Things you Don’t Learn in Spanish Class

Language classes are amazing for teaching you grammar rules, vocabulary, reading, writing, and pretty much everything that can fit in a textbook. Your standard language classes will teach you the basics and give you the foundation to be able to (hopefully) interact with the target group, at least, linguistically.

I studied Spanish for 4 years in high school, and I learned a lot. I learned enough for me to be able to interact with the target community in real life, and enough for me to be able to apply what I learned to learn Portuguese.

However, once I graduated from high school, I realized that classroom world and the real world were, well, worlds apart. In the classroom, you don’t really get social training for your target community. They don’t tell you about little rivalries between countries that are based on soccer or history, or about different dialects spoken in different countries that speak the same language. In classroom world, you only get about a third of the story: linguistic foundation. And in the real world, you get the other two-thirds: real linguistic reinforcement and social interaction.

My high school courses reinforced tu (2nd person singular, or ‘you’) and its conjugations. Tu hablas, tu quieres, you know the drill. They also briefly mentioned, in my four years of studying Spanish, that Spain uses vosotros, but we wouldn’t be learning it or we wouldn’t be tested on it. Okay, cool. But it was either the summer between my junior and senior year or after high school that I realized that the unspoken vos (also 2nd person singular, or ‘you’) existed in the world, and not only as another pronoun, but as another entity; vos has its own conjugations and can’t be mixed with conjugations used for tu. Tu háblas, vos hablás–the accent goes on different syllables.

Vos is a pronoun that’s used in a variety of different countries throughout Latin America, like El Salvador and Argentina. What’s crazy to me is that no teacher mentioned it at least once the whole time in my formal education, considering how big a country like Argentina is, or considering how many Salvadorans live in the United States.

Market Corner
El Salvador

Mexicans make up a huge population of the United States, and definitely California, but they’re not the only ones. Salvadorans make up a percentage of Latinos in California and in other states, so why have I (or you or we) not once (consciously) heard the vos pronoun being used? You have (at least) two population of Spanish speakers coming into contact with each other, that have different dialect systems. So?

Linguistic accommodation on the part of the Salvadorans occur, so that they can establish “a common identity [with other Spanish speakers] and [minimize] the social distance between [their] interactions” (Raymond 2012, p.684). Research has also shown that the children of Salvadorans, born in the United States, (prefer to) use tu instead of vos, perhaps because they are born into a place where the majority of Spanish speakers use tu.

I also have a friend that conducted research on the same topic. His family is from El Salvador and he was born here. His insight is that the vos dialect is associated with low class, low education, vulgarity, and disrespectfulness. His impression is that even women tend to avoid using the vos form.

Though this is only a small part of the world and a small interaction between one group of Spanish speakers and another, these things aren’t discussed in classrooms. And sometimes I honestly don’t think it’s practical: it might take too long to teach, it would take time away from learning grammatical structures and other important linguistic aspects. After all, it is a language class. But then I have to ask, what is language? Is language just the words and sounds and structures that come out of our faces? Or is language also social interaction? Does social interaction make up so much of language that it should be taught in classes?

Me in Nicaragua where apparently they use vos. No wonder I couldn’t understand anything for the first couple of days!

That’s a question for the education department. I’m very obviously a strong advocate of learning about dialects and social perceptions because it’s about the real world, and one of my favorite areas of linguistics is sociolinguistics. But I can understand the practicality of not teaching it in classes.

So, what do you do if you’re interested in learning about these things? It is possible to learn about these things on your own. There will probably be blog posts about it, or you could ask your Spanish-speaking friends in different countries about these things. I’ve seen books about certain varieties of Spanish (e.g. Nicaraguan Spanish, etc.). However, it might be difficult to find even online or to get answers from people, because these things are sometimes so embedded into the culture and way of thinking. Maybe we just need to make our own resources?


Leave a comment down below on your thoughts  or similar experiences about anything I talked about in the post! Questions are always welcome, too!


References (whoops, my grad school is showing):

Raymond, C.W. (2012).  Reallocation of pronouns through contact: in-the-moment identity construction amongst Southern Californian Salvadorans. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 16(5), 669-690.

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