Whose Spanish should we speak?

Whose Spanish should we speak?

Josep Maria Bosch Bessa

Thursday, September 12, 2019

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I write to join in and expand the discussion on the topic of 'Whose Spanish should we speak?' in relation to the use of the “vosotros” form of Spanish verbs. This is, at times, a topic of intense discussion among language aficionados and some academics. Given Jamaica's thrust towards improving Spanish language competence on the island, this is a key aspect.

Each year the Embassy of Spain, in collaboration with the Spanish-Jamaican Foundation (SJF) and other embassies in Jamaica representing Spanish-speaking countries, participates in an activity called Día de Inmersión en Español (Spanish Immersion Day) to assist and support students in their preparation for the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate Spanish oral exams.

Each year we have had the same thoughts as those of a certain persusasion of the form of Spanish that one should learn. When students arrive at our booth we ask “¿Qué tal estáis?” (“How are you?” – using the “vosotros” form of the verb, referring to all of them). This is a basic phrase that someone visiting Spain would learn, yet students just stare at us without understanding.

The staff manning the booth then has to modify how they speak and eliminate the “vosotros” form and replace with “ustedes”, and in this way create a means for students to understand. Nothing is necessarily wrong with this, and we do it with pleasure, but the real world is not a room where people speak how we would like or want them to. “Everything adds up, but knowledge does not take centre stage,” as we say in Spanish.

For those who do not understand what we are talking about, let me explain: In Spanish there are two forms of the singular pronoun “you” — “tú”, which is used with friends, family, colleagues, and in informal settings; and “usted”, which is used in formal settings and to show respect. The corresponding plural forms are “vosotros” and “ustedes”. In quite a number of countries with Spanish as an official language the “ustedes” form is used as the plural of “tú” and the “vosotros” form is almost non-existent in the language. However, in Spain, where the internationally recognised DELE (Diploma of Spanish as a Foreign Language Exam) is created, the “vosotros” form is used. Quite a number of Jamaicans register to sit this exam, so it would be advisable that they be familiar with the usage.

Variations of usage also exist in English, the primary examples being the form used by the British and that used by the Americans. For reasons of geographical closeness, Spaniards generally learn British English. Imagine the shock English as a Second Language (ESL) Spanish students get when they travel to the US and realise that the English they learned is not the same as the one used in America! In their lessons, ESL teachers should present a few of the variations used in North America. This could also be done for the student learning Spanish in Jamaica.

On the other hand, for the native Spanish speaker, one of the most humorous and most enjoyable moments is a meeting of Hispanics; some from distant Europe, Spaniards, and others called Latinos from the Americas nearby. We find an exultant pleasure in examining with magnifying glasses the differences of lexicon and pronunciation and imitating each other like children. For example, “pomo” for some is the “doorknob” and for others, it's “a bottle of water”. Some pronounce “gracias” (thank you) as grasias (with a “z” sound) and others grathias (with a “th” sound), but we can be at it for hours and hours, talking, communicating, and although it seems unrealistic, we understand each other.

Because that is what is important; that, in spite of everything, we understand each other. The great linguistic unity of the Spanish language throughout so many and also distant places is surprising.

Within Spain, a country with a large area and different regions, varieties of the language are noticeable. Thus, we find that in the Canary Islands, geographically an archipelago and one of the 17 regions of Spain, the “ustedes” form is also used as a plural of “tú”, while in the rest of Spain “ustedes” is used only as a form of respect for the listeners. The difference is such that it has been lost in this area of Spain and in the rest of the Spanish-speaking countries, where the formality of use must then be sought in the context.

The foregoing is but a small sample of the richness of the Spanish language that makes us aware that there is beauty in the variety of the language. Spanish is an official language in 20 countries, with more than 400-million native speakers, more than those of English. Although not an official language in the United States, with the exception of the state of New Mexico and the associated state of Puerto Rico, it is the native language of 41 million people. Additionally, it is the third most studied language in the world.

We are in agreement with those who posit that what would be interesting is for students to at least know the use of “vosotros” and understand it. This could be done by integrating it in the New Standards Curriculum.

Given the richness in variation of the language, each person must choose the variety and use the form that suits him/her best depending on circumstances. You never know where the language will take you. What we do know is that whatever the variety, Spanish matters!


Josep Maria Bosch Bessa is ambassador of Spain to Jamaica and president of the Spanish-Jamaica Foundation.

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