The 500 problems most Spaniards face when studying English

New book by three British Council teachers encourages students to take a more flexible approach

Patricia Peiró

Most of the time, Spanish-speaking students of English are looking for straight yes or no answers to questions from their teacher. “For me, it is impossible to respond with that kind of clarity, because depending on the context, the geographic area, or other factors, something can be correct or not,” says Kay Walsh, who teaches English at the British Council in Madrid.

Kay Welsh and Mick Green at the British Council in Madrid.
Kay Welsh and Mick Green at the British Council in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez

She says that a lack of flexibility is one of her students’ main problems. “People here are crazy about grammar, so you have this idea that a language is a closed and perfect system,” agrees fellow teacher Mick Green. The pair, along with another teacher, Daniel Brint, have just published Las 500 dudas más frecuentes del inglés (or, The 500 most frequent doubts about English), based on their experiences in the classroom.

The book details basic concepts such as the ways dates are written differently throughout the English-speaking world, or how to sign off a letter, taking in subtleties such as how the meaning of a sentence is changed depending on the adverb employed. In the end is not the same as by the end or at the end, in the same way that let me alone and leave me alone are different. “The shades of meaning are complex and need to be studied carefully, because a conversation can change significantly if, for example, you say that somebody has arrived in time instead of on time,” explains Green.

Don’t study so much grammar, and learn more words instead Mick Green, British Council teacher

Using specific examples, the three teachers, who between them have more than 50 years of experience, run through most of the main stumbling blocks in English for Spanish speakers. The authors explain in detail the use of capitals (Game Of Thrones or Game of Thrones?), adjective order (beautiful Spanish lace scarf or beautiful lace Spanish scarf?), and the meaning of the dreaded phrasal verbs, as well as the use of the third person, which also trips up many native Spanish speakers (It is important that he finish soon, or It is important that he finishes soon?).

And what about numbers? Did The Beatles sing When I’m Sixty Four or When I’m Sixty-Four? And why is James Bond double-0 7 and not double zero 7?

The book also focuses on many questions that are not going to be answered by a dictionary alone. Welsh laughs when remembering that a student once asked him if it is true that Scotsmen do not wear anything under their kilts. “Joking aside, cultural questions are often the most difficult things to translate from one language to another,” says Green. “Like when I am asked what the translation of sobremesa [after dinner conversation around the table] or oposiciones [a type of official exam held in Spain] are. They are concepts that do not exist in English.”

The book also looks at how cultural questions influence language use

The two teachers agree that one of the biggest obstacles to learning other languages, and particularly English, is being overly demanding of oneself. “This is cultural: the Spanish are very hard on themselves. All that irony in the expression ‘Spain is different’… There are times when we’d like to see the Spanish show a little more self-confidence,” says Green. His partner agrees: “Sometimes in class, students say to me, ‘I have a terrible accent, don’t I?’ And I tell them they don’t, and that I can understand them perfectly.”

After a decade teaching English in Spain, Green’s advice on improving the learning process is simple: “Don’t study so much grammar and learn more words. The simple past isn’t much use when it comes to ordering a cup of coffee.”

English version by Nick Lyne.

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