The Zen of Spanish Proficiency

BUDDHISM IS A RELIGION built around the idea of religious freedom. The freedom that the Buddhist seeks is not of the kind that drove American pilgrims of the 17th century, which was freedom from persecution by the State. The Buddha taught that there is another, unsuspected freedom, which may be attained by a guided process of detachment. Buddhism is mainly about mindfulness.

In Zen, it is the freedom from the distractions and imagination that are made possible by a weak, unanchored attention. This quality of mindful attention may be described as “religious” as it is not demanded by family, careers or civil or polite society.

Zen Buddhists practice a discipline of meditation that, in ordinary conversation, is commonly called one’s “practice.” Why use the word practice? The answer is to be found in the very instability of one’s attention during meditation. One can practice being mindful of one’s posture and of one’s breath—and sometimes even of one’s thoughts. But there is no such thing as “doing” mindfulness; it just doesn’t happen that way.

What does any of this have to do with the learning of another language? A lot, actually.

Axiom 1. Language is stylized breathing with intent to communicate.

We may take it as a general observation that language is stylized breathing with intent to communicate; further, that one language differs from another in relation to breath control and other phonological features such as the use of the nasal cavities in speech. Each language has its own rules about what sound may follow another in the same syllable. In English, German and Chinese, for example, a syllable may end in /-ng/, as in singing, Englisch and Deng Xiaoping.  What these languages do not allow is a syllable to begin with /ng/. In Vietnamese, in contrast, /ng/ is permitted at the beginning of a word, and it is a common family name by itself: Ng.

Such rules are described in a branch of phonology called phonotactics. It so happens that in Spanish and Japanese, unlike English, there is a phonotactical rule that at the beginning, or onset, of a syllable, /s/ may not be followed by a consonant. Where, in English, words may begin with many consonant clusters with an initial /s/, as in sc, sh, sk, sl, sm, sn, sp, sq, sr, st, sw and sy (as in syzygy), Spanish has none. I repeat: None.

Axiom 2. Languages differ in their breathing styles.

This difference alone makes it extremely difficult for a native English speaker to easily breathe many Spanish sentences (1.1).

1. ¿Cómo está usted?

Why? Separating the /s/ from the /t/ is impossible without full mindfulness of one’s breath. You have to put your attention on the first syllable, which is /es/. In English, we pronounce the /s/ toward the front of the mouth, as in “Samuel”; but to pronounce /s/ followed by /t/ you have to move the /s/ back to a mid-position in the mouth. In this way, the /t/ can be sounded without interference from the /s/.  Say /es/ then /ta/, each distinctly without the /s/ bleeding onto the /ta/. Try it, slowly. It’s /es-tá/.

It’s strange to imagine that for the native Spanish speaker, this sequence of sounds takes place automatically, without conscious attention. For the native English speaker, in contrast, it’s the struggle for detachment from a lifetime of English phonotactics.

There is one regional option for splitting the /s/ from the following consonant: Caribbean Spanish speakers seem to have been bothered by this phonotactical nicety; so they just drop the /s/ before a consonant: thus, /e’ta/, leaving a silent space for the missing /s/.  It is much easier for an English speaker to imitate a Caribbean accent than to imitate the accent of Mexico, Colombia or Spain (1.2).

2. ¿Cómo e’tá u’ted?

So, to summarize, for the native English speaker who wishes to speak the Spanish language as spoken by native speakers, the starting point is gaining mindfulness about how you breathe in English. Parallel to becoming mindful about how you craft English syllables is the requirement that you gain an intellectual understanding of how breathing takes place in Spanish. At some point, as you develop this parallel mindfulness, you will begin to start hearing things differently: You will start to hear Spanish as it is spoken, and not as before, when you unconsciously transformed the sounds of Spanish into English-like vowels, consonants and consonant clusters.

Axiom 3. The starting point for greater proficiency in Spanish is to be found in English.

You will hear, for example, the first syllable of the Spanish word responsable as /res-/ and the first syllable of constitución as /cons-/. These will be big moments, but these are ones that are far in the future. At present, you will hear /res-spons-sable/ and /cons-sti-tu-ción/.

Axiom 4. At first, it is impossible for the native English speaker to hear, distinctly, the first syllable of disponible.

At a second point in the future—as the intensity of your parallel mindfulness increases—you will spontaneously say, aloud, /res-pon-sa-ble/. It will sound wrong to your English expectations, and you will half-way expect a native Spanish speaker to correct you; but no one will notice. I promise.

In this way, as Zen teaches us, the practice of mindfulness of one’s own breathing, and also that of the speakers of another language, is needed for learning how to listen and speak that second language.

— To be continued —

Some information for this article was gathered from:



Written by

George Baker

Baker & Associates offers niche-market business and policy intelligence related to Mexico's oil and gas, power and chemical industries. Over 1,000 reports have been issued in the last 20 years. Subject matter expert and publisher George Baker, who directs the firm, has carried out consulting assignments starting in the late 1970s at the height of the Oil Boom in Mexico. He brings bilingual and bicultural skill-sets to understanding and responding to challenges of business and public policy, coupled with a deep familiarity with the history and idiosyncrasies of the Mexican operating environment.

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