What grammatical queries have you experienced with Spanish natives?

Polishing up on English

Diary submitted by Katie J., Madrid

What grammatical queries have you experienced with Spanish natives?

Time and time again, the same EFL debate is raised: do native or non-native speakers make better English teachers? For many researchers, the question is a troublesome one, dichotomised as it is into these two difficult binaries. For Peter Medgyes (1992), the superiority of native speakers is unquestionable, “lying in the fact that… [non-natives] use of English is but an imitation of some form of native use”. Yet, as EFL teachers, he asserts non-natives’ inherent value boasting of – among other assets – “their [superior] knowledge about and insight into how the English language works”.
Certainly, as a native, my immense ignorance of the technicalities of English was something I feared could become clear in a classroom environment. As my time as a TEFL teacher progressed, generally I found that my innate knowledge proved to be trustworthy. Nonetheless, there was the occasional question to which I could only make a semi-sophisticated grunt and ramble my way to coherence.
The first difficulty I found was in explaining the subjunctive: If I were and if it were are both common confusions. Whereas in Spanish these would literally be translated into the imperfect subjunctive, fuera or estuviera, in English, they technically serve as the second conditional rather than the subjunctive. Of course, such a niche component of the conditional is something I as a native struggled to understand from a technical perspective, so attempting to explain it to a learner used to be particularly difficult. For this reason, the difference between may and might (a common query) has also required revision. Again, in Spanish, this verb is entrenched in the subjunctive tense, thus for many Spanish learners explaining the subjunctive purpose of the verb can be somewhat difficult. It is actually through my knowledge of Spanish grammar that I’ve managed to comprehend the purpose of these verbs. By comparing with the use of the subjunctive in Spanish, this has helped to clarify both for learners and for myself that these verbs serve to encapsulate possibility, not in their conjugations but in their intrinsic meanings. Although may serves exclusively for the present and for more factual purposes, the other three examples capture the hypothetical.
Although my knowledge of Spanish has helped to hone finer grammatical points, certain vocabulary has proved difficult to explain without the aid of Spanish to fall back on. One idiom in particular – that of to take over – has been a common query. My initial reaction was to think of the professional context, using replace someone/something as a synonym. However, the actual meaning is more complex than this, especially in the common context, to take over responsibility. A more appropriate definition would perhaps be to begin to control: a definition that can be applied to a wider range of circumstances even – according to a more muscular student – the phrase: “After work, I take over the gym”. Whether ironic or not was never made clear.
Another example of whose nuance was only realised during a class was the difference between fee and price. When one student asked the difference it was tempting to reply that they were synonyms yet, of course, his subsequent example, “the fee of a plane ticket” was incorrect. Fee normally suggests a more professional context and a sense of exchange. “Service fees”, for example, suggest that money has been paid in order for a task to be carried out. Meanwhile price is more one-sided, referring purely to the cost of an object rather than a more professional relationship.
Of course, queries such as the difference between make and do, and when to use to or for have also been common amongst Spanish learners. Yet, the aforementioned cases demonstrate situations in which I was less prepared, relying purely on examples to try and find the best explanation. Such an exercise has certainly encouraged me to take a different perspective on the English language, whose technicalities are at times severely alienated from its contemporaries.


  • Medgyes, Peter, ‘Native or Non-Native: Who’s Worth More?’ ELT Journal 4.1 (October, 1992) https://academic.oup.com/eltj/articleabstract/46/4/340/454528?redirectedFrom=fulltext accessed 20 April, 2018

What grammatical queries have you experienced with Spanish natives?

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