By Richard K. Munro, MA

Richard K. Munro with star students!

Richard K. Munro with a star Chinese student. She went from 0-to 100 in three years!
The author second from the left at age 17 in SORIA Spain with the University of Northern Iowa Summer in Spain
You could say this movie started it all! DISTANT DRUMS the first movie I ever saw in Spanish.
Examples of Scots dialect

I have studied foreign languages for most of my life. I have also taught AP Spanish, Spanish for Native Speakers, and English as a Second Language to learners from many backgrounds. I began to learn Spanish when I was eight years old. My father would read to me the Spanish language ads on the New York City Subway. I would repeat after him and after a while, through repetition, I memorized a series of simple phrases. ¡ Cuidado! la vía del tren es peligrosa! (BE CAREFUL! The train track is perilous or dangerous! )  So began my early language learning experiences.  They have continued, essentially all of my life and I continue to learn new languages while reviewing the old ones I have learned.

My father taught me how to count in Spanish (and Tagalog). My father had studied Latin, French and German in high school and college so he taught himself the basics of Spanish and Tagalog while serving in Puerto Rico and the Philippines.  He served in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps and almost all of his cargadores (laborers) were native Filipinos who had a little Spanish but virtually no English.   His foremen were  Malaking Tony (Big Tony) and Maliit Tony (Little Tony).    The numbers of Spanish and Tagalog are the same phonetically except that orthography was changed to make up for letters that are not part of the Tagalog or Filipino alphabet. For example, “cuatro” (4) is written in Tagalog as “kuwatro” “cinco” (5)as “singko,” “seis” (6) as “sais,” “ocho” (8) as “otso,” “nueve” (9) as “nuwebe,”  and “diez” (10) as “diyes” and so forth.    His men all called him Mbuti Teniente (the Good Lieutenant).    He was one of the few American officers who learned the local language; he attended weddings and baptisms and was very close to the local community which had a Spanish priest and an Irish priest.    He was there on July 4, 1946 when the Philippines voted for independence.    Malaking Tony and Maliit Tony were very unhappy at the result even ashamed.    They told my father -with tears in their eyes- “Teniente if all Americanos like you we put another star on the flag!”  There is no question that my father felt that he owed his life to the loyalty and courage of such men.   The philia love they achieved as comrades was made possible by communicating in common languages Spanish and Tagalog.   My father always said knowing another language could save your life. 

My father used to say to me (frequently) “Halika rito, Ricardo! (come here, Ricky) or in Spanish Ven aquí   !   Kamusta ka (How are you!)  or ¿Cómo está? Bilisan mo (hurry up) or de prisa!  Bakit hindi ka nagtatrabaho (why aren’t you working!) ¿ por qué no trabajas?   mabuti ! Good!  Bueno!

My father’s business dealing took him to Puerto Rico and other Spanish-speaking countries and I had to good fortune to accompany him.  I got to hear him ask for directions (todo derecho STRAIGHT AHEAD the man pointed NOT TO THE RIGHT) order in restaurants and we went to baseball games (la pelota) at Bithorn Stadium in San Juan.  We saw Roberto Clemente play in Winter Ball and I called out to him in Spanish, and he smiled and waved back. Back in New York, we listened to baseball (and soccer games) on the radio in Spanish.   In those years all the Yankee games and the World Series were broadcast in Spanish, and we would listen to the World Series simultaneously in English and Spanish. Buck Canel (the baseball and sports announcer) was thus one of my early Spanish teachers. First came the names and the numbers and then the baseball and soccer jargon.  Of course, at the stadium, I found it useful to use Spanish to talk to Spanish-speaking players like Felipe Alou and Rico Carty and so obtain their autographs.  Better than any autograph was the friendly interaction with a baseball hero.   A language is truly a bond that unites men (humanity).   If one speaks another’s native language one has obtained a shortcut to that person’s heart and sympathy.  Mar an teanga tá an croí the Irish say: “as the tongue so is the heart!”

