by Wendy V. Ash

I have encountered an interesting phenomenon recently with my older elementary school students. We are currently wrapping up our restaurant unit where I am teaching them how to have a conversation in Spanish with waitstaff to order basic food. Over the past two weeks we have been drilling the students to vocalize the vocabulary and enunciate it properly.

Sometimes I will say to students that the Spanish language has phonetic “tricks” and it will try to fool you… but don’t allow it! This food unit is a great way to illustrate this since some of the “tricks” are within these words. Our vocabulary list includes (pay special attention to the underlines):

perro caliente

We explain that the “ll” makes the sound of “y”, that you do not sound the “h” when it is at the beginning of a word, that you do not pronounce the “u” in “gue, and how you roll your R’s when you pronounce “rr” instead of “r”. Before we did this exercise we would call children up to the board and they would write how they thought it was written while I pronounced it. They would write:

pado caliente
(surprisingly some would get ‘caliente” correct)

Here’s where the phenomenon occurs. I can have the children repeat again and again the pronunciation. I can show them on the board proper spelling and phonetic spelling. I place a coloring sheet or otherwise in front of them with Spanish words on it and boom… it’s back to square one and they apply English phonetics to Spanish words.

The most common was when they saw “pollo” and were saying “polo”. My solution to point out the problem is to ask the class “Are we on a horse playing on a field?”, they reply “noooo”. I then ask “Are we in a pool saying ‘Marco!’?”, they again reply “nooooo”. I then say “So WHY are we pronouncing it POLO? When you were told that ‘ll’ is pronounced ‘y’?”.

This, parents and teachers, is why I am so adamant about not writing these words down until they are comfortable with what sounds and feels correct. Otherwise, it is like they ARE playing the game ‘Marco Polo’. They are in deep water and feeling around blindly to learn a language that does not need to be as elusive as they make it.

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