The Cuckoo’s Nest: My Days in a Spanish Elementary School, Part 5. For English Language Teachers:

Sometimes it can’t be explained in simple words. A picture definition of “teetering on the edge of submitting to his vampire instincts.” (reading practice of a movie review of “Twilight.”)

In October 2010, I began a “teaching” assistant job in a bilingual elementary school in the center of Madrid.  On my first day, with the uneasy feeling of sliding into a house party full of unfamiliar people, I walked into the classroom to mingle with the twitchy, distracted children. As it turns out, the first words uttered to me as I embarked on my assigned duty of cross-cultural embassador were, “Poop penis!”

Simple and direct, although a grammatical mess.

I thought, This is going to be a long year.

Since then, I’ve taken on more responsibility and control of my curriculum, but through my students, I have discovered so many false cognates, pronunciation foul-ups, accidental and hilarious cultural faux-pas, and inappropriate translation mistakes, and it is inexcusable that I have not written all of them down.  There are, though, a few that stand out, and each time they occur, I feel as though I’ve discovered laughter for the first time.

Most laughable language mistakes seem to come from children, but there are exceptions.  A few months ago, as I was reviewing the theme of opposites with adjectives, I asked my 25-year-old student a warm up question.

“What is the opposite of messy?” I asked.

“Ronaldo,” she said.

The answer was automatic and matter-of-fact.  She hadn’t yet figured out the topic of our class, and she saw the humor in the answer only afterward.


What are you going to cock tonight?” (a result of over-correcting from the default /uw/ sound in cook, moving from cook to cock).

…like the blackies in Angola and other parts of Africa.” Believe it or not, this was the third most offensive term this student used, preceded by the n-word, and “the past slave population.” It should be mentioned that this student is neither a racist nor an ignorant bastard who is lazy with his language.  He was working with a perceived notion that Americans are very cautious about racial labels, and he was just trying too hard to be politically correct.  It was hilarious only because of his innocence.

In language learning, many students find patterns refreshing and satisfying. And in English, most of the time, there are discernible patterns.

The English language has at least 44 distinguishable phonetic sounds, the uses of which vary depending on the environment in which they occur and regional accent of the speaker.  For this, English is notorious and often intimidating.  The Spanish speaker invariably will have problems with certain English sounds, either because they don’t exist in Spanish or their tongue doesn’t want to cooperate because they’ve already decided on the improbably of a correct utterance. The following are a few examples:

/ʃ/ as in show, shark, Shawn

/z/ as in zoo, zebra, zero

/v/ as in very, Veronica, caravan

/ð/ as in then, the, there

/r/ (not trilled) as in run, rage, red

/I/ as in sit, pit, ship

/ʊ/ book, put

/æ/ cat, mat, pan

/ə/ about, away, cinema

/ay/ fight, buy

/ey/ say, play

There are complex vowel sounds that come from the English-speaking mouth which are a particular source of pain and misery for most Spanish speakers.  For them, is it incredibly difficult to distinguish between words like fate and fight, or beat and bit, or  taste and test.  The problems occur when the slip in pronunciation results in a confusion in meaning.  Examples that come to mind: beach and bitch, sheet and shit (although I’ve not really seen this happen in early learners, since Spanish speakers are not likely to accidentally say a sound that they have no experience in uttering. They will probably merely say, for example, if they are actually referring to the dirtier side of Rio de Janeiro’s coastline, “There are a lot of hot beetches on the beaches there.”). My classes collectively still assume, when I say, “Come on, guys!”, that I’m referring to them as some consortium of homosexuals.

A restaurant sign apparently trying to appeal to all Indo-European roots simultaneously.

Consider the following variations of my name that I must spontaneously interpret on a daily basis, listed in order of occurrence:

Schwan, Swan, Sone, San, Son, Sun, Sen, Eswan, Esan, Eson. 

