affective than in English. Part of this I ascribe to the transforming effects of languages and cultures. Second languages and cultures tend to draw on aspects of personality that may be subordinate or invisible in your native culture.

When I started writing Spanish, I focused on words and phrases I wanted to learn to use well. I began by writing them across the top of a page. Then I studied them for their possibilities until I had a story line. It was a process like arranging and rearranging the magnetic words and phrases on the refrigerator door until a sentence or paragraph emerged. In time, reading and writing moved me closer to thinking and speaking with the economy of a native speaker. You will find, as I did,  writing can embed in your memory useful words and phrases that will easily roll off your tongue when you need them.

After the immersions, I continued to write short stories for my own amusement and to practice Spanish. I created stories with dialogues between the characters because this is a good way (in my opinion) to learn the kinds of phrases most likely to come up in conversation. It is especially useful in learning the slang or modismos.

In the fragment below, I created an author with a case of writer’s block the night before a crucial deadline. He hears a voice in his garret and is confronted by a tiny man standing on his typewriter. It is the writer’s inner voice but he doesn’t yet recognize it as his own:

“¿Quién? ¿Quién eres,” le pregunté, frotando los ojos con mis puños con incredulidad.

“¿Tú no sabes?”

No. No idea. No conozco a cualquier hombrecitos. ¿Eres tú una invención? ¿Alguien que me imaginaba?“

Sabes ya mi nombre. Es el mismo de tuyo.”

“¡Ay-yi-yi! ¿De dónde vienes?”

“Aquí. Siempre aquí. Vivo dentro de ti.”

¡Aquí! ¡Siempre! ¡Dentro de yo mismo! Me sentí más y más confundido. Cuando traté poner un dedo en el hombrecito, mi dedo pasó por su cuerpo como sí él estaba el aire. ¡Carrumba! ¿Por qué estoy platicar con un hombrecito imaginario? Él es una alucinación. ¡Ay, estoy fatigado!

Now try writing a story on your own. Keep it simple, on the level of a story you would tell a child. Keep it short and manageable. Play with it. If you write on your computer with Microsoft Word, you can go to the “Review” tab on the menu bar and set the proofing language. When you right click on a word, there is a link to synonyms. It’s a great way to sharpen your writing and expand your vocabulary.

Try this:

Choose a dozen words – verbs, prepositions, phrases – and write them across the top of your page. Next, look at the words and phrases and note the words, thoughts, actions, or events they suggest. Use them as the basis for a story. Use them naturally, in your particular way of speaking. Watch what happens.

Try this:

Create several characters and put them into a conversation in your second language. Try to inhabit each character, and give each one a distinct way of speaking. You may find yourself writing short, punchy phrases – the kind we say all the time. The dialogue will suggest the vocabulary.

If you have a native-speaker friend, or one who is highly fluent in your second language, engage them as a critical reader to give you constructive criticism. Two things will happen: 1) Your use of the language will improve, and 2) you may detect a subtle but distinct aspect of your mind you hadn’t noticed before.

Buena suerte!



Rainy day Spanish – when you’re all alone

OAXACA, Mexico.

As a farm boy, a rainy day meant staying indoors, freed from chores, with “nothing” to do but read books.  I fell in love with reading and rainy days.  If  you live in a desert, you can declare for yourself a ‘rainy day” and take up reading – in Spanish!  Here’s how it works:

Julita, a Mexican friend, arrived in Minnesota twenty-five years ago with two small children.  She didn’t speak English and neither did they.  Being an intelligent and determined woman, she supported her family by cleaning, and set about learning English on her own.   Her children are now adults and native speakers in both languages, and she talks as readily in one tongue as the other.  How did she do it?

She read to her children.  Not the simplest children’s books, but books with characters and plots.  Her favorite was the “Amerlia Bedelia” series.  These books revolve around literalness, figures of speech, and the humorous mishaps of Amelia.  But she told me – with a smile –  she read mostly for herself.

