The other day, as it often happens, I was thinking about chess. In the past, my identity was caught up in chess. Now, as a Spanish major, I find that I identify with... being a Spanish major. This made me slightly depressed.
But why? As some of you may know, I’m a person who enjoys measureable progress. In chess, I always concrete results (wins, losses, computer evaluations, ratings, and so on) that could demonstrate whether or not I was improving in certain areas—openings, middle-games, endgames, tactics, strategy, and so forth. With Spanish, I haven’t had anything similar. I sit around and talk with Spanish-speaking folks all day. How do I know I’m improving at it?
Then it occurred to me to do the same thing with Spanish that chess players have always done with chess: break it up into different aspects and analyze them. When I was finished, I was surprised by just how much someone studying Spanish as a major is expected to learn to do in only four years. In fact, I’m told regularly by science majors that my major isn’t challenging—something I used to agree with, but now I think isn’t such a sure bet. I do believe there is some grade inflation in the major (it’s too easy to get A’s) due to the fact that the tests aren’t hard enough, so it may be easier to “coast by” in Spanish than in the hard sciences. But in terms of what a Spanish major actually should learn (and the best students do, I promise), I doubt that a Spanish major requires less effort.
Without further ado, here are the major skill groups developed by Spanish majors.
Spanish majors need to build a well-developed vocabulary. The Royal Dictionary has 283,000 words, but a decent dictionary might have just between 30,000-50,000. At a very minimum, Spanish majors need to be able to use (fluently) and understand 3,000 words for everyday interactions. According to a study by Dr. Mark Davies, a vocabulary of 3,000 words would account for about 94% of words used in oral communication. (Similar studies have turned up similar numbers for German and English.)
So is 3,000 words enough for a Spanish major? Absolutely not. Anyone who got a 5 on his or her AP Spanish in high school probably knows at least this quantity, and for really knowing Spanish, it’s insufficient. Here’s why. A native Spanish speaker will undoubtedly talk at about 150 words per minute during a speech or lecture. If you could only recognize 3,000 words, you would be stuck wondering what nine different words meant every minute when listening to someone. If you were listening to a policy debate (important for understanding politics), the speaking rate could be 300 words per minute. That means asking what 18 words means every minute. If you watched something an hour long, you’d be stuck guessing as to what over a thousand of the words meant. Even if you could get half with context clues, you’re still missing huge chunks of information.
According to the look-up-a-random-word-in-the-dictionary method,* my current active vocabulary in Spanish is some 10,260 words (active + passive = 17,820). That’s up from 6,220 (active + passive = 14,300) from January of 2010. If these numbers are right, then over the past year and a half, I have added an average of over seven words to my active vocabulary every day. I found this rather shocking. Majoring in Spanish must be a lot of work.
* This method goes like this: look up around 100 random words in the dictionary and see if you know them. Then take the percentage of words you knew and multiply that by the total number of words in the dictionary.
For fun: some of the words I didn’t know on my most recent dictionary test have the following English translations: plater, shrubby, aerialist, milliammeter (no, not millimeter), antipyretic, veneer, disquisition, aphonic, peignoir, chive, and Lapp. There were, of course, some words that were far less exotic—like harangue, despondency, sling, tantrum, blood cell, lampshade, and so forth.
Of course, there are other vocabulary skills besides just knowing lots of words. Spanish majors are expected to:
- Be able to give accurate translations of words
- Understand dictionary definitions of Spanish words given only in Spanish
- Define Spanish words using only Spanish
- Know which words are used in each country
- Understand (and sometimes use) dozens of colloquial expressions
Of these, colloquial expressions (“To every pig comes its Saturday,” “To put him an egg,” and so on) can prove troubling, given that each country has its own set of them. Understanding dictionary definitions is also difficult. The definition for “tulipa,” translated to English, is: “Noun, singular, feminine. Screen of some lanterns that resembles the shape of a tulip.” Based solely on this definition, I am supposed to figure out that a “tulipa” is a lampshade. Regional variations are tricky, too. Native Spanish speakers often don’t know that the words they use for everyday objects are limited only to their country or region. To give you an idea, imagine that you had to learn both American and British English in school. You’d know that:
aerial = antenna
barrister = lawyer
braces = suspenders
flyover = overpass
lorry = truck
optician = optometrist
nappy = diaper
rise (for salaries) = raise
spanner = wrench
zebra crossing = crosswalk
torch = flashlight
...and so on. Now multiply the number of variants by twenty, once for each Spanish-speaking country. This complicates things a good deal. But in the end, it has the advantage of making someone with a Spanish major potentially more marketable than someone who is bilingual (that is, grew up speaking Spanish at home) but hasn’t made a serious effort to learn how his or her native language is spoken in the other 19 countries where Spanish is the official language.
