¿Hablas español? ¿Sí? ¿Cuál?
As you may remember, I recently went to the German “Hispanistentag”, the biannual congress of Germany’s and Austria’s researchers on Spanish language and literature. The section I was in was about the different varieties of Spanish and what to do with them in school.
Spanish is spoken by around 400 million people worldwide of whom only about 10% live in Spain and the colonialist iron grip of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española has finally been broken and replaced with a pluricentric approach to the language.
This obviously raises questions for teachers. There are three Spanish translations of Harry Potter, so which model is the one I should use in my classroom?
In Germany, the Northern peninsular standard is still the most commonly taught one. It still carries the most prestige, students are much more likely to go to Spain than to Latin America and student exchanges with Spain are common and popular. Most Spanish teachers spent their time abroad in Spain, thanks to the popular Erasmus program.
However, if we want to teach Spanish, this can’t be the end of it, and this is where the questions start.
Should we just pick any variety, depending on personal preferences or experience?
Is it enough if our students passively understand the different varieties and if so, how detailed should that knowledge be and when should they be confronted with phenomena like the “voseo”*?
What about a phenomenon like español neutro, a variety developed with call centres and translations in mind?
In the end, for me, the questions mostly remained. It seemed to me that many of the presenters hadn’t asked themselves the most important question for teachers: What do I want my students to know and be able to do after I taught them? What is important for my students?
Symptomatic for this was a presentation where the person listed phonetical phenomena common in German Spanish learners and showing that all those occur in different varieties of Spanish, though not in the same. He also argued that the guiding principle should be that of markedness and prestige.
To which my reaction is: Who the fuck cares if I use an allophone** that is negatively marked in the Peruvian highlands??? The goal of “near nativeness” in language teaching is dead. 99.999% of those taught never achieved it anyway and nobody is going to mistake a German schoolkid for a Peruvian peasant. Nobody will judge them for that sound.
A quick round among my adult students confirmed my suspicions: They didn’t care. Especially the beginners had no clue about how diverse the Spanish language is and the advanced learners simply stated that they want to be able to communicate.
So I’m turning the question over to you: If you learned Spanish, do you know what variety you learned and were you made aware of others? If you teach Spanish, what variety do you teach and do you introduce different varieties? How’s the situation in the USA with a huge Spanish speaking population who speak different varieties themselves?
*a form where instead of the “tú” for the second person singular, the older form “vos” prevails and the verb forms follow a different pattern. It is standard in the Río de la Plata countries and a non standard form in many other parts of Latin America
**an allophone is a different realisation of a sound. Think British and American R
Featured image: Columbus pointing towards America, by Giliell