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A Case of Language Acquisition: English vs Spanish

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Humans are born with the natural ability to learn language and, not surprisingly, many academic fields focus on studying it, such as linguistics. There are a multitude of different languages in the world, which all have some linguistic differences. For example, the way that I learned two languages, English and Spanish, differs. As English is my native language, I acquired it at home and in the society where I grew up. It was learned through the natural learning process during the critical age for acquiring language. Then, in elementary and grade school, English was taught focusing mainly on grammar. I learned Spanish in school, however, which is much different from the way I learned English. I began learning the Spanish language in high school, taking three years worth of classes that focused mainly on memorizing vocabulary. The third year of the language focused more on speaking Spanish correctly and grammatically then the other two years. I also took two more Spanish classes in college. The first of these classes was much like my third class in high school with speaking and pronunciation being the main aspect of the class. The second college class was strictly on grammar and writing the language. The differences between learning English and Spanish are partly due to the age at which they were learned. However, another reason that the acquisition differed so much is that the sound, syntax, and morphology of these languages also differ.

The sound of vowels differs in English and Spanish, where English use vowels that are diphthongs and Spanish use pure vowels. A diphthong is a single vowel that, during pronunciation, changes from one articulation to another with a smooth tongue movement. An example of a diphthong in English is seen in the word lane, pronounced [leɪn], where [e] represents the beginning position of the tongue and [ɪ] is a close approximation of the ending tongue position during the vowel sound. The articulation of this sound involves the front part of the tongue, which begins tense with the tongue at mid-height for the [e] sound and ends lax with the tongue high for the [ɪ] sound. Some other examples of English diphthongs include toy [tɔɪj], where the articulation goes from the back part of the tongue at mid-height to the front part of the tongue high in the oral cavity, and cow [kaʊw], where the back part of the tongue goes from low to high in height as the vowel sound is being pronounced. Conversely, Spanish words use pure vowels. Pure vowels are articulated with the tongue held still so that there is no difference between the beginning and end of the vowel sound. For example, there is a difference between the English word day and the Spanish word de (meaning 'from'). In Spanish, de is pronounced [de], where the front part of the tongue is fixed at mid-height as a tense vowel for the entire duration of the vowel [e] sound. In English, however, day is pronounced [deɪ] with a diphthong vowel articulated the same way as in the word lane. Other pure vowels in Spanish are seen in the words mes [mɛs] ('month') and tos [tɔs] ('cough'). The [ɛ] sound in mes is articulated with the front part of the tongue at mid-height and the [ɔ] sound in tos is articulated with the back part of the tongue at mid-height for the entire length of the vowel sound. There are some pure vowel sounds in English words and some diphthong vowel sounds in Spanish words, but these instances are few. The vast majority of English words use diphthongs, which, in my opinion, are more difficult to pronounce than pure vowels. Even though English is my native language, I find some Spanish words easier to pronounce because of the vowels having pure sounds.

The syntax of language, specifically word order in a sentence, is another difference between English and Spanish. In English, the constituent order is often subject, verb, direct object (if a direct object exists). An example of this word order is seen in the sentence John wrote the book, where John is the subject, wrote is the verb, and the book is the direct object. In Spanish, however, this sentence could be written as el libro escribiò Juan, with the constituent order of direct object, verb, then subject. In writing the sentence in this order where the subject and object are switched, there is more emphasis placed on the object, el libro, than on the subject, Juan. The switching of the subject and object could never be done in English. The use of pronouns as objects also has a different sentence order in Spanish than in English. Where in English a sentence would be John wrote it, the same sentence in Spanish would flip the pronoun with the verb, making the sentence Juan lo escribiò. When a sentence includes adjectives that are objectively descriptive of a noun, a difference will be seen as well. For instance, the English sentence there is the blue and expensive house when stated in Spanish is hay la casa azul y cara. The descriptive adjectives, blue and expensive, are placed before the noun they modify, house, in English. In Spanish, though, the adjectives, azul y cara, are placed after the noun, casa, that they modify. Another example of this would be the tall man in English compared to el hombre alto in Spanish.

Language morphology is also dissimilar in these two languages. Gender agreement between the words in a sentence is very important in Spanish, but is hardly an issue in the English language. In Spanish, feminine words often end in –a, whereas masculine or gender neutral words often end in -o. The English phrase the beautiful dog is the same whether it's about a male or female dog. The phrase in Spanish, though, is either la hermosa perra, for a female dog, or el hermoso perro if the dog is male or if gender is unknown. If the dog in these phrases becomes plural, there is another morphological difference seen. For English, making the noun plural is usually accomplished by simply adding an –s to the end of the noun. As such, the beautiful dog becomes the beautiful dogs to indicate that there is more then one. Spanish plurality is also accomplished by adding an –s majority of the time. However, in order to make the noun plural in Spanish, the whole phrase needs to be made plural also. Therefore, the phrase becomes las hermosas perras for all female dogs or los hermosos perros for all male or a mix of male and female dogs. These differences are consistently seen between English and Spanish and may play a role in the difficulty for the native speaker of one language trying to learn the other.

The differences in the ways that I acquired English and Spanish have direct implications on the way I think and use the languages. By learning English as my native language when I was a child, it is much easier for me to use compared to Spanish. Whenever I wish to say something, I spontaneously use English without even having to think about it because it comes naturally to me. The way I think, including all my thoughts and memories, automatically come to me in English also. The only instances when I use Spanish are during the Spanish classes that I took in high school and college or in the case that I happen to run into an individual who only speaks Spanish, which has happened a few times. Also, I occasionally speak Spanish with my sister for the sole purpose of having a conversation that the people around us (most often, the rest of my family) will not be able to know what we are talking about. However, when I speak in Spanish, I have to concentrate and think about what I'm trying to say before I say it. This causes me to speak it much more slowly then English, often falteringly. Spanish is more difficult because I have to put sentences together using the grammatical rules that I learned through my Spanish classes in school. I am getting better at speaking in Spanish though because of the fact that I do speak it with my sister occasionally, which helps me get more used to using Spanish in everyday conversation.

As we all know, there are many differences between the languages of the world. The two languages that I have learned, English and Spanish, have many differences, including the way that they were acquired. By learning English naturally through the normal language acquisition process, I spontaneously use it for all my thoughts and everyday speaking. Spanish, on the other hand, was learned through schooling, which can account for the difficultly I have using it, including speaking slow and falteringly. The other differences between these two languages could also be part of the reason that a native speaker of one will have difficulty learning the other. For instance, the sounds of the languages differ, where English uses vowels that are diphthongs and Spanish uses mostly pure sounding vowels, as seen in the difference between Spanish de [de] and English day [deɪ]. Syntax also differs between these two languages, especially the word order. The constituent order of English sentences is subject, verb, and direct object. In Spanish, this order is often object, verb, then subject, which is impossible to do in English. The order of nouns and their objective modifiers is switched from English to Spanish too, where the adjectives come before the noun in English, but after the noun in Spanish. When looking at morphology of the languages, there are other points of dissimilarity. Examples of this include gender agreement in Spanish not being necessary in English, as well as differences in plurality. An illustration of both these distinctions is seen when comparing the English phrase the beautiful dogs with same sentence in Spanish, which is either las hermosas perras for all female dogs or los hermosos perros for all male or a mix of male and female dogs. All in all, there are many differences between Spanish and English. It is easy to see why learning the second language would be difficult due to the multitude of dissimilarities in sounds, syntax, and morphology. The differences between the language acquisition processes between the native and non-native language provide all new difficulties on its own, where an individual will always be able to speak their native language easier then any non-native language they could learn.


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