2. Cultural Knowledge
Vocabulary and cultural knowledge go hand-in-hand. A Spanish major should know how to interact with any individual who speaks Spanish as his or her first language—which means knowing the basic social protocols of dozens of regions. Then, to specialize in at least a few of these cultures, study abroad trips are essential. Cultural skills include:
- Knowing the history of Spain, Central America, and South America
- Knowing the basics of political life in the major countries (presidents, political parties, autonomous regions, and each country’s relationship with the others)
- Understanding cultural differences among all the countries, such as personal space and eye contact, table manners, whether or not to bring gifts, forms of address, and so on
- Being acquainted with the various indigenous and minority groups in each region and the languages they speak
- Accurately interpreting political cartoons, jokes, comedy shows, etc., specialized to particular situations in each country
- Knowing the hand gestures used in each region (everything from how to signal the bartender to how to give someone the finger)
3. Geographic Knowledge
When someone tells you he’s from the banks of the Tajo River, you’re supposed to know where that is. The best Spanish majors:
- Can locate each of the countries that speak Spanish on a map (or draw you a rough map from memory) and point to their capitals
- Know where dozens of major cities, rivers, mountain ranges, and so on are located
- Can explain the importance of each geographic feature to the people who are affected by it, including ocean currents
4. Reading Comprehension
Students often have enough trouble with this in English. Spanish majors are expected by others to:
- Be able to comprehend complex documents written in Spanish regarding everything from economics to biology to law
- Keep informed by following written media in Spanish (newspapers, magazines, blogs, and so on)
- Be familiar with a wide array of time periods in literature and poetry, from the sixteenth century to the present day
- Derive meanings of unknown words using root and stem words from Latin, Greek, Arabic, French, and English
- Know how to summarize what they’ve read
5. Listening Comprehension
When there’s something to hear in Spanish, the Spanish major is expected to be able to understand it and relate it to everyone else—even when the audio quality is poor. This means being a careful listener and being able to interpret those awful announcements in Spanish over the loudspeaker in the airport. It also means:
- Understanding at least a dozen different dialects and accents and their urban and rural variations
- Comprehending native speakers even when they talk about specialized subjects or use excessive slang
- Understanding the accents (and errors) of Chinese, Korean, German, English, and other speakers who speak Spanish as a second language
- Being able to remember and relate the details of conversations to others
- Interpreting and explaining snippets of audio (such as TV shows) even when there is little context to go on
- Recognize song lyrics
6. Oral Expression
Many of us fear public speaking. Spanish majors need to be able to do it in a foreign language. This means:
- Being able to emulate multiple accents in order to speak to different people and audiences
- Mastering all types of public speaking in Spanish, from impromptu talks (2-3 minutes) to formal presentations (several minutes in length)
- Keeping a clear head when speaking and knowing how to answer questions, make comments, and articulate
- Having some skills with live interpretation (simultaneous and paraphrasing)
- Knowing how to read a text aloud with proper speed, intonation, and enunciation
- Being familiar with the biological aspects of sound production (particularly the anatomy of the mouth) and knowing how to describe in a detailed manner how certain sounds are made
Translating documents is a skill that Spanish majors are expected to develop, but it’s certainly not an easy one. To translate a document, you have to be good at writing in both languages. You also have to have general knowledge of the specialty area of the document you are translating. The best way to practice translation is to volunteer—together with a friend, I translated a rather lengthy legal handbook for The Children’s Law Center, Inc., in Kentucky. The document was filled with legal jargon and took an hour per page to translate. Even after getting a major in Spanish, learning to translate well requires heaps of practice.
8. Conversational Abilities
The ability to hold a conversation in Spanish is the most fundamental skill held by any Spanish major. Some of these abilities are cultural, for instance, knowing which registers and forms of address to use (formal, professional, familiar, and so on), and knowing where to stand and what to do with your hands and so on. But other skills belong almost exclusively to the conversational realm:
- Knowing how to make small talk
- Telling jokes
- Having good interview skills (both giving and granting interviews)
- Storytelling and relating recent occurrences
- Knowing how to act as an intermediary between an English speaker and a Spanish speaker
- Being an agreeable person and getting along well with others
- Have the capacity to continue talking in Spanish without tiring, even when conversations or discussions drag on
- Being familiar enough with young-people-speak to carry on a Spanish conversation over an instant messaging service
9. Everyday Knowledge Items
Spanish majors have to be able to think and live in Spanish. This means understanding road signs, navigating webpages (and installing and downloading things, and working computer programs), knowing restaurant menus, and so forth. There are an infinite number of little things that a good Spanish major winds up knowing how to do.
10. Grammatical Knowledge
Last but certainly not least comes grammatical knowledge. A few years ago, I thought Spanish grammar was easy. Now, I think it is much harder than English grammar. There are always new things to learn: new conjugations, new uses of verb tenses, new uses of the subjunctive, new exceptions to grammar rules, new subtleties between ser and estar and por and para (yes, even though I can get these ones right 95% of the time, I have not finished learning these). And the thing is, grammar rules change depending on region. When I learn a new grammar rule for a new region, I’ll relate it to my professors back home. Often, they didn’t know that people in such-and-such country talk that way. Knowing Spanish grammar means:
- Understanding the basic rules of grammar and how they differ in each region of the Spanish-speaking world
- Knowing hundreds of verb conjugations and understanding the complex relationships among all of the tenses
- Knowing which prepositions go with each verb for each definition of that verb
- Being able to diagram sentences, evaluate word choices, knowing parts of speech, and so forth
- Understanding the subtleties of the subjunctive—not the ones you learn in Spanish 454, the highest grammar class, but the ones that you learn AFTER that
- Developing a keen intuition for grammar and being able to accurately guess grammar rules in new linguistic circumstances
That’s a lot to learn in four years. It’s no wonder that most Spanish majors who want to teach go on to get an MA—four years doesn’t seem like enough time!
After this mental exercise, I got up from my ponderings of the universe and felt a lot better. Once I establish ways to measure progress in each of these categories, I'll be able to plot my growth as a Spanish speaker. And plotting growth is something which I very much like to do. For some (like vocabulary), it's easy. As for writing, I ought to be able to compare what I've written for classes to see the improvement. For others, though, we'll have to see. I used to measure my grammar progress by taking the placement test for Spanish majors, but I gave up on that last year when I started acing it every time--perhaps there will be some new grammar test out there for me.
In any case, I thought of all these things while in Spain, so I put them in my blog.