While visiting Spain father took me to an adventure film at the old Rex theater on the Gran Via. It was dubbed in Spanish.  The film was DISTANT DRUMS (Tambores Lejanos). It was the first time I had seen Gary Cooper in the movies and a big screen technicolor western. It was the first movie I had ever seen in Spanish.  It was a revelation.  I only understood it in part, but I was able to follow the story and even picked up some more Spanish words. The theater had a beautiful painted marquee in Spanish.  The marquee my father read it out loud to me said I still remember La mejor creación  de GARY COOPER (Gary Cooper’s greatest creation).  My father told the ticket taker in Spanish  “Uno Sólo  el peligro fue la mejor. “(High Noon) who responded Vd. Lleva la razon pero esta es muy buena!  High Noon  was probably Coop’s best but this Florida adventure was great fun as it featured Seminole Indians, pirates, alligators, and wild fauna of all types.   Sort of a Mogambo goes to the Everglades.  Yes, I began to learn the animal names in Spanish!  The film featured the famous Castillo San Marcos!

Later in New York we occasionally went to foreign language movies and later we saw DVDs that were dubbed or VO with English or Spanish subtitles.  Even today I often see movies in foreign languages just to practice and expose myself to new languages.  Recently I saw a good WW2 movie  on Netflix (with English subtitles) called  Narvik (Norwegian: Kampen om Narvik lit. ’The Battle for Narvik’)   The languages used in the film were German, Norwegian and English.  The main character (Kristine Hartgen) spoke all three.  It worked as a patriotic adventure film but also was a rare example of a film that demonstrated the usefulness of being multilingual.  I know a little German and have never studied Norwegian but found myself picking up words and phrases. I have seen some films like THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI in five languages.    Netflix is an excellent resource and has many languages.   I recommend watching in the VO (original version) with English subtitles then a dubbed version also with closed captions or subtitles in English or the target language.  

So I cannot remember a time when I did not speak or understand at least a little of other languages.     My mother could speak (and sing) in several languages).   My father was a great lover of opera, so I heard, as a boy many operas and art songs in Russian, Italian, French, German, and some in Spanish.   My uncles, both graduates of Columbia University and WW2 veterans were fluent in German and often visited.  Our next door neighbor Frank David, also a WW2 veteran was a German Jew and naturally a native German speaker.   He personally witnessed Kristallnacht  or the Night of Broken Glass.  I was fascinated to witness them speak about their German experiences which included the liberation of Nazi concentration camps.    Speaking German my uncle probably saved the lives of young German boys press-ganged into the SS in the final days of the war.   He and his men refused to take them POWS and returned them to their mothers.   Frank David served in the US Army as an interpreter.  His family escaped because of his father’s international business dealings and savings invested in Switzerland.   But it was a close thing.  The Nazis confiscated their car, their house, and German savings.   Once again, a multilingual family was able to maneuver and adapt and so survived.  Frank’s brother (Albert) became a professor of English at an American university specializing in Chaucer and Old English.  

My father had a vast personal library of foreign language books.  I inherited the Spanish, Latin, and Greek books my sister inherited the German and French books.   He also had LP’s of poetry such as Moses Hades reading in Latin, some ancient Greek, German, French,  Garcia Lorca in Spanish, plus complete Linguaphone Spanish and Portuguese sets (Books with 50 recorded lessons each on 45s).   So my father was an amateur linguist who could read, write and speak (in order of his fluency)

  1. French  (He read Zola,  Martin Du Gard, Victor Hugo, Moliere, Flaubert, Proust)
  2. German (He read Goethe, Mann,  Hesse, Heine, Schiller, Rilke)
  3. Latin   (Caesar, Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Catullus Ovid Seneca)
  4. Ancient Greek (some Modern Greek) New Testament, Homer, Euripides,  Sappho, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles , Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius , Xenophon, Thucydides, Callimachus
  5. Italian (he read Dante in the original)
  6. Spanish (He read Cervantes, Machado, Garcia Lorca in the original)
  7. Russian (He read Pushkin and Tolstoy in the original)
  8. Tagalog

