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English is the first language that I learned during my childhood, and it is the only language I acquired natively. I was born and raised in Sherman Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles located in the San Fernando Valley. Sherman Oaks is primarily an English-speaking neighborhood, so during my early childhood I was exposed mainly to English and was thus able to develop the language natively. In addition, my extended family are all from similar communities around the country (i.e. Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, and Hastings, a suburb of New York City) in which English is the main language spoken. Therefore, during my early childhood, English was virtually the only language that I was exposed to.
However, as I grew older, I began to venture outside of my neighborhood, either to friend’s houses or even just to restaurants in other cities within the Valley, I started to notice a number of different languages, ranging from Spanish to Hebrew. At first I would just listen to the sounds of the languages, and personally note how they drastically differed from English. But as time passed, I slowly started to pick up words and phrases from such languages simply from my exposure to them. But Hebrew is a language that I have some experience in speaking because during my childhood I attended Hebrew school at my temple, and during these classes I would learn Jewish prayers (which are in Hebrew) and their meanings. So although I was not taught grammar or vocabulary, I did have experience in speaking it within the religious context.
Most of my Hebrew/ Jewish studies took place in elementary and middle school, but ceased once I got to high school. I attended Cleveland High School in Reseda, another neighborhood in the Valley. However, this was much different from my hometown of Sherman Oaks from a linguistic standpoint because it was primarily a Spanish speaking area. And oddly enough, I studied three years of Spanish in high school because it was the only foreign language they offered. These classes however did not really focus on speaking the language, but rather vocabulary and grammar of the written language. Each chapter in the textbook consisted of a set of vocabulary words and a new grammar rule (e.g. the conjugation of the past tense). And once I got to Spanish 3, every week the teacher would have one or two days a week where we were only allowed to speak Spanish to test our knowledge of the language. Unfortunately, I did not retain much of the material because this mundane approach to the subject did not really focus on the most frequent rules and words that people speak on a daily basis, so it was difficult to relate to everyday life.
Although Spanish and English have virtually the same alphabet, there are various differences not only in the letters themselves, but more importantly in their pronunciations. In both languages there are both voiced and voiceless fricatives, but a major difference is that, unlike English, there are only two voiced alveolar fricatives in the entire Spanish language, [j] as in amarillo and [š] as in vaya. The first can be made by flattening your lips and pushing your tongue to the alveolar ridge, and the second can be made by rounding your lips and also pushing your tongue to the alveolar ridge.
The sound of the Spanish letter “ñ” is another difference in sounds between Spanish in English, as this sound does not exist at all within the English language. This voiced alveolar nasal sound [n] is found in a number of words throughout the Spanish language, such as niño and pequeño. Similar to the alveolar sounds in the previous paragraph, this sound can be made by pushing your tongue to the alveolar ridge and breathing out of your nose simultaneously. And although this sound does not exist in the English language, in my experience I have had no problems with making this sound.
A third example of the differences between the sounds of Spanish and English is the lack of voiced alveopalatal liquid [r] in English. In Spanish, this is a very common sound that is found in word such as perro and carro. In English, we only have the voiced alveolar sound [r], which is found in words such as rope and car. In both cases, the sound is made my slightly unrounding your lips and pushing your tongue to the alveolar ridge. However, in the case for the Spanish sound [r], as the voice is being produced, you must rapidly vibrate your tongue to produce the rolling effect of the sound. This was a sound that initially gave me trouble because there is nothing like it in the English language so I just had to teach myself how to pronounce it and practice it until I got the right sound.
To begin, Spanish and English are both SVO languages, meaning their term orders in sentences are subject-verb-object. Here’s an example of the SVO sentence structure in both languages.
Bill come la manzana. ‘Bill eats the apple.’
El estudiante va a la biblioteca ‘The student goes to the library.’
If there is a pronoun instead of the object (either direct or indirect) in a sentence, English still maintains the SVO structure. For instance, take the sentence “Carlos ate the oranges,” and then change the object ‘the oranges’ to ‘them’ to produce the sentence “Carlos ate them.” In English, this rule makes perfect sense, however this is not the can in Spanish. If such a change were made in Spanish, the word order would change from SVO to SOV.
Carlos comió las naranjas Carlos las comió.
Carlos ate the oranges Carlos them ate.
