Watch your language: The beauty and challenge of writing in another language

Published 6:17 pm Friday, May 24, 2024

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Grading short essays and compositions in Spanish can be both rewarding and frustrating. Native speakers of English learning to compose and communicate their thoughts and ideas in Spanish can find moments of brilliance and moments of defeat. Because every language represents a different way to divide up reality, the corresponding grammar and lexicon can encode meaning in vastly different ways. So, learning another language is difficult. 

There are times too when those communicating in their second language are not always aware of what they are communicating. The language produced in these circumstances can often be challenging (and oddly fascinating) to translate. For example, one particular structure we work hard to teach our students is a past tense narration. In Spanish, this can be tricky because it involves negotiating two past tenses that communicate verbal aspect, the preterite and the imperfect. It is so complicated that the national exam for evaluating oral proficiency considers this a marker of advanced ability. 

A few years ago a student writing about his childhood wrote that his father did not like “el juego de caballos”. It took me a minute or two to realize the student was trying to describe the concept “horseplay”. There is no specific word for this in Spanish, so the student used the skills he had on hand and chose a literal translation. Another paper valiantly described the presidency of Jorge Arbusto. I’ll just state here that “arbusto” is Spanish for “bush”. I’m sure you can figure out the rest. Some communications, however, defy a logical translation. 

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For instance, I still find the following short narration in the past (NIP) fascinating, mostly because of the questions that it raises. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to ask the student what he was trying to communicate. The quiz prompt asked students if they had ever been involved in a car accident and if so, to briefly relate what happened and how they felt about it. Ideally, to answer this question, students were to use the preterite for completed actions and the imperfect to talk about the weather, their feelings, and actions in progress. 

This student’s NIP went something like this, “Sí, tuve un accidente cerca de Kroger. Hablé con la policia y compré la pollo (sic). Me sentía peligroso.” If you are familiar with Spanish, you’ll see that the student successfully used the preterite for completed action and the imperfect to express his emotion at the time. However, the meaning is enigmatic. It translates to “Yes, I had an accident near Kroger. I spoke with the police and I bought the chicken. I felt dangerous.” Hmmmm. Would love to find this student and ask what he meant to say!

Another short essay that communicated something unintentional had to do with the confusion between the word for peace “la paz” and the word for fish “el pez”. The students had been asked to write about both problems facing the world today and what they would do to help address the problem. This answer was noble in intention and full of heartfelt sincerity. “Lucharía por la pez. Creo que en el futuro el mundo será mejor porque los países tienen la pez.” This translates to “I would fight for the fish. I believe that in the future the world will be better because countries will have the fish.” Even without intending to, this student communicated a good message. May everyone in the world have enough food to eat. 

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is