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Spanish Grammar Bites: The personal ‘a’

I love language quirks. Little things that your foreign language does, well, just differently. The Spanish personal ‘a’ is the perfect example of that for me.

Learning these little foibles isn’t just a case of speaking correctly – it sets you apart as someone that really knows the language well.

The rule

In essence, the rule is:

When a verb takes a direct object, if that object is a human being, put a before the object.

This might seem a bit strange at first, as ‘a’ means ‘to’ in Spanish. Two examples make this a bit clearer:

  • Veo el castillo (I see the castle)
  • Veo a la mujer (I see the woman)

You’re literally saying ‘I see to the woman’ in Spanish, which might strike a non-native speaker as a little odd. When translating sentences like this into English, there’s no equivalent – you’d simply leave it out. It’s very particular to Spanish, though, and getting it under your belt will mark you off as someone who is a real language master!

In context

Seeking out an example of this in context, I found a nice little headline featuring a personal a:

¿Te gustaría encontrar a tu doble? Would you like to meet your double?

Because your double is (hopefully) another human being, and it’s the direct object of encontrar (to find), it has to be preceded by the little a.

Flippin’ el – watch out

The personal a comes with all the baggage of the usual a, too. Specifically, note that a will combine with a following el (the – masculine singular) to become al, too. So, we have:

  • Veo a la mujer (I see the woman)
  • Veo al hombre (I see the man)

Spanish personal a: video

Here’s a quick ‘n’ easy video to illustrate the grammar point – definitely one of my favourite Castilian quirks!

Learn tricks with verbs to get your conversation flying high above the clouds

Verbs made simple: make your conversation fly

English speakers have it easy with verbs. Aside from those pesky irregular ones, you’ve only got -s and -ed to worry about.

That’s why verbs can be the first brick wall anglophones hit when they begin a foreign language. Look at Spanish – every tense has six forms, one for each person (I, you, he/she/it etc.), and all of them are different from the word you’ll find in the dictionary. Look up hablar (to speak) as a total beginner, and it won’t tell you about hablo – hablas – habla – hablamos – habláis – hablan. And that’s just the present tense!

Now, I don’t mean to scare anyone off learning verbs. There’s actually a logical beauty to conjugation systems, especially for dyed-in-the-wool language geeks like me. The patterns might be unfamiliar, but they will come with time and patience.

However, there are a couple of tricks you can use as a total beginner to get your conversation flying, and not struggling to take off in a pea-souper of verb endings.

Cut-price verbs

Tables of verbs will easily overwhelm a beginner. It’s just a massive wall of words if you don’t know the language very well. But ask yourself: how much of that detail do you actually need as a beginner?

Chances are that as a newcomer to a language, your conversations will mainly be talking about yourself (I), or the person you’re speaking to (you). You’ll probably be doing most of that in the present tense (making general statements) or the past (talking about what happened). So why not cut the padding, and just focus on the four combinations of those things? In English, that would look like:

Present Past
I speak spoke
you speak spoke

In many languages, you can ask a question by simply changing the intonation of your voice. So you won’t even have to learn any special question forms. Pick out your simplified verb parts, and add them to your favourite vocab drilling program like Anki like you would with any other word or phrase. Paper flashcards are great for learning these verb parts, too.

But wait…

Ah, you might be thinking. My foreign language has several different past tenses according to what you’re talking about! Spanish, for example, has the preterite for single, completed actions, and the imperfect, for repeated or habitual actions in the past.

Well, just take one of them. If you’re talking about stuff that happened in Spanish, then the preterite (the ‘story-telling’ past) is probably the best. In German, the perfect tense might be best, as it’s used as a ‘conversational past’. Whichever tense you choose, if you use it incorrectly, most native speakers will be forgiving and still understand. And comprehension is the name of the game, right?

So, here’s our ‘essential conjugation’ for the Spanish verb hablar (to speak):

Present Past (Preterite)
yo hablo hablé
hablas hablaste

The same goes for languages with different familiar and polite words for you. Pick just one, for now. Make it the one that makes most sense for you – I used the familiar in the Spanish above. If you’ll be speaking with peers and other students, then probably the familiar one is best. If you’ll be in lots of formal situations, learn the polite one.