The two languages also differ in how they modify nouns. In English, a noun phrase consists of a determiner, an adjective, noun and also an optional prepositional phrase, in that particular order. Therefore, an adjective always comes before the noun, regardless of the circumstance (e.g. big balloon, orange bottle, etc.). In contrast, descriptive modifiers in Spanish precede nouns. This refers to most cases in which the adjective is purely descriptive, however adjectives that describe number or somehow ascribe a subjective emotional aspect in fact follow nouns.
Young man El hombre viejo
Black pants Los pantelones negro
Red apple La manzana roja
*Three computers *Tres computadoras
*This asterisk refers to the fact that this example is the special case in Spanish where the adjective precedes the noun like in English.
Although I now understand this difference between the two languages, it was initially difficult to properly say and write Spanish sentences. With English I no longer have to consciously review the rules of grammar in order to produce a sentence because I learned the language during the “critical age,” and I therefore have all of the rules deeply ingrained in my mind. In contrast, with Spanish I still have to think about the rules before saying or writing a sentence, and often times I still make mistakes by applying English rules to Spanish sentences. For example, just the other day I was describing my “old phone” to my friend in Spanish, and I reverted to the English word order by saying ‘el viejo teléfono’ and opposed to ‘el teléfono viejo.’
Spanish has two grammatical genders: masculine and feminine. This concept can be seen in many aspects of the Spanish language, especially through nouns. The endings of nouns denote genders, through the use of either –o or –a. The –o ending denotes a masculine noun (ex. niño and teléfono) and –a endings denote feminine nouns (ex. niña and manzana). The articles of nouns in Spanish are also indicators of gender. If a noun is masculine, it is preceded by either ‘el’ or ‘un’ (el/un chico- the/a boy), and if the noun is feminine, it is preceded by either ‘la’ or ‘una’ (la/una chica- the/a girl). However, in Spanish, nouns without any inherent gender classification are also subject to the article rules mentioned above. In other words, in the Spanish language, even nouns that are seemingly gender neutral are also assigned either a masculine (el amor) or feminine (la honestidad) article. This is much different from English because there is no gender classification of nouns, and ‘the’ is the only article.
The Whorfian hypothesis is one of language determinism, stating that the structure of our language determines how we view the world. In other words, it suggests that a language causes its speakers to see the world in a way that speakers of other languages do not see. Based on this, one could assume that native Spanish speakers view the world as a dichotomy due to the fact that all of the objects, ideas and concepts are divided into two categories: masculine or feminine. Therefore, such a theory presents the possibility that Spanish speakers somehow attribute certain qualities to masculinity and femininity, just based on the nouns that fall under each category. On the surface this makes sense, but once closely analyzed it becomes clear that it is subject to the fallacy of circular reasoning. The argument goes as follows: Spanish speakers view the world through a gender lens because they linguistically divide the world into masculine or feminine categories. And the evidence for the fact that Spanish speakers divide the world into gender- specific categories is that they view aspects of the world as either masculine of feminine. Ultimately the use of circular reasoning completely disproves the Whorfian view of language and thought.
Being a native English speaker, I underwent the normal process of language acquisition during the critical age in early childhood. Therefore I speak English fluently and can construct grammatically correct utterances without much conscious thought. However, such is not the case for my Spanish speaking. I have only studied Spanish for a brief while, all of it after the critical age, and therefore I cannot speak it with the same ease that I have with English. Instead, I struggle to produce utterances in a timely fashion, and when I finally do, it is often ungrammatical, or possibly even meaningless! Because Spanish is not my native language, it takes a lot of effort to consciously and carefully construct a grammatical utterance in which all of the terms and tenses are in agreement. Also, even the vocabulary presents numerous problems because there are many instances where there are multiple words with the same meaning, but each of them are used in certain contexts. For example, to this day I often confuse the Spanish words ser and estar, both of which mean “to be.” Although both have the meaning, ser is used for describing people (e.g. physical description) and possession among other things, whereas estar is used to describe location and emotion. This is just one of countless examples of how my acquisition of English will continue to supersede my acquisition of almost any other language.
Although English and Spanish seem to have quite a few similarities, they still have distinct differences in morphology, syntax and sound. Ultimately, the acquisition of any language for people past the critical age will present problems because most people will never be able to fully synthesize all of the rules and structure of languages aside from their native language.
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