How the Knowledge of Spanish Can Help You Better Understand English

by Melissa Burns

It doesn’t matter if you are a native English speaker or study it as a second language – there is a lot in it we have to take at face value, simply because it is so. Unintuitive spellings, grammar rules one has to merely learn without ever hoping to understand, pronunciations that seemingly have nothing to do with the way this or that word is spelled, exceptions that don’t follow any kind of logic at all ... These and dozens of other problems await those who want to study this language (or any other language, for that matter).

However, you can deepen your understanding of English, speed up the learning process and finally understand things that have been baffling you for years by taking an unintuitive route – either by starting to study or by turning to your existing knowledge of another language, for example, Spanish.

It may sound a bit absurd but consider this. Languages do not exist in isolation and never did. All of them have been evolving for thousands of years before arriving at their current state, constantly interacting with each other, borrowing words and word roots, influencing each other’s grammar rules and spelling, cross-pollinating, so to speak. Many of them have similar yet not identical rules, and most of them have similar structures (at least if we speak about European languages). Therefore, when you know a single language, you know but a part of a larger system and many of its own aspects are isolated and don’t seem to make any sense. When you start learning another related language, it often looks like pieces of the puzzle start jumping into their places all by themselves. It is often said that knowledge of one language can negatively interfere with the effort of learning another one – however, what happens, in reality, is that you start seeing both languages as parts of a bigger picture.

For example, learning the verb conjugation, tense structures and differences between the direct and indirect object in Spanish can throw unexpected light on the same aspects of English. When you see how it is done in one language, related rules from another one suddenly start to make sense. While distinguishing between past participle, present perfect and all the other tenses in English can be confusing, especially for an ESL learner, equating them to the same structures in Spanish can make it considerably easier to commit them all to memory, improving understanding of both languages.

The connections between vocabularies are just as, if not more, important. Knowledge of core Spanish vocabulary can help you track Latin roots in many common English words, revealing or suggesting their meanings. For example, Spanish words “mal” and “bien” mean “bad” and “good” respectively, and words with these roots have respective connotations as well: e.g., “malignant”, “malice”, “malformed”, “malnourished”, “beneficial”, “benefactor”, “benevolent”, and “benign”.

And of course, plenty of words, terms and names in English have Spanish origins, ranging from location names (Texas, California, Colorado) to common words (jerky, canyon, plaza, embargo) to product names (like famous El Primero calibre Zenith watches). Many of these words became a part of the English language so long ago and have been assimilated so thoroughly that most English speakers today don’t even realize their origins.

Another important benefit of learning or knowing Spanish when it comes to studying English is that these two languages share numerous cognates (words that have similar spelling, pronunciations and meaning in more than one language). This can significantly increase the speed of picking up vocabulary and often allows you to intuitively guess the meaning of a new word even if you don’t know it. Some examples include bicycle and bicicleta, abnormal and anormal, accessory and accessorio, curiosity and curiosidad. What is even more important is that cognates are usually formed following certain rules: for example, English words ending in –ant (elegant) have Spanish counterparts ending in –ante (elegante).

The same goes for –ary and –ario (actuary and actuario), -ate and –ar (complicate and complicar) and many other endings.

Knowing all this, you can now see that knowing Spanish can make learning English much, much easier – and vice versa. We hope that now the idea of studying Spanish to improve your English comprehension no longer sounds so weird.

About the writer

Melissa is a passionate blogger and journalist. She's also a freelancer and runs her content marketing agency

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