One of the most well-known no-nos of language-learning is allowing ourselves to translate the other language into English every time we hear it before responding and thinking in English, and translating in our heads before speaking.
This isn’t efficient in conversation because it adds an additional step to each statement and two steps to the conversation as a whole
The better alternative is to become accustomed to the words and phrases and–to some degree–the grammar of the other language so that it becomes almost an extension or expansion to our own language, and we can readily understand inputs in that language to also readily respond without having to translate in our heads.
After all, we are still learning new English words all the time, and we don’t have to translate them in our heads to simpler English words when we hear them and respond with them once we’ve learned them. So Spanish vocabulary can be added to our communicability just as easily as more English vocabulary.
The most difficult part about thinking in Spanish, then, is the syntax and grammar because this requires a clearly defined differentiation from that of English.
We should learn how to do this from the very beginning of our language learning–even if we’re absolute beginners.
Why not, then, start reading passages that have been translated word-for-word from Spanish, but that retain Spanish grammar and word order? This way, a student can remain in the comfort zone of his or her language as long as possible while learning to “think” in Spanish by deconstructing how the communication is happening through a Spanish word order?
An example of this can be found in the following passage:
“A certain man was about to die. Not he was very rich. Only he had a dog and a horse. Not he had children, but he did have wife.”
From this passage alone, we can see that Spanish doesn’t have a word for “don’t” exactly, and that it instead negates statements simply by placing the equivalent of the word “not” in front of the statement. Also, we can see that the placement of the adverb “only” is a little different from what we might expect in English.
The different placement of the words “no” and “only” aren’t illogical, though, and don’t change the meaning of the sentences in any way. The sentences are very easy to understand like this as long as we get used to the construction and the order of words.
So why is it that we have always been taught Spanish in such a way that we have to learn the new vocabulary at the same time as the new constructions? It can be jostling and often leaves students feeling superior about their own language and ridiculing Spanish-speakers for using such strange constructions.
The reason is that the logic of the constructions gets lost in the process of focusing on learning new vocabulary.
If we could spend time practicing the logic of the constructions with our own language, and make sense of them that way, we could then see that our own ways of constructing sentences are arbitrary as well, and that each language is equally arbitrary and equally effective at communicating, though the formed habits of doing so happen to have developed distinctly.
Learning Word Order in Pieces
In my research, I realized that there is neither one single rule that governs the differences in word order between English and Spanish nor is there an infinite number of rules. The number of rules is finite and each is generally associated with particular parts of speech:
- nouns and adjectives: there are certain rules that govern whether an adjective comes before or after the noun in Spanish, while it always comes before in English.
- pronouns and “no”: the use of pronouns is very different in Spanish because object pronouns often come before the verb instead of after–“no” as well.
- prepositions: when two nouns combine to create a single noun in English such as in “warship”, Spanish would use “de”[of] to keep them separate: “buque de guerra”[ship of war].
- adverbs: adverb placement within sentences occurs in an even more logical way in Spanish than in English, but in ways that we might not expect as English speakers
The vast majority of word order differences in the two languages are covered by the above rules. Therefore, we can associate word order differences with specific vocabulary groups consisting of the various words within a given part of speech.
Stories de la Jungle
In “Stories de la Jungle”, vocabulary is introduced by level over the course of 13 different levels generally according to the frequency of the use of that vocabulary within the book.
Level one is an exception that introduces strong cognates between the languages regardless of their frequency–including many nouns and adjectives.
Because of this, in level one, whenever a cognate noun or adjective within a noun-adjective pair is introduced, the pair will show itself according to its Spanish word order. The English order remains in all other cases. This is the first taste of Spanish word order that a student receives, and it allows them to start thinking in Spanish in this little piece without being distracted or discouraged by a bunch of Spanish vocabulary that they don’t know and without being distracted by the other differences in word order between the two languages. For example:
Since some of the most frequently used words in all of Spanish are common prepositions such as “de”, level 2 dives right in to introduce these and includes that Spanish word order for any phrase similar to “ship of war”.
“Never was there criatura de la jungle with nombre stranger”
In level three, the pronouns that affect word order are introduced as new vocabulary, and–at the same time–so is that word order. This way, students can associate the word order change with the appropriate vocabulary and the vocabulary with the word order change.
“¿No me[to me] you’re going a[to] do anything?”
This approach allows students to stay within the comfort of their own language as much and as long as possible, only moving into Spanish as necessary, and according to the logical order of learning vocabulary in the order of its frequency and syntax along with the vocabulary with which it associates itself in pieces and in the order of the frequency of that associated vocabulary.
This gives students focus and trains them to start thinking in Spanish as soon as possible, even while in the majority comfort of their own language. They learn in pieces, rather than ever being overwhelmed by examples of fully Spanish sentences that include vocabulary or syntax that they don’t yet understand or haven’t yet been introduced to.
Two great videos that go along with these ideas: