Secondary Education

¿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

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Giliell is still a student and has been since shortly after the dinosaurs died out. She's also a parent of one pre school kid and one primary school kid. On top of that she teaches language classes.
Feminist, crafter and Social Justice Rogue. Lover of cupcakes and all things baked.


  1. April 11, 2015 at 9:58 pm —

    This is such an interesting question for so many reasons. Though most of the languages I’ve formally studied are nowhere near as polycentric as Spanish, I did run across this issue both in my experience living in Quebec and in teaching English to Italian high schoolers. I think that for the most part this is an issue that can be reserved for more advanced levels: in the first few years students are far less likely to be confused if they are presented with a single standard and then later on–once they can effectively communicate in the language–be presented with strategies for dealing with other kinds of standards.

    The question of which standard to pick is tricky, but in the context of the EU it probably makes the most sense for students to learn the varieties of other member states, even if these are not the countries with the most speakers. In North America, by contrast, it seems far more sensible to use Mexican Spanish to begin (since it is not only a neighbour but the largest Spanish-speaking country).

    One thing I always found odd about French instruction in the US (and even parts of Canada) is that it focuses almost entirely on Metropolitan French, to the exclusion of the varieties of French spoken in the Americas (not to mention the rest of the world). Sure, there are only about 9 million francophones in Canada compared to a whole lot more in France, but then again a good portion of Americans can drive to Francophone Canada in under a day, so why not address the most important phonetic and vocabulary issues at play?

  2. April 22, 2015 at 10:15 am —

    This really is an inteteresting question. I’m a native (Mexican) Spanish speaker and, after 11 years in Spain, I still find expressions or words I didn’t know every week! Just yesterday I had to look up the word “brécol”, which I found out is what some people in Spain call broccolli. I mostly talk using the words that would be the most familiar to the people I’m talking to, but sometimes I just can’t rememeber how the hell they say “chícharo” in this country (it’s “guisante”, btw). To me it seems impossible for non-native speaker to go beyond being aware of the most basic differences, like the “voseo” and the dozen words that are insults/bad words in one country and not on others, like “coger”. In any case, every sort of Spanish is mostly understood by any other Spanish speaker, specially with television and immigration, so it doesn’t seem to me like it would be important for a non-native speaker to go beyond basic awareness of the differences.

    As for how to teach them, the strategy used by my bilingual school for teaching us English worked reasonably well, and I think could be applied to Spanish learners: We were taught exclusively American English, but when I was half through high school, the administrators decided that, if the school was named after an Englishman, its students had to learn British English. We had teachers point out the differences, American English speakers faking a British accent (it was hilarious, you can skip this part), but, most importantly, we were made to listen to conversations (we used tapes back then) in different accents and got tested on that. I mean, the reason for the school to do that was absurd, specially because the dude the school was named after was Scottish, not English, but the results were decent.

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