Saturday, 3 November 2012


MrsK asked me the other day why Spanish tennis players (her main source of linguistic exemplars) spoke English less well than other foreign players. And it reminded me of this exchange, which I had contributed to some time ago in my early days as a UsingEnglish moderator.

To summarize my points (and I may well have been talking to myself, as after the initial question the only contributor to that thread was me), these are the difficulties I could think of at the time, with a few other thoughts:
  • Ease of mapping from writing to sounds in Spanish. Spanish learners try to pronounce every letter, because that is infallibly right in Spanish. (It's interesting - and perhaps relevant - that when I was at a teachers' training session about dyslexia, one teacher reported that she had had a Spanish student [an adult] who had been successfully through the Spanish education system without having his dyslexia diagnosed .)
  • L1:L2 phonemes almost all (?maybe all) don't match.
  • Timing - unlike English, Spanish is a syllable-timed rather than a stress-timed language. There is quite possibly a Spanish tale of pet-abuse to match
    Ding dong bell
    Pussy's in the well
    Who put him in?
    Little Johnny Flynn

    But if there is you can bet the line-lengths don't differ so widely  (the numbers of syllables fitting into the same four-beat measure are, in the first four lines, 3,5,4, and 5; but What a naughty boy was that, really takes the biscuit, at 7 syllables! :)
  • Consonant clusters. English uses lots, while Spanish breaks them up with vowel sounds so the there are usually at most two consonants together in a single syllable. For example, English 'strange' has the cognate word extraño; whereas English is happy to start a syllable with three consonant phonemes, Spanish ensures that there are only two each in 'es-' and '-tra-'.
  • English uses many phrasal verbs; Spanish doesn't. An English child might ask its parent 'Why didn't you bring the book you said you'd read to me out of up with you?' and the hearer would go back downstairs to get the right book without missing a beat (though probably not applauding the elegance of the construction).
But many of these apply to other languages too. Italian and French (and of course hundreds of others) are syllable-timed (although some southern dialects of Italian are stress-timed). Besides, the idea of syllable vs stress timing is not universally accepted. The title of Mark Liebermann's Language Log post leaves little doubt that he thinks it's boloney (although the jibe has an academically-polite disguise, in the Italian bologna):
[T]his is a complicated and contentious issue, and there have been many ideas over the years about how to rescue the (clearly much-loved) stress-timed vs. syllable-timed distinction. You could write a book about it. (And then someone else would write another book, disagreeing with you.)
So the jury's out, or rather it's a hung jury.  For me, I think a factor in the difficulties Spanish speakers have with English are something to do with the stress-timed/syllable-timed distinction. But there is plenty more to think about here. For example, I wonder if Catalan is stress-timed - which might account for the fact that I find the Castilian spoken in Catalonia much easier to follow than the Castilian spoken in Castile.

Which reminds me of an annoying encounter I had with a barman in Ibiza some years ago. I had asked for dos cervezas and he corrected me: he was used to lingistically-challenged Britishers who he could laugh at when their backs were turned, and presented with a competent speaker he had to find fault with something. It should be [θ], he said. The nerve of the man! He was the imperialist oppressor with his fancy foreign ceceo. In fact, it was a guilt-ridden holiday. It was all-inclusive, meaning that the local economy was virtually untouched (except for some employment at bread-line wages). The local Catalan-speakers had to put up with a lot from the Castilian-speaking interlopers.

But I digress.

updates and
update - a few tweaks to the PS

PS And while we're on the subject of annoying encounters involving Spanish speakers, with particular reference to 'fancy foreign ceceo', or 'imperialisp' as I'm tempted to call it, I'd just like to put on record my loathing of José Carreras' rendition of Misa Criolla (which I'm not going to dignify with a link - though Classic FM, and therefore Amazon, was full of it around the turn of the century).

In the '60's, when Ariel Ramirez wrote it, it came out at more or less the same time  as the Vatican's Second Ecumenical Council. Coming, as I did, from a God-fearing family (and we are talking 'Holy Mother Church' - unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam - none of your Anglican nonsense), and saying the Mass in the vernacular was a big deal. Gloria a dio' e' las altura', E in la tierr' pas a los hombre'.. - so much gutsier than Gloria in excelsis deo. Et in terra pax hominibus.... In the time of Cortez, ceceo ('the imperialisp') didn't happen. I've forgotten the details, but I remember writing an essay with the stirring title 'The De-Voicing of Mediaeval Sibilants in Castilian'; Cortez would have called himself [kortɛdz], or if he was a serious trend-setter [kortɛts] (unless he spelt his name Cortés, as most historians have it - but why should a little thing like spelling be allowed to interfere with a perfectly good joke?) Carreras' pronunciation - you can almost  hear him saying 'Thees eeza 'ow djou  suppos-et to pronoonce-a eet, paisanos' - is plain offensive (in the 'weapon-like' sense); it's a weapon of imperialism, as when Churchill intentionally mispronounced 'Nazis' as /næzi:z/ or La Thatcher said /gæl ti: eǝ ri:/, giving it four contemptuous syllables.

So when Señor Carreras sings [paθ] a los hombres I want to scream 'You just don't get it!' I want to... (time for my medication).

update 2013. - Added this footnote and updated TES stats:
update 2013.06.24,17.05 - L'esprit del l'escalier

‡ This, the Real Missa Criolla was played – in possibly the shortest and most crassly truncated extract I've ever heard on Desert Island Discs (one could almost hear Sue Lawley's 'That's enough of this. No wonder nobody's ever heard of it') on the radio  yesterday morning on Radio 4 Extra. Fortunately it was first recorded in 1996, before Carreras' Crime Against Humanity was perpetrated.

Update 2015.06.25.14:15 – Updated footer.

Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?) 

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each vowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  
Over 49,100 views  and nearly 8,000 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with nearly 2,700 views and nearly 1,100 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.


  1. To my knowledge, Catalan (of which I am a speaker) is also a syllable-timed. The only reason I can think of for that "easiness of comprehension" of Castilian spoken by Catalans is because they are actually "translating" from Catalan (however fast and however competently), so they are forced to speak it more slowly than Castilian speakers from Castile. I am a native Castilian/Catalan speaker, and have encountered such people. And when they come to learn that my parents' mother tongue is Castilian and that Castilian is the language commonly used at home for everyday communication, they try to oblige by turning to Castillian instead of going on in Catalan, which I understand and speak, in some cases better than them (I never used it at home, so I was less exposed than them to linguistic vices and incorrectness which are accepted but, nevertheless, incorrect).

    PS: Back in your early days as a moderator in the forum, and nowadays, the word you provided as an example is "extraño", no "estraño".

  2. Thanks for spotting the typo; fixed.

    When I was in Catalunya, I thought the ease of understanding was due to Catalans not speaking their mother-tongue, and so being more careful (which, when I think about it, is more or less what you said!). The timing point I made has come to me more recently - and it's pretty uncertain (even if it were true).