Greek and Russian were the most difficult because of the alphabets.  But of course, the Russian alphabet is derived from Greek so knowing Greek is an advantage in learning Russian. Like my grandfather (who served in the British Army) my father knew a little spoken Yiddish, Arabic, Hindi, and Punjabi.  My father was a little ashamed that he knew so little Gaelic the language of his grandparents, but in his time, Gaelic was not studied in schools.  Gaelic has a reputation (underserved) as being a “hard language”.   But it is phonetic along its own lines and has only ten irregular verbs.  Late in life, my father took an interest in Gaelic place names, slogans, and Gaelic words in the Scots dialect (which he knew quite well).  He enjoyed it when I read and interpreted Gaelic poetry and songs for him.   He very much enjoyed the SONGS OF THE HEBRIDES.   However, my father felt studying Gaelic or Latin was interesting but not “Big Languages” like Spanish or English to be studied formally with university degrees.  The primary law of economics is scarcity.  One had scarce money and limited time so one should be credentialed in “Big Languages” and not spend too much time and money on “small languages.”    So, my early language learning years were dedicated principally to English, Spanish, and Latin then German and Portuguese but I always maintained an interest in Scottish Gaelic and studied it on the side.  Of course, it was with some regret I abandoned the classics in college (Greek and Latin) but for someone like me who had no money and a need to earn his daily bread, English and Spanish were much more practical.   There are for example over 60,000 Spanish teachers in the USA alone. There are about 1,000,000 ESL teachers plus over 1,250,000 English teachers.    I have taught in all three areas.   I found there was a great demand for certified English teachers who were trained as foreign language teachers and bilingual in Spanish.

So rather than forbidding Gaelic, my father encouraged me to study Gaelic as a hobby.     He bought me my first Gaelic book TEACH YOURSELF GAELIC and Dwelly’s Gaelic-English Dictionary at Rizzoli’s bookstore in New York.  But the language he encouraged the most was Spanish a language that was spoken every day in New York and many places in the USA and the Americas.

My father was very fond of the series TEACH YOURSELF BOOKS.   They are widely available and affordable.  I think they are a great supplement to any language study.     My father had the TY (I still have these original volumes) in Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Italian, German, Scottish Gaelic, Irish (Gaelic), Spanish and Latin.   Many come with recordings, but I use them primarily for reading practice and grammar explanations.   I highly recommend the Teach Yourself Books (and dictionaries).

I learned from my father and the many wonderful foreign language teachers I had in the USA and Spain that:

