In Spanish, It's Not Your Fault

July 24, 2009 By: erik Category: Musings, Spain, Spanish 2,813 views

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Ice Cream ConeRecently my blogrollmate, Sharon, pointed me to this fascinating article, which you should read all the way through, entitled How Does Language Shape The Way We Think?. It highlights something I’ve noticed in my lingual trek into Spanish: that to properly speak another language, you must change the way you see the world. Because of the organic way that languages have formed, the constructs of various languages inherently contain extra information that is missing from other languages, information that is not thought about by non-speakers. It’s mastering these new understanding of the world around you that are the hardest part of learning another language.

The obvious verbal example in going from English to Spanish is that, in Spanish, there are two different forms of the verb “to be”. Which you use depends on how permanent the state of being is. The phrases “I am tall” and “I am hungry” use the same verb in English, but not in Spanish. This dichotomy is very tricky for English speakers learning Spanish.

Conversely one of the hardest parts of speaking English for native Spanish speakers is how English pronouns must agree with the gender of the subject. “Bob fell and broke his arm.” In Spanish that possessive pronoun is ambiguous, like “its”, because it’s obvious who the arm belonged to. To speak proper English, your brain has to be aware of and providing this extra bit of information. This is very tricky for Spanish speakers.

It’s Not Your Fault

One of my favorite idiosyncrasies of Spanish grammar is how often it sounds like the speaker is not in control of the situation, or not at fault.

Estaba fregando los platos y se me ha roto un plato.

This translates, maintaining the Spanish grammar, to something like: “I was washing the dishes and a plate broke to/for me.” You don’t say, “I broke a plate,” you were just there when the plate got broken. Not only that, but the plate broke itself specifically for you!

Se me cayó la cámara

This is how you say that you dropped something. It translates back to, “The camera fell to/for me.” There’s no verb for “to drop”, in Spanish. You say that the object fell, but that it happened to you.

Se han perdido las llaves

“The keys have lost themselves.” I didn’t lose the keys. They did it to themselves.

La planta que me diste se me ha muerto.

“The plant you gave me has died on me.” I didn’t kill it! And it didn’t just die, it died for me.

And the last one is my favorite…

No me gustas.

“I don’t like you.” One of the first phrases you learn in first-year Spanish is to express your preferences, your likes and dislikes. “Me gusta correr,” if you like to run. “No me gustan las patatas,” if you don’t like potatoes. Notice that the verb conjugation changed there because “potatoes” is plural. This throws students off because they still think of themselves as the subject of the sentence doing the liking, but it’s the other way around. The verb gustar translates closest to “to please”. Instead of thinking “I like to run”, to speak Spanish, you have to rephrase it to, “Running pleases me.” There simply isn’t a verb in Spanish for “liking” something. In Spanish, you are not in charge of what you like or dislike. I like this this pleases me a lot. I want to like you, but you just don’t please me. It’s not my fault!

See what I mean about how you must change how you see the world to learn a foreign language?

This post has been cross-posted at one of my favorite blogs about learning Spanish, Voices en Español. I’m honored that I could contribute.

  • yes, yes and yes! the point you make about changing the way you see the world in order to learn another language is an important one, and one that is almost always overlooked in the process of language learning and language teaching… learning another language is not just about learning new vocabulary and grammar constructions, that will serve you well for directions to the train station and ordering food in restaurants but it will not actually enable you to dominate the language…. to speak a second language fluently you have to have at least some interest in the culture and attitudes of the speakers of the said language…

    a constant source of frustration for me as an english teacher is that very few students are actually learning english because they want to, they are doing it because they need it for their work, or to pass their exams, and therefore are unreceptive to alternative forms of expression… they want to say it exactly like they say it in their mother tongue, just using english words… and unfailingly are less than impressed when the teacher suggests that “in english we wouldn’t say it like that, we would say it like this”!

  • Paul

    Very interesting. What are some of the observable consequences from language that removes one’s responsibility for one’s actions? Are people less to blame for bad behavior, since they appear to be less in charge of what they do? Are sentences lighter? “I was there when the money was stolen” might not be punished as harshly as “I stole the money”. How about good behavior – are Spaniards less boastful than Americans?

    • As I was writing this, I was trying to think of examples of Spanish people playing the victim role more than English speaking countries, but one of the things you learn being an expat and getting to know people in more than one culture, is just how right Mark Twain was when he said that “All generalizations are false.” I know people who claim to be victims of life in both the US and Spain. Every sweeping generalization I could think of had a counter example. So I’m hesitant to say much.

      Compared to Americans, Spaniards are more likely to accept their place in the world and not dream of being a millionaire quite as much. But I think that’s true of most of Europe more than the “I’m gonna start a new life for myself on this new continent!” attitude that Americans still have.

      As for boasting, I would say that Spaniards are less boastful about their achievements than Americans, yes.

      Another example I just thought of is winning the lottery. In Spanish, you don’t say that you won the lottery, you say, “Me ha tocado la loterí­a“, literally, “The lottery touched me.”

  • Oooohh, that’s interesting.

  • Yes, and that is the fascinating thing about languages! However, even though true, I am not sure that the example with the plates, e.g., is very successful. E.g. when I say “se me ha roto algo”, my Spanish bf usually laughs and says something like (translating): Oh yeah, it’s not like you broke it, it broke itself (for you)! 🙂 So, I ws under the impression that if I really want to point out that I did it, I have to say “he roto… (algo)”.

    But otherwise, true true and true. Off to read that article.

    • It’s true. Some of them, like the plate, the keys, and the plant, do have more culpable first-person versions that are equally correct. But the dropping and liking do not.

      I like the construct so much that I do the same in English now. “I was washing the dishes and a plate broke.”

  • Excellent piece and great on-target comments from Mondraussie and Paul.

    @Mondraussie: Reading your comment was like looking in a mirror. I teach English to Spaniards and I also have three blogs targeted at English speakers who want to learn Spanish. One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is that generally most Spaniards just want to reach a functional level of English. As you said, they’re frequently motivated by some external obligation. Once that obligation is met, their desire to learn goes poof! and vanishes.

    Anglos, meanwhile, often learn Spanish for fun or for social reasons. They might need it for