Which are the difficulties in learning English for the Spanish-speakers?

Some of the difficulties encountered by the Spanish-speaking English learners

From the pedagogical point of view, question formation in the English language poses a great challenge to Spanish speakers. Linguistically, this could be attributed to the first language (L1) grammar in the learner’s head, Spanish grammar in this case, which is totally different in structure from English grammar. As a language teacher, one should not remain indifferent to such challenges.

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Contrastive approach and analysis of Spanish versus English

From my point of view, question formation could be considered one of the most complicated aspects of learning English grammar. Grammatically wrong question formation may imply a wrong answer, thus leading to wrong information which could have serious implications in communication.

As regards the Spanish speakers, the problem affecting most of them is the application of Spanish grammar knowledge to the formation of questions in English. Given that there is a significant difference between English and Spanish question formation, Spanish-speaking learners without clear knowledge of question formation might occasionally find themselves impaired in this aspect.

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Word order and verb inversion

In Spanish, for instance, one way of question formation is by the use of invariable question words (Wh-questions) such as

  • ¿Qué quieres? (What do you want?)
  • ¿Dónde está mi coche? (Where is my car?)
  • ¿Cómo es possible? (How is it possible?).

The other way is by using variable question words which should be in agreement with the noun. For example:

  • ¿Cuántos coches ha vendido tu empresa este año? (How many cars has your company sold this year?)

However, this structure totally differs from the English one. In Spanish, the verb comes immediately after the question word. For example, “How do you get there?” would simply be “How get there you?” or, “How get there?”.

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Some of the Spanish questions have either subject, direct object, indirect object, prepositional object, adjacent circumstances, or attributes. In such a case, they may as well have a preposition preceding the question word.

The possible challenge could be prepositional misplacement and lack of verb inversion. For example, “¿A quién le entregaste la carta?” (To whom you delivered the letter?) “¿A quién viste en la fiesta?” (Who you saw at the party? “De dónde vienes?” (From where do you come?).

Auxiliary verbs and personal pronouns

There are neither auxiliary verbs in Spanish questions nor the use of pronouns necessary. Verb changes to agree with the personal pronoun hence pronouns are usually omitted. For instance, instead of, “Did you win?” it would simply be “Won?”

As regards auxiliary verbs, instead of, “Does she know you?” or “Will she come?” It would simply be, “Knows you?” or “Come (she)?” Instead of auxiliary verbs, the most important thing in Spanish is the intonation, a rising tone at the end of the question, so as to distinguish affirmative statements from interrogative ones.

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Type of questions

Both Spanish and English have statement questions, Yes/No questions, alternative questions and rhetoric questions just to mention some. As for the statement questions in Spanish, since the interrogative and statement structures are the same, as mentioned above, what changes is the intonation, for example, “Go homeꜛ?” (Are you going home?).

The structure, “Go home?” as most Spanish speakers put it resembles imperative form in English but they differentiate it with the intonation. Since the WH-questions in English take a different form from Spanish when teaching Spanish learners, one should start by making them a clear concept of each question word, for example, the “What” question implies an answer related to “something”, “Who” for people, “Where” for places, “When” for time, “Which” for alternatives, “How” for the manner and “Whose” for possession.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that, despite the learners having a clear concept of these question words in a way that they can relate them to the corresponding Spanish question word, they usually have problems in forming grammatically correct questions.

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In Spanish, asking Yes/No questions is much easier than doing it in English since both the statement and interrogative structure are alike. Consequently, Spanish-speaking learners tend to apply this grammar knowledge to English whereby for them there is no difference in structure for both statements and interrogations.

Word order

Spanish grammar allows more flexibility in question formation than English grammar. In Spanish, what matters the most in written question formation is the double interrogative marks, and the intonation in oral question formation. Due to the effect of interlanguage, Spanish-speaking learners unconsciously tend to apply the Spanish grammatical features to the English Language.

This is notably challenging to most of the learners at preliminary and intermediate levels. Contrastingly, English grammar has fixed rules in question formation which most Spanish speakers fail to take into consideration.

Additionally, learning a language is not a question of arithmetic formula but assimilation of the L2 leading to the change of habit. Owing to that, it would be pedagogically beneficial to the learners to clarify the structural difference between the two languages. That means teachers should give clear inputs that would help them grasp the correct English grammar structure and know how it differs from the Spanish one.

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Examples from the learners’ experience

  • ¿Es tu hermano este chico? (Is your brother this boy?)
  • ¿Es este chico tu hermano? (Is this boy your brother?)
  • ¿Este chico es tu hermano? (This boy is your brother?)

In Spanish grammar structure, all the above questions are grammatically correct and one may choose any of them depending on what he or she wants to emphasize. These and other related examples usually come out in one way or the other from the learners’ experience. They first think in Spanish and then translate it literally into English.

When it comes to Spanish information questions, whereby the English question words are replaced by Spanish question words such as “Dónde”, “Cuándo”, “Qué”, “Cuál”, “Cómo” etc. as mentioned above, the verb follows immediately after these words while the rest of the sentence structure remains flexible. This flexibility in Spanish grammar leads to the stumbling of Spanish learners when it comes to English. It could be one of the possible reasons why it is common to find wrong word order in question formation among Spanish speakers.

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Examples:

  1. ¿Cuál es mi coche? (Which is my car?)
  2. Mi coche, ¿ Cuál es? (My car which is?)
  3. ¿Quién es el primero? (Who is the first?)
  4. El primero, ¿Quién es? (The first who is?)

In the above examples, both A and B are grammatically correct in Spanish. However, when translated literally, that flexibility in word order (for questions B) is not applicable in English.

Use of the auxiliary verb

As already stated earlier, forming questions using an auxiliary verb gives problems to Spanish speakers. The idea of a rising tone in Spanish question formation is transferred to English when forming WH-questions. This problem with auxiliary verbs usually becomes worse for the learners when it comes to question formation using the past tense form as they tend to use double past tenses, auxiliary verbs and the main verb.

Examples:

  • ¿Quieres comer? (You want to eat?) Instead of, do you want to eat?
  • ¿Te duele mucho? (It hurts you a lot? Instead of, does it hurt a lot?

Verb inversion

The key point to be noted in verb inversion is that most learners fail to invert the verb. This happens when forming questions with auxiliary verbs be, have or modals, and in the absence of at least one of them the insertion of the auxiliary verb “do” in its correct form. This could be explained by the fact that, due to their Spanish grammar background, for them, it is a new grammatical concept that they would need to assimilate.

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Yes/No questions

In Yes/No questions with short answers, they usually give a long answer instead of a short answer, for example.

  • Yes, it is (Yes, it is true)
  • No, it isn’t
  • Yes, I do
  • Yes, I have

In conclusion, it may be argued that teaching of the question formation remains a challenge to the learners which calls us, as teachers, to be aware of the specific difficulties encountered by a specific group of learners. I think one way of helping english students learn would be to identify and analyse the most common errors they make, and then come out with an approach to helping them overcome such difficulties.

For instance, one could help them learn how to form questions in a given context by first making them have a general concept of the information they are looking for, and the possible answer they would receive depending on the way the question has been understood. They could practise doing so, first in Spanish and then in English, and then compare the two answers received by asking the same question in two different languages. This could help them deepen their awareness of grammar aspects between their native language (L1) and the acquired language (L2).

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