  1. Learning languages is fun.  Language learning can be a very absorbing pastime. And of course, it is always useful to communicate with others when one travels. Yes, it can be hard work but believe me there are a lot of laughs along the way.  I think it was Woody Allen who joked that being bisexual immediately doubles your chances for a date on a Saturday night!  Similarly, being bilingual or multilingual makes it far easier to meet and date, and do business with a wide variety of individuals.   People, customers, and business associates are usually favorably impressed by your kindness and seriousness of purpose in understanding their culture and dealing with them.    The maître d’s ,aunts and prospective mothers-in-law genuinely liked me, trusted me more and eagerly fed and entertained me because I made valiant attempts to speak their native tongue.  Speaking another language made dating, business dealings and diplomacy much smoother.  I have struck up friendships with musicians and artists by writing to them in their native languages (never using English).
  2. Knowing a foreign language (especially a “Big Language” like English or Spanish) is practical and a credential just like certification in computers, typing or a degree in accounting or chemistry.  It’s worth something on your resume. In my own life, I have worked for major banks, coached immigrant youth, served in the military worked for ETS and worked in schools and colleges.  One skill that gave me an edge was my skill in language. I could work the phones in Spanish or English.  I could work in customer service or interpret.  I could work as a Tour Guide.  I have been to Toledo and the Prado Museum, for example, dozens of times.
  3. The earlier one is introduced to a language the better.   The way a child learns its first (or second language) is a very good method.  A child learns grammar and vocabulary unconsciously by listening to and interacting with speakers of a language.  The younger a child is the more likely they can assimilate the accent of a native speaker.   Unfortunately, that is not possible for most of us!  But there is no shame whatsoever in having a slight foreign accent.  In fact, if one speaks clearly, I think a slight foreign accent can be charming even exotic.   I had a former student who studied engineering at Cal Poly. He had been an English learner and in the 9th grade hardly knew a word of English.  He concentrated, persevered, and studied hard.  He became fluent in English.  In fact, while at college a professor asked him what part of Canada he was from and then what private academy he had studied at.  His English was so good he didn’t think he was Hispanic!   Things that work with children also work with adults.  We can learn a lot by listening to and interacting with native speakers.  And we adults have advantages, however, that children do not have which helps us learn multiple languages.  We can read and study more easily.   Also, adults can understand grammar and the relationship between languages more easily.   We know that every language builds complex words from the simple basic roots of a language.    I know that English helps one learn German languages and the relationship of Romance languages with English and each other.  Some language teachers place little or no emphasis on accentuation or grammar. This is a mistake if carried to an extreme. It is not necessary for the average learner to be as expert in a language as a teacher or professional translator. My old Spanish teacher told me that “accents were but the shine on the car but verbs were the motor!”  But grammar and orthography are important.   Knowing a standard language and correct grammar is not so much to create elegant speech as it is to make clear what the relationship is among words. Grammar and diction link words together and give them precise meanings.  Therefore, we must understand grammar to a greater or lesser extent.   I never understood grammar until I studied Latin and Spanish.  But it began to be clear to me when I studied foreign languages and began learning moods, tenses, and parts of speech.  When one learns a foreign language, one learns more about one’s native language.
  • 4) Learning languages requires more than anything else steady attention and effort.   To become competent in a foreign language one must make a serious almost daily commitment over a long period of time -usually years.   You must like the language you are studying and maintain a positive attitude.  As the Gaels say  “beag is beag is fhearr an ceum mor.”  Little by little every day -ten or fifteen minutes is better than one big step once a week or once a month. There is no such thing as “instant Spanish” or “instant English.”  When I study a new language, I keep daily notes books of new vocabulary and make study cards.    I don’t always take notes, however.  In the early morning or at night in bed, I do some review listening and speaking exercises and don’t worry about taking notes. However, during my daily language sessions at my desk, I have a cup of sharpened pencils and colored pencils plus my Teach Yourself grammars and Collins dictionaries at hand.  I often interrupt my Duolingo sessions to look up words in the dictionary to learn (and write out) related words and additional nuances or translations.   In Linguaphone, the text was illustrated, and the pictures helped make the meaning of the sentences clear.  Using pictures and color coding is a very good help to language learning.  A wonderful resource for language learning is the colorful series My First Thousand Words series by Usborne.  It is an excellent (and humorous) supplement.   One can buy it new or find used versions on ABE books.   It is available in major languages such as Spanish, English, and French but also in Latin, Hebrew, and Irish (Gaelic).  I have several and use color coding to put in translations of other languages. For example, in my Irish book, I have written in the Scottish Gaelic equivalents in red ink (the two languages are closely related). In my Spanish book, I have written the Italian equivalents.
  • 5) If one wants to gain a high level of fluency sooner or later, one must immerse oneself in the target language.   I was a good high school student (I studied Latin and five years of Spanish) But what really helped me was spending one entire summer -almost every day-   listening to all 50 lessons of my father’s Linguaphone course in Spanish.  The following fall I was enrolled in Spanish III and everyone including my teacher noticed my improved Spanish vocabulary and accent. My high school AP Spanish teacher, a native Cuban Mr. Eli Gorelick encouraged me to seek advanced studies in Spain.   Then I spent another summer studying in Spain for ten weeks via the University of Northern Iowa’s summer program in Spain.  In that ten-week time, I was totally immersed in Spanish.   I later studied three more summers in Spain gaining my MA in Spanish. Later I lived and worked in Madrid for almost two years.  I used to go months at a time without speaking or hearing any English at all (I read newspapers, and books and corresponded in English however). Living in a Spanish-speaking country where Spanish was a prestige language was a great experience.  I became an adjunct professor for a local Junior College and also for ETS in Spanish and for many summers graded recordings of students and student essays. Since that time, I have heard or spoken or read Spanish every day of my life. 