I suspect that Schwan is the most popular of these beautiful variations because of the (debatable) similarity to the Catalán sound of, ‘x’, as in Xavi, Xavier, deixa, or xarop. So, when I introduce myself, I usually follow the introduction with a brief phonetic comparison, “Shawn, like Xavi, the football player…“. And although the ‘x’ phoneme in this example is actually more complex than /ʃ/, this is usually sufficient, but there still remain several coworkers and friends who will always call me by the name of that long-necked, white bird that swims in ponds (which has a strange feminizing effect on me).  So, for restaurant reservations and to others who can’t be bothered with the novelty of a foreign name, I have decided I will now be called “Don Juan Simon García Martinez de la Serpiente Azul“, because it’s just easier.

But they really are reasonable, these problems people have with English. Given the plethora of potential pronunciation obstacles Spanish speakers must over come, it is not surprising when intelligent, bright people of all ages are frustrated with our language, particularly with regard to spelling and pronunciation.  Most foreign language speakers become aware of this and at some point get discouraged, convinced that there are no reasons or patterns to be offered, and disparage the Anglophone as the devil.  Most of these perceived anomalies can be explained, though, and from the student’s point of view, this often marks the difference between an English teacher and a coincidentally native speaker on an extended backpacking trip.


Often phrases will appear in conversation which are at first completely indecipherable.

they are just big information pirates.”

“Preservatives kind of make sex not as good, but I guess they’re important to put on.”

“I like eggs passed through water, but not for breakfast.”

For me, the process of discovering how a person has formed a sentence is interesting and usually enlightens me on their native language as well, which is the language I should be learning anyway. And the more knowledge I have of their native tongue, the more effective I can be at teaching them mine.  To me, the answer of “I don’t know, it’s just that way” is lazy (but of course I have resorted to this, usually on a Friday evening when all I can think of is a cold beer).

There are, by the way, phonemes in Spanish that I find nearly impossible to distinguish, to the delight of some of my students.  For example, the letter “l”can have three different ways of pronunciation in Spanish (yes, technically, the differences exist).

/ɺ/ alza, dulce

/l/ falda, saltar

/ɭ/ el lote, Lola

As in English, the variation depends on where the letter is placed in the word.  But in English, there are far more of these examples to contend with.  The sounds change depending on the placement of the letter in the word, as well as in the sentence as a whole.

Consider the letter “c”, which is pronounced a certain way before a, u, o, l, and r,  but sounds different when occurring before e and i.  And the letters “ch” sound different depending on if the c precedes and h or a k.

So, if you happen to be a teacher of English, armchair or professional, in the midst of children (or adults) who love English on Tuesday and then scorn all things British or American on Friday, remember that no matter how peripheral the actual language may sometimes seem, encouragement and a little research on your own language go a long way. I have weaved through (and have, so far, successfully avoided, it should be said) the occasional epidemic of lice, pink eye, mononucleosis, the downright offensive fit of herpes simplex on the oblivious kid in the front row, the vomit, the anomalistic allergies that may or may not result in death or permanent psychosis, and had the pleasure of dealing with the boy who just poked a pencil deep in his ear and promptly shit his pants in class. And still, I realize again and again, that the classroom is a unique place in the world where, from time to time, amazing learning processes occur, where real changes happen in the minds of young ones (and old ones).  And if I can use my love of language and find the inherent humor in it, I find that I am not wasting my time. The passing daily crises we face cannot be allowed to quell the humor in learning or cloud the awareness of the inherent quality of language in our existence.

6 thoughts on “The Cuckoo’s Nest: My Days in a Spanish Elementary School, Part 5. For English Language Teachers:

  1. I highly recommend Clear Speech by Judy B. Gilbert for a really great textbook that focuses on pronunciation of American English, along with other fun tidbits such as intonation, stress, and rhythm. It even comes with diagrams of tongue placement, which are really quite helpful. I use this with a couple of intermediate adult students that I have, and I had a breakthrough recently with a student who just could not pronounce the combined “rd” sound (e.g. card). We figured out that when you go from /r/ to /d/, instead of putting the tongue right behind the teeth for the /d/ sound, you just go straight up from /r/ so it flows faster. Once she realized she was placing her tongue incorrectly (making a d that sounds like a t) she immediately was able to correct it. I´ve heard good things about the Clear Speech From The Start book which is also by the same author but focused toward beginners.

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