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“Gapi” for Happy and Other Language Thoughts

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

“My spelling is better in Spanish than in English, because in Spanish each letter only has one sound, but English is so much harder.”  This is what I’ve said, and believed, for a long time, but like most things, the more I know, the more interesting it gets.  I am now co-teaching one hour a week of Environmental Education in each class, 1st-4th grade in Spanish, which means I get to a) actually communicate with my students, i.e. talk about things besides colors and animals, b) observe their teachers and classroom routines, and c) watch them read and write in Spanish.  Here’s what I’ve been noticing:

In Spanish, some sounds can be written with more than one letter.  For example, I saw a first-grader write “sien” for “cien [one hundered]”, a logical error since “s” and “c” sound the same in certain contexts.  “V” and “b” always make the same sound; in Mexico, I remember seeing a sign that said, “Vienenido” (“Bienvenido“, Welcome) in a more rural area.  When spelling outloud, Mexicans differentiated between “v de vaca[cow]” and “b de burro[donkey]” — that’s like saying, “C as in Charlie”.  Here in Chile, people say “b larga” and “v corta” — little and big b/v.  For me, my goal is to make the two letters sound the same when I am speaking (much closer to an English “b”), but I almost never mix them up in writing, certainly because I learned Spanish in school first.  At times I am also more familiar with written accents than native speakers, not surprising in a country where a paperback novel costs $30 or more.

When I am teaching Environmental Education in Spanish, students ask me for help spelling: “Tía, ‘botella’ se escribe con b larga o v corta?”  Answer: b larga, botella, [bottle].  I think it’s hilarious that they ask me, but it’s true, I can spell a lot better than them in Spanish.  I teach them new vocabulary, like  “reduce”, “reuse”, “generate”, and “solid waste”.  But I also learn new words in class, like “babosa“, [slug] (which many of them spelled “vavosa“, “bavosa“, etc.).  I was talking with my sister the other day when I first asked myself, Who has a bigger Spanish vocabulary, my first-graders or me?  Mostly we know different words– they know family/house words and they conjugate perfectly; I know more academic words, and I can read and write.  I’m sure I have a larger Spanish vocabulary than prekinder-gardeners, but at what point does it cross?

And then there is my students’ spelling in English.  With my students, I always try to teach a new word orally first, and then use writing as a way to remember it (partly due to my high school’s French program).  But still, it pains me to hear my second graders repeat “run”  pretty darn well, and then when I write it on the board, they start saying “roon”; they repeat “dance”, but read, “dan-say”.   They are doing exactly what they are supposed to do– sound out a word according the alphabet they know– but unfortunately, this takes their English pronunciation a step backwards.  When I see kids write “hit” (eat), or “gapi” (happy), I almost prefer that spelling, because it means they are recreating the sounds they heard.

In these moments I have two thoughts: 1) I like teaching more than I thought I would.  This is fascinating;  2) I wish I had more methodical preparation!  I want to teach with a formal understanding of English grammar, with a curriculum to follow that I actually believe in.

Instead of elaborating about what thoughts #1 and 2 get me to wondering about my future, I’m going to share a little story: on Monday afternoon, I got to chatting with a few third grade girls in one of the rural schools as our driver was fixing a flat tire.  Here are some of the best lines:

  • “Usted es soltera o casada?”  [Are you married or single?]
  • “Es grande su país?”  [Is your country big?]
  • “Dónde está su país?  Santiago queda cerca de su país?” [Where is your country?  Is Santiago near your country?”]
  • “Usted no puede hablar como yo  [You can’t talk like I talk].”  I tried to respond–  “That’s right, in my family” — but she interrerupted me with,  “Los argentinos no pueden hablar como yo [Argentines can’t talk like I talk].”  It seems that she understands that I talk different, but doesn’t really get what I’m coming from.  A pleasant surprise.
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