My father used recordings to help him with his language learning. But primarily he read newspapers, periodicals and literature. He was interested in what Gilbert Highet called “culture languages”.  He rarely wrote or read anything in Tagalog or Chavacano (the Spanish creople language her hear in Manila in the 1940s. His interest in those languages was strictly utilitarian while he was on active service overseas.  But he enjoyed meeting speakers in those languages during his lifetime.   

Whatever system you use it is good to do listening, speaking, reading, and writing practice regularly.   I presently use or have used DUOLINGO in Latin, Modern Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Scottish Gaelic, and Italian. Other online programs are very good also and some people recommend Babbel.  I didn’t choose Babbel because they didn’t offer Latin and Scottish Gaelic, but Duolingo did. You can try Duolingo for free (I did for about six months) but eventually I subscribed to avoid ads and have more features.  I am a big fan of Duolingo but I supplement it with Teach Yourself books.  Be aware that some languages are more developed than others in Duolingo. Spanish, English, and Italian have more activities (Stories, dialogues, and readings) than Modern Greek or Scottish Gaelic.  Teach Yourself has wonderful resources and some (like New Testament Greek) are free to download.  Here are some links:

Teach Yourself

Duolingo – The world’s best way to learn a language

Babbel Live Exclusive Offer

Learn Languages with Pimsleur on the App Store (apple.com)

For English Learners and for English literacy I used materials from

LANGUAGE! – Comprehensive Literacy Curriculum (Grades 4-12) (voyagersopris.com)

Vocabulary Morphology Curriculum – Suffixes, Prefixes & Roots (voyagersopris.com)

6) Learning a foreign language can benefit your health!  I think I was rather shy and withdrawn as a young boy. But learning a new language gave me the confidence to overcome shyness and psychological barriers and helped me to get to know people. When you are studying and using a new language you are exercising your brain. So, your brain becomes stronger.  Studying languages can even help one recover from a brain injury.   When my father was 63 he suffered a massive stroke and lost the ability to read and speak. It was devastating to him.  But he made an almost full recovery. I strongly believe my father’s dedication to language study may have helped him recover from his massive stroke.   Most of his nurses happened to be Filipino and they spoke Tagalog among themselves, and my father listened to them.   One morning after weeks of total silence he responded to them by speaking in Tagalog.  They were astonished! That was the first language he used after his stroke.  Then he began to speak the Scottish dialect (his boyhood tongue).   At first, he couldn’t speak American English -I remember he couldn’t remember to say “The boy bounces the ball” he said “the illie (lad) was a-stotin’ the ba’’ (Scots dialect).  Then gradually he began to understand and speak and read and write in American English. We all broke out laughing when we visited him one day and he said, a la Humphrey Bogart: “Si-down, pal and listen to the music.”   Gradually, he returned to studying and reading the languages he had studied. The doctor said it was a remarkable recovery and it was possible that my father’s white matter and language portion of his brain were very highly developed, so it might have helped his mind reconnect.    This theory has also been supported by studies at the University of Edinburgh.    In any case, studying a foreign language hinders not and can have many positive benefits.

The researchers found that when the brain is challenged when people say more than one language, and this experience will inspire cognitive reserve, which would enhance the brain’s ability to deal with damage caused by a stroke and other diseases. Bilingual people can switch between two languages, when they stop using one, it is necessary to activate another language to communicate,” Thomas Bak, one of the study authors at the University of Edinburgh, said, “This switch allows the brain to continuously evolving, thus becoming factors in helping stroke patients to have rehabilitation. Apart from showing better recovery on brain function after a stroke, bilinguals who are able to speak more than one language also perform better in stroke sequelae tests, including tests of attention, gather and organize information.

