Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I gots good grammar

Monday, 6-13-11

Well, that’s not completely true. I’ve been known to write run on sentences, add commas where they’re not needed, and end sentences with prepositions. But I do try to write so people can understand me.

On Friday one of my teachers had asked me if her daughter could come to the Pastoral House to get help with her English homework. Her daughter goes to a university in San Miguel which is about an hour away. I said that’d be great if she stopped by. I was excited to be able to help out. Carla stopped by the house today a little before 4:30pm and we worked on her English homework until 6:00pm. There was a lot she had to do in her workbook, and together we worked through each part.

Countable and uncountable nouns
In her English book there were several sections on countable and uncountable nouns. I’ve talked to Alejandro before about these so I knew what this was all about. Countable and uncountable nouns help you determine whether or not you use the word “many” or the word “much.” Because in Spanish, the word for “much” is “mucho” and the word for “many” is also “mucho.”

Countable nouns are easy to recognize. They are things that we can count. For example: "pen". We can count pens. We can have one, two, three, or more pens. Other countable nouns are dog, cat, strawberry, dollar, and fork. Uncountable nouns are substances, concepts, etc. that we cannot divide into separate elements. We cannot “count” them. For example, we cannot count “milk”. We can count “bottles of milk” or “gallons of milk”, but we cannot count “milk” itself. Here are some more uncountable nouns: music, furniture, water, gas, and money.

However, some nouns can be countable and uncountable depending on the sentence. For example, the words hair, work, and time can be countable or uncountable. You can say, “There are two hairs in my coffee” (countable) or “I don’t have much hair” (uncountable). You can say, “Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s many works” (countable) or “I have no money. I need to work” (uncountable). A final example: “Many times in the past he’s complained about the music” (countable) or “I don’t have much time for coffee” (countable).

Determining whether to use “many” or “much” in a sentence is something that comes naturally to English speakers since we grew up hearing how the words were used and were taught correct English grammar from a young age. However, deciding when to use “many” and when to use “much” is difficult for Spanish speakers. It’s not an easy concept to teach, and unfortunately it’s something that takes time and practice to understand. Unless you have a lot of examples and hear how people use certain words there’s not necessarily an easy way to learn it.

Past simple vs. Past participle verbs
I admit that before I started teaching English I had no clue what the difference was between past simple and past participle verbs. I’m sure I learned the difference at some point in school but it’s something that’s automatic for English speakers (most of the time) so I forgot.

The simple past tense is used to talk about an action or event that began and ended in the past. The simple past verbs form in one of two ways: 1) Adding –d or –ed at the end of verbs (regular verbs). 2) Some verbs do not have the form –ed in the past (irregular verbs). Example of regular verbs: I called my mother last night. She answered the phone. We talked for a long time. Example of irregular verbs: I wrote a letter to my father. He read it and said “I love you.” I felt very happy.

I’m not sure how exactly to describe the past participle, but I know it’s used for all perfect forms of verbs and often ends in –ed. It’s one of those things that I know what it is but it’s hard to explain. For example, you use the past participle in these sentences: “Have you ever been to the ocean?” and “Have you ever seen a whale?”

So I understand the past simple and the past participle. What’s great is that many times the word we use for the past simple and the word we use for the past participle are the same, such as for the verbs lose (lost), catch (caught), and sweep (swept). Even though most of the time English speakers automatically know when to use which verb tense there are times when we have to think a little harder about it and times when we mess up completely. I know that I sometimes have a hard time trying to remember which is the correct word to use. And I’ve heard a lot of people in the US who confuse the past simple and the past participle.

For example, do you know when to use the word awoke vs. awaken? What about awakened? Which sentence is correct: “He was bit by the snake” or “He was bitten by the snake.” Here are a few other past simple and past participle verbs to think about. See if you can figure out when to use them and how to use them in a sentence (past simple, past participle):

Ate, Eaten
Bit, Bitten
Dived, Dove
Drank, Drunk
Drew, Drawn
Forbade, Forbidden
Lay, Lain
Rang, Rung
Sawn, Sawed
Shrank, Shrunk
Swam, Swum

So all in all, English is a hard language to learn for native Spanish speakers. This isn’t to say that Spanish is easy to learn. It’s hard and I still struggle with learning it. Since nouns in Spanish are either feminine or masculine, but nouns in English have no gender, this is something I have to work at. Example: “Tree” in Spanish is “el árbol,” which is masculine. But the word “branch,” which is “la rama” in Spanish is feminine. So you have to learn the gender of all the nouns in Spanish.

Translating from English into Spanish, especially when writing a letter or email, can be difficult for me. When translating from English to Spanish or Spanish to English words and sentences don’t always translate exactly; the words may be in a different order when translating. This is why being a translator is hard and having a good translator is so important. I also struggle with the past tense. I’ve written about this before and I think I’m getting better at determining when I need to use the past preterite tense versus the past imperfect tense, but I still have a ways to go. I also need to work on sentence formation. Thankfully, several of the teachers at school feel comfortable now correcting my Spanish or giving me helpful hints about how to say something correctly.

To sum it all up, working with elementary, high school, and college students who are trying to learn English is always a good reminder of how difficult it is to learn English. It also makes me appreciate the fact that I can speak English, and I’m glad English was my first language. And I’ve very happy that I’m only teaching beginning level English classes. This advanced stuff makes my head spin. The more I wade through grammar in English and in Spanish the more I realize how incredibly complicated languages can be. I’m not sure if I enjoy learning more about grammar or if it just makes me tired of learning the “rules” of language. I think a little bit of both.

P.S. If I’m wrong about any of this will someone please correct me!


Anonymous said...

Boggles my mind -- I'm printing this one off for Barbara. Mom

Anonymous said...

Wow, I am so confused. I never thought about countable and uncountable nouns. All those different past tenses. Makes my head hurt. I'm glad you can keep it straight.

Kevin Pokorny said...

I agree with Matthew - confused. I learned a lot in reading your blog about all this. I'm worn out or is it wore out? Whatever.