Learning the Spanish Language — Project Day 29

Ideally, this sentence would be the very last time that I mention the word 'sleep' in a blog article on Spanish. But we all know "that's not going to happen". For the simple reason that I'll still need to account for poor progress on some days. And poor sleep is likely to be the "go to" explanation for a while yet.

That said, the word 'sleep' will hopefully disappear eventually and the word 'diurnal' immediately. Now that issues of sleep and generic productivity are to have distinct projects of their own.

Spanish Only

Henceforth, these pages should be talking excusively about Spanish content, skills and issues. So, the routine checklist will move to the diurnal rhythms project, but the Learning Tasks Checklist will remain here in modified form.

The Learning Tasks Checklist is reduced. Because there was significant duplication in it — making for unnecessary complexity and extra work, e.g. all audio exercises involve aural comprehension and speaking aloud, while many written exercises involve two-way translations,

Vocabulary Exercises?

I considered adding vocabulary exercises to the checklist, but decided against that. Because vocabulary acquisition and maintenance is something that comes automatically with a decent amount of immersion — either you simply absorb words and idoms by frequently encountering them, or you work on the trickier ones, because they keep tripping you up.

Right now, my inability to completely absorb a small set of frequently used conjunctions and idioms are frustrating the hell out of me. And the problem is a perfect example of why the DfE's "vocabularly book" approach is likely to put average kids off language learning without really helping the highly motivated.

Because, if you gave me a "vocabulary test" on 'todavia' (still/yet), 'sin embargo' (however/but nevertheless) or 'ya' (already/by now), etc. I'd pass with flying colours. But I'm still uncertain about where and when to use them in some types of sentence.

Meaning is Always Contextual

Similarly, I am still uncertain about the degree of symmetry between countless synonyms and cognates. For example, are 'irse' and 'salir' totally interchangeable, when talking about a person going out from or leaving a place? — or is there some contextual framing that constrains their substitution for one another, that's different from 'going from' vs. 'leaving' in English?

People who are fluent in both English and Spanish know the answer to such questions. I could 'know' the answers, for a moment, by asking those people questions. But I'll never be certain of the newly acquired knowledge until I've used it and actively worked on it — often and frequently in realistic situations. Vocabulary books just don't cut it.

Verb Exercises

I haven't done any verb-specific exercises for a few days — from mundane oversight, rather than any deliberate plan. It's simply that verb exercises appeared low in my list of 'resources to hand' and were, thus, one of the things I didn't 'get round to' on shorter working days. That list ordering was also arbitrary.

Last week's 'Learning Tasks Checklist' reavealed such anomalies — so, from now on, I'll be randomly shuffling the resources list from time to time, using the unix shuf command. But today, 'verbs' got first spot, by design.


I worked on very basic, but idiomatic, uses of the verb 'tener'. Because it's:

  • One of the most commonly used verbs in Spanish
  • In lots of expressions — which don't use 'to have' in English
  • A 'model' verb — I use its preterite to derive its stem in other forms
  • A verb I have problems with — 'negative language transfer' from French/Italian

Imperfect Tense of -er and -ir Verbs

I 'know' this tense broadly and the particularity of -er and -ir variants — in theory. But I continue to work on the regular -er and -ir verbs, to counteract 'negative language transfer' from Italian. Because the imperfect forms of Spanish -ar verbs are very close to the imperfect forms of Italian -are verbs.

Generally speaking, the only thing you need to do to convert the Italian imperfect -are endings into Spanish imperfect -ar endings is convert the 'v' in the Italian form into a 'b' in the Spanish form — and you very often pronounce Spanish 'V's like soft English 'B's, anyway, as a matter of course. So it's trivially easy.

The same 'trick' doesn't work with Italian -ere and -ire verbs. Because their first person singular forms end in -evo or -ivo in the imperfect, while the Spanish equivalents end in -ia and -ia, respectively.

Easier for Some Learners Than Others

That's not a problem for learners with less deeply embedded Italian than mine. Because the transformation is simple, the variations for different person subjects are very consistent and follow a similar pattern to the Spanish conditional tense — -ria endings in the conditional simply become -ia endings in the imperfect.

But it is hard for me. Because the older pathways in my brain connecting Italian sounds and meanings are much stronger and better-established, than the new ones connecting similar sounds and meanings in Spanish.

So to strengthen those new pathways, today I was doing oral and written exercises for beginners on the Spanish imperfect — yet again, and certainly not for the last time.

I don't need to re-learn the transformation rules. When unhurried and unstressed, the calculating part of my brain will usually intervene to counteract the impulse to use an Italian ending.

What I'm trying to do now, is to remove the need for such intervention. By ensuring that the correct Spanish forms come out fluently, sub-consciously, as a matter of course.

Spanish Word Order — For English Speakers

In every foreign language I've learnt, I've run into trouble when there's a relatively complex set of word order shifts — compared with my English 'base' order.

Simple transformations, like reversing noun-modifier pairs or verb-object pairs, might have tripped me up ocasionally when starting to learn French — 52 years ago. But they've never really demanded much practice to master in subsequent languages.

On the other hand even after years of learning, I may stumble if the word order shifts in multiple ways simultanously, e.g.

  • Re-order to frame a question
  • Make the question negative
  • Use a reflexive verb in the question
  • Reverse direct/indirect object order for 'L's

The stumble can manifest in various forms, e.g.

  • The verb accidentally agreeing with an object rather than subject
  • Using a direct object pronoun where an indirect one was called for
  • An absolutely incorrrect order
  • The correct order — but idiomatically 'odd'
  • An absolute block — just can't see a path to a comprehensible order

A couple of cases today made me wonder if this has anything to do with the largely non-inflected character of English verbs and nouns, i.e. word order matters much more to English speakers, and we're just not very tuned-in to taking cues from inflections.

Or am I just making excuses for my ageing brain's incapacity to memorise and manipulate larger sets of relationships?

Words starting with 'S' + consonant

Words like 'study' and 'school' exist in most West European languages. But in Spanish, they must have an 'e' prefix (e.g. estudiar, escuela, etc.) — without obvious exceptions. Why?

I initially assumed that it had something to do with strong bias towards labial, vowel-oriented, front-of-mouth, sounds in Spanish. But the more I listen to the language, the more often I encounter that 'e' being silent — or at least being shortened and softened to the point of being inaudible to my ears. So what is the 'e' for?

This really bugs me. Because 'muscle memory' from Italian constantly pushes me to pronounce 'está' as 'sta', but gramatical knowledge of the 'e' rule interrupts my flow. Which I'd consider an acceptable corrective, if I didn't then hear a Spanish speaker apparently pronouncing the word in what sounds like exactly the same way as my initial Italian impulse. WTF!?

My current working hypothesis is that the 'e' introduces a 'breath' effect into the Spanish speaker's sound stream which is so subtle, that it's completely inaudible to me.


I achieved an acceptable minimum output, but overall productivity was low.

It took much longer than acceptable.

The longer working day was only partially attributable to the time spent blogging.

It was largely down to a general lack of focus and very little sense of urgency — really must do better tomorrow.

Learning Tasks Checklist

Task M T W T F S S
Word/phrase aural+oral
Sentence aural+oral
Socratic aural+oral
Pronoun exercises
Preposition exercises
Verb exercises
Physical exercise
Non-subbed video
Subbed video
Research lang. learning
List 'issues'
Prepare materials

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