See also  How Learning a New Language Can Benefit Your Health (languagenetworkusa.com)

Learning second language ‘slows brain ageing’ – BBC News

When one studies a foreign language the first thing you hear if you decide to study   English, Persian, Greek, Korean,  Turkish, Russian or Chinese people will say that language is “hard” or “easy”.      In realty one CAN make generalizations about languages but it is difficult to be accurate.     The most important factor determining whether a language is “hard” or “difficult” is not the foreign language itself but WHERE one is coming from.  Spanish is not hard if one already speaks Italian or Ladino.  Hebrew is not that difficult if you already speak a related language like Arabic.  Russian is easier if you speak Polish or Ukrainian.       German is easier if you speak English (especially Scots English).  Languages that are closely related to our own tend to be easier both in alphabet, in grammar and vocabulary.    Modern Greek is not that much harder than Italian or Spanish BUT learning a new alphabet is a strong affective filter.    I take twice as much time to study Modern Greek than Italian and feel compelled to take many more notes.   But Greek has the added benefit of teaching roots words that have entered many modern languages: chorus, poly-, bio-, hypnotic, myth, Bible, school, academy, idol, poet, poetry, rhetoric, aesthetic, music, rhythm,  hygienic, alphabet,  sympathetic, irenic, hubris, emphasis, antithesis, hypothesis, cosmos, onyx, copper (Cyprus), colon, delta, chaos, diploma, fantasy, phantom, thermos, ethos, dogma, stole, pneumonia, asthma, kudos, crisis, character, scene, pathos, zone, psyche, genesis, diagnosis, criterion, orchestra, idea, pragmatic, cinema, coma, thorax, dyspepsia, nectar, aphasia, echo, nemesis, hero, catastrophe, tyrant.   Even though Greek and Latin are not as commonly spoken or taught as previously they remain very powerful “culture languages” and therefore are of immense intrinsic interest.

The Spanish Alphabet

            When one learns a language the first thing one should do is determine what language family the language belongs to.    Most European languages come from a common linguistic heritage that language group called Indo-European.    Some of the oldest written languages in that language family are Sanskrit (from India),  Greek and Latin.   Indo-European languages subdivide into these families ROMANCE, GERMANIC, SLAVIC, INDIC, IRANIAN, CELTIC, HELLENIC (Greek) and ALBANIAN.  Let’s look more closely at some of the biggest sub-families and languages.   Romance languages include:

            French    Catalán       Spanish     Italian   Portuguese  Romanian

All of these languages derive from Latin and use a Latin alphabet.  In all of these countries, Latin remained an important culture language until relatively modern times.  If one speaks Spanish then Italian is relatively easy to speak, read and understand because the languages are so closely related.  The grammars of Romance languages are similar but most importantly a high proportion of words will be recognizable to speakers of another Romance language.  These words are called cognates.  More of this later. 

        One might ask if one is an English speaker, how does this help me?  English isn’t a Romance language it is a Germanic language.  But only about 40% of everyday words in English are Germanic.  About 60% of English words are of Greco-Latin origin.

Here are the Germanic languages:

German                          Afrikaans

Dutch                              Swedish

Icelandic                        English



 Another big language group is the Slavic which includes

Russian                          Serbian

Croatian                         Czech

Slovak                            Bulgarian

Ukrainian                        Polish

Other big Indo-European language families are Indic languages spoken in India and Pakistan such as Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi.   These languages do not use a Latin alphabet, but the spoken versions of these languages are relatively closely related to Spanish, English and yes, Gaelic.     I remember stories of the Highland soldiers in World War One speaking a Gaelic/Hindi/English patois with the Indian soldiers and being able to communicate on a basic level.    More recently I have had Punjabi speakers in my Spanish classes and many of them became top students.  For one thing, most were multilingual to start with (speaking English and Indian languages). If one speaks two or three languages it is easier to learn another!  Then they quickly realized how many Spanish words were similar to Hindi or Punjabi.   Later they invested in local gas stations, sandwich shops and retail stores and work in farming and many are completely fluent not only in English but in Spanish.

Linguaphone books come with a bilingual glossary to help teach the words of the lessons and readings.   There on online dictionaries also but I myself don’t want to open and close windows when I am listening to audible books or doing Duolingo. There is no question if one studies a foreign language, one needs access to a good dictionary. I think for beginners a small pocket dictionary is just fine (such as Collins Gem).   I occasionally use online dictionaries and even GOOGLE TRANSLATE but when I study, I am usually completely focused on the language I am studying.   I keep notebooks of vocabulary and write down new vocabulary.  I do this with a pencil.   I also use colored pencils to underline or star verb endings or grammar points or misspellings I make.   If a word is more difficult or completely new to me, I usually write it out three times (in pencil) then highlight or circle it in red pencil and add asterisks.    I also make little drawings (in color) of objects and animals such as FOUR RED CHAIRS , the  BLACK CHAINS,  THE YELLOW PENCILS,  GRAY SHARK or BLACK CAT, the ORANGES, the Green Book to help me.  I also use antonyms or synonyms or similar words to reinforce learning.  I use a forward slash to indicate opposite words such as EASY/DIFFICULT.  I use the equal symbol = to indicate translation or synonyms such as Problema=problem (also trouble).  I use (≠)The not equal sign (also called the inequality sign) to indicate a false cognate or a translation problem.  The Greek words  Αντιπαθητικός (antipathitikós/unlikeable)and συμπονετικόςd (symponetikós / likable)are antonyms but also are close cognates to English (simpatico /nice; sympathetic) and Spanish related words (simpático/antipático) .

When studying vocabulary cognate study is vital. I have many Spanish and English bilingual dictionaries on word usage and cognates that go “beyond” any basic dictionary.  According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of a cognate is “a word that has the same origin as another word, or is related in some way to another word.”   Three categories of cognate exist:

  1. Perfect cognates (cognados perfectos)  5-10%
  2. True cognates     (cognados verdaderos) 85-90%
  3. False cognates    (Cognados falsos) 5-10%

When the meaning, spelling, and sound is identical, as in animal and (elanimal,  we call them perfect cognates. The only difference is in pronunciation.

 A true cognate is a word that is “either spelled the same or similar and often sounds alike in both languages.” In other words, it’s similar but not identical.   Example include “action” in English and acción in Spanish.  Both words have similar sound and spelling and they (generally) have the same meaning (acción does mean “action,” but it can also mean “stock” or “share” in financial terms). 

Here are some other cognates:

Fiction ficción
PecadilloPecado (sin)
Colaborationla colaboración  

Usually, the more sophisticated the word it the more likely it is a true cognate or perfect cognate.  Common everyday words are more likes to be false cognates or partially false cognates.

 When one studies Dutch and German or Spanish, French, Italian or Portuguese one pitfall is the problem of false friends or false cognates.   False cognates are deceptive for appearing to be the same, but have unexpected different meanings.  These words can be totally different in meaning or partially false.  Here are some examples from Spanish:

  • Sin in Spanish means without and has no relationship whatsoever with the English noun “Sin”. 
  • Once (1) and once (11)
  • Library is not librería(bookstore). A library is a biblioteca
  • Grocery (food store) is not grosería rudeness or coarseness
  • Pan (skillet/ sartén is not pan (bread)
  • To rest is not “restar” which means to subtract and to deduct.
  • Red (color) is not “red” (net)
  • Out of control does not mean autocontrol (self control)
  • Embarrassed is not embarazda (pregnant)
  • Gracious is courteous but not gracioso (funny)

When in doubt assume the cognate is or could be a similar word or exactly the same. Some of these words represent direct borrowings from Latin or Greek like radio (la radio Sp. or ραδιόφωνο GR “radiophone”) and teléfono(Sp.) τηλέφωνο GR (tiléfono/telephone.  Of course, some slang English words used in German or Spanish or Modern Greek may not be standard words.   Time will tell.   I used to tell my students who often used the word “raite” (“ride”) that if someone wrote a Nobel Prize winning work called the “Último Raite de Arvin” (the Last Ride from Arvin then they could probably use it on the AP Spanish test but until then it was best to avoid that word however useful and stick to standard Spanish and say “paseo”  or simply “llevar en carro” or even medio de transporte.