Like Julita, I stumbled upon the same strategy early in my Spanish studies.  Without forethought, I bought a memoir about growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the late 1940s.  The author is my contemporary in age and a university professor in California.  He wrote a simple narrative at a 9th grade level.  I caught the drift of the story, but not the color and details.  Those I looked up.  Unfamiliar words on the page revealed themselves when I sounded them out (as we did as grade-school children).  Soon, I read aloud, just under my breath, and the story took on greater depth and meaning.  Somehow, hearing the word as I read it increased my comprehension.

Although I’m fluent now, and sight-read Spanish, I continue to read aloud, particularly when I’m not in Mexico.  Reading aloud is a good strategy and I believe sharpens several language skills at the same time.

Imprinting the language:

1) I learn the words as I speak them.  This seems to imprint the words in my memory for pronunciation and meaning.  (There is research that combining learning with a physical act strengthens retention.)

2) Besides receiving the word visually, I hear it as well in my own voice.  Letters and sounds go together as a single action.  This makes it easier to recognize the word when I hear someone say it.

Physical training:

3) By reading aloud I practice the physical act of making the sounds.  Some sounds are not as easy to make as others, such as the rolled R – as in “perro,” or the sound of double L as in “llamar.”   Unlike English, Spanish articulates every vowel separately, and this isn’t always easy to do.  Reading aloud helps to train the muscles of my tongue to make the sounds it’s not accustomed to making.  Think of reading aloud as a “work-out” for your tongue muscles.


4) Reading aloud creates linkages between sight and sound with words commonly used phrases, such as “asi como” “antes de que,” and others that stitch together nouns and verbs.  When reading, we tend to see one word of phrase at a time.  But speaking is an almost unbroken flow of sounds.  Native speakers often fuse the sounds of words to the point non-native speakers can’t distinguish them.  (We do this in English, too:  “seeya later,” “doncha know”, etc.)  If we’re not attuned to the sounds as they link and fuse, we may quickly lose the thread of the conversation.  Reading aloud can help create and reinforce these links.


5) There is rhythm to the spoken word.  We all have a distinctive, individual rhythm speech that identifies us as surely as a photo.  We instantly recognize friend or family by their voice over the phone.  Reading aloud – but particularly if the book has dialogues – may help develop your particular rhythm, one that is natural to you.  Speaking naturally will improve your confidence as well as your fluency.

Try this:

If you already know even a little Spanish, buy a Spanish language book (children’s or young adult) that fits your level of fluency.  Then read aloud to yourself and listen to your voice.  You may not understand all the words the first time through.  In fact, I can almost guarantee you won’t, unless you bought a book below your level of experience.  But read slightly above your level, underline words you don’t understand, and continue reading.  You will likely re-read a paragraph or sentence; and when you do, check to see if the context tells you something about the underlined words.  If you have to look them up, do it later rather than break your rhythm and concentration.

I still do this as an exercise.  A friend recently gave me a book of Mexican short stories; the writing is literary, the plots are subtle, and some of the words escape me.   I often reread paragraphs, even whole pages, before I get it.  But it strengthens my vocabulary.  I carry this or other books with me and read while waiting to meet a friend.  I also have some bi-lingual anthologies of short stories, but I’m not convinced they’re as helpful.  To me, at least.   But that’s a personal preference.

Yesterday, I spent several hours in the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, in the galleries of artifacts from the early period of Zapotec culture.  Besides the cards identifying the fetishes and funeral objects, there were panels explaining the background and details of the culture.  I read them aloud, just under my breath, my whispers floating down the empty hallways.  I read aloud as fast as my eyes could sweep over the words, and the comprehension was complete.  When I stopped reading aloud (because someone was close to me), my rate of comprehension slowed noticeably.  Why?  For all the reasons I’ve outlined above, I suppose.

To repeat something I’ve said before: language is more than words.  It is also a physical activity that engages our brain, our emotions, and the muscles of our mouths.  All must work together if we are communicate and understand the words of others, whether written or spoken.  I believe effective language learning requires careful attention to and training of these distinct parts of our being: mind, body, and soul.

To sum up:  Reading aloud is an easy but effective way to boost your language capacity.  It’s cheap.  You can do it anywhere, at any time, when you’re alone.  And who knows, you may look forward to rainy days.