To be, or not to be

Of course, you can go one step further, and not learn any endings at all. The trick is to find phrases that you can just slot that dictionary form – the infinitive – into. Then, just look up your word, pop it into your sentence, and voilà! Neatly-formed sentences without any effort.

Taking Spanish and French as an example, here are just a few stock phrases you can use with an infinitive:

Spanish French English
Hay que … Il faut … I/you/we must …
Me gusta … J’aime … I like …
Voy a … Je vais … I’m going to …

Just look up a verb in the dictionary, and wodge it on the end. Simples!

It’s all about making your job as a learner easier. Simplify – you’ll be communicating all the sooner for it!

The Globe

Tips from a language junkie

I admit it – I’m a language junkie. I’m perennially curious, always looking for something new to learn. New languages are pretty, shiny objects and I’m a restless polyglot magpie.

Not surprisingly, a question I’m asked a lot is “Don’t you get mixed up learning all those languages?”. It’s an understandable question, to which I’d reply, first off: have faith in your brain! It’s more adept than you realise at keeping things separated. Children brought up bilingually manage it neatly, so why shouldn’t your mature, adult brain?

There are a number of things you can do to help keep things compartmentalised, though. For instance, users of Anki might want to take advantage of custom cards, so you can colour-code those belonging to your different languages. There’s a good beginners’ guide on doing this on YouTube at this link. Here are a couple of mine; the key is to make your different language cards as distinctive as possible (I like to use flags):

A customised Icelandic card in Anki

A customised Norwegian card in Anki

If you prefer to keep your lists the offline way, you might think about colour-coding your vocab notes by language, too.

Secondly, there are several reasons why learning more than one language can be more effective and beneficial than just learning one.

I try to pick just one language within a major group to focus on (for instance, Norwegian from North Germanic, and Spanish from the Italic languages). That’s not to preclude others from that group completely – it’s just that the main focus language will become the ‘anchor’ for that group. Instead of learning Icelandic (another North Germanic language) from scratch, for example, I’ll relate it to Norwegian as my base language.

Take the Norwegian word dør (door), for example – in Icelandic, this is dyr. Contrasting and comparing cognates like this gives you a real feel for the language group as a whole. This way, you can build up an instinct for the regular patterns of change and difference between languages, which deepens your understanding of each one.

Be a bluffer!

What’s more, learning patterns like this can give you some productive rules for ‘guessing’ or ‘bluffing’ in other languages. To take Spanish as an example, with a little learning you can learn how to ‘Portuguesify’ your Castilian, and fake enough Portuguese to get by in simple situations. You’ll spot that Spanish initial ll-, for instance, is often ch- in Portuguese, so you can guess that llegar (to arrive) in Spanish is chegar in Portuguese. You might also see that Spanish diphthongises a vowel (sticks two or more vowel sounds together) where Portuguese doesn’t, so huevo (egg) in Spanish is ovo in Portuguese. It doesn’t always work, but pattern-spotting is definitely a good way to get a working version of a new language up and running, based on something you already know.

Cross-reference your vocab

I also like to use my stronger languages to check for gaps in my nascent ones. If I learn a new word in, say, Norwegian, I’ll check whether I know that word in my other languages too. My OCD streak dictates that I hate gaps and imbalances in my knowledge, but it’s not hard to look up the missing words and make a note of them (in Anki, in my case). At the simplest level, you could do this in a vocab notebook or Excel spreadsheet:

English German Spanish Norwegian Polish
dog der Hund el perro en hund pies
cat die Katze el gato en katt kot

It’s also a great way to start spotting similarities and relationships between the languages you’re learning.

The underlying message of this post is: you don’t have to settle for just one foreign language if you have the time and motivation! Have faith that your mind is more than equipped to deal with multiple tracks, and enjoy the extra benefits that learning more than one can give you.