Each language has its own special challenges or problems. Do you believe that English is easy or hard? Most would say English  is a very difficult language. It is like learning two languages at the same time.  Nabokov, who learned English as an adult said famously, “learning English was like moving from one darkened house to another on a starless night during a strike of candlemakers and torchbearers.” I think Nabokov captured exactly the fear and confusion of persons trying to learn English from scratch. Yet, Nabokov following another ESL student Joseph Conrad survived and became one of the great English language authors. Yes, English can be weird(peculiar). It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though! (yes, that is correct English!) Can anyone think that English is (facile) easy, that is to say it can be learned by a little effort or effortlessly? No. The truth is this: some things about English are easy and others are, to put it mildly, devilishly difficult. The grammar of English is relatively simple. The word order (syntax) of English is regular. However, spelling English words and pronouncing English words can be a challenge as compared to Spanish or German or Italian languages which are almost entirely phonetic. The expanse of English vocabulary and the variety of its dialects is daunting. Spanish has regional dialects but none is so far removed as English or American dialects. But English is not a remote or exotic language but a language firmly in the mainstream of European/Western languages.  Therefore, if we use an etymological or “historical” approach to vocabulary development it will help the English speaker learn Spanish or French words but, furthermore, since many common Spanish or French words have cognates in academic English. Similarly, a Spanish or French speaker can also better (ameliorate) his or her English vocabulary the same way.

Of course, English has an enormous vocabulary. It takes much reading and study to understand and acquire these words and learn to PRONOUNCE them clearly. But, compared to other languages its grammar is relatively simple. On the other hand, though English words may be easy to recognize and interpret, you have four jobs with every English word:

1)to understand the basic sense or meaning of a word (denotation)

2)to know how to pronounce it correctly; its diction (orthoepy)

3)To know how to spell the word (orthography)

 4) To understand additional senses of meanings of a word (connotations) or words that sound alike (homophones and homonyms!)

Number one and two are the most critical. Many people have difficulty with English spelling (#3) their entire lives. Spelling is just a matter of practice and simple memorization. Spanish is like a disciplined Roman Army organized, regular with very few silent letters.  English is more like a chaos of tribes or charismatic church revival by the river or clandestine poker game in a speakeasy. No one would ever say English was uniform or behaved like an Anglican tea or church service! English is more like a rodeo! Or New York baseball fans crying in unison, “BUM! BUM! BUM!” when the umpire made a bad call. Number four –connotations- is very important and comes from regular reading, study, and analysis of words. Besides learning the connotations of words the learner must learn many idioms (or expressions) plus attain a certain level of cultural literacy so as to understand references and allusions found in stories, articles, and books.

English has an extraordinary richness (or wealth) of vocabulary, idioms, and expressions. It is not unusual for a word to have many synonyms that mean the same or NEARLY the same thing but each word may have a different nuance or shade of meaning that gives that word a special tone or a positive or negative connotation. A house is a basic need or shelter, as is a residence or a habitation but a shack, hovel, shanty, cabin, tenement, wickiup, wigwam, teepee and Motel 6 do not evoke the same meaning as palace, mansion, palazzo, villa, country house, chateau, townhouse, penthouse apartment or Hilton Hotel. It should be obvious to anyone that the first group represents very humble habitations while the second group represents domiciles of varying degrees of luxury.

Reading English is not that difficult but understanding spoken English and speaking English clearly are difficult problems.    I will present shortly another essay specifically on HOW TO LEARN ENGLISH, to PRONOUNCE IT and TO SPELL IT.