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I live in an area with a large hispanic population, and the best I can do is correct my neighbors’ grammar?

August 25, 2010, 7:33 PM

I was recently thinking about what I took from the foreign language classes that I took in middle and high school, and what I ultimately took from them. I took four semesters of Spanish and two of Latin (my high school was on a block schedule). And interestingly enough, I ended up really holding onto different things more than a decade out.

First of all, in Spanish, I could easily become the Spanish language grammar Nazi, because after more than a decade after taking Spanish, I remember very little of the vocabulary, but I could probably run circles around you with the grammar. I could tell you, in English, all about Spanish verb conjugations, how to put sentences together, how to order people around, whether a noun is masculine or feminine and how that works with the adjectives and articles, exactly when and where to place a diacritical mark, and the times when you should use ser vs. estar (both meaning “to be” for different situations). I mean, you wouldn’t say, “Yo soy en la casa,” because that’s a situation where you should use estar. Thus you should say, “Yo estoy en la casa,” because you use estar as “to be” when you’re describing where you are, because estar is for temporary conditions (I’m leaving the house and going to work tomorrow, after all), whereas ser is for permanent conditions and such.

When I was taking Spanish, Stuarts Draft High School used the Scott Foresman foreign language textbook series. Thus we went through Voces Y Vistas, Pasos Y Puentes, and Arcos Y Alamedas. Those of you who took Spanish in the 1990s will immediately remember this book:

Voces Y Vistas

Told you so. You know you remember it. I didn’t do as well in the Palabras Nuevas (i.e. vocabulary) sections, but I killed in the Explicaciones (i.e. grammar) sections. Kind of funny how that works out. But I guess it follows the way I am in English. I am a huge stickler for grammar, and that’s why working at Wal-Mart pained me so much, when my coworkers would speak using such horrible grammar.

Then I love it how Spanish has a distinct plural “you”, or as it was once described to me, the “y’all” form. However, the fact that Spanish has two words for “you” (the more casual form, and the more formal usted form), both singular and plural, always irked me, since I was already grating against class barriers and such even back then, and found the whole multiple-yous bit to be a bit absurd. But that’s the language, I suppose. But then for the most part, it breaks down in the plural, because the vosotros form (i.e. the casual “y’all”) is less commonly used, so ustedes (formal “y’all”) gets used somewhat indiscriminately.

One would think, though, being in an area with such a large hispanic population and with so many native Spanish speakers that I would have picked it up again somewhat naturally. Well… maybe eventually.

Now in Latin, where the class is taught in English, more than a decade out, I don’t remember as much of the grammar, but I retained a lot of the vocabulary. And for Latin, which is not commonly spoken anymore (except maybe in the Vatican), I guess that works out, because after all, you take Latin in order to better understand your own language because of Latin’s influence on modern languages. After all, even though English is not a Romance language, many words in English come from Latin, and I believe it has greatly increased my English vocabulary by knowing Latin and knowing that these words derived from English.

I also remember a lot of the word endings due to the way my Latin teacher in high school taught us to remember them. Specifically, through song. Seriously. And apparently, it worked quite well, because I still remember the endings – and the songs – over a decade later. The first declension song was to the tune of “Tea for Two”, and went like this (spelling out the endings):

-a, -ae, -ae, -am,
long -a, -ae, -arum,
-is, -as, -is,
that’s first declension

Then second declension was to “Jingle Bells”:

-us, -i, -o, -um,
long -o, -i, -orum,
long -is, -os, -is,
That’s second of declensions


Dashing through the halls,
Far too fast to mention,
Bumped into a wall,
Forgot my second declension!

And then the whole thing repeats. And I still remember the endings without having to look them up.

Then I also still remember quite well some of the stories in the textbook. We used the Cambridge Latin Course series, which followed Quintus Caecilius Iucundus and various others through life in Pompeii, Roman Britain, and Rome. I remember the first book’s stories best, where Quintus is a secondary character to his father, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus (referred to as simply “Caecilius”).

I always found it interesting in Latin that there are no articles, and that capital letters are not used to start a sentence unless the word is a proper name. Thus you would say, “Caecilius est pater,” (i.e. “Caecilius is the father”) but if you wanted to say, “The father is making bread,” it would be written as, “pater panem facit.” Note the lack of a capital letter and articles. Interesting, indeed.

So all in all, I’m glad I took both Spanish and Latin, because it has made me a better speaker of English, and with our country becoming more and more bilingual all the time, it helps to know more than one language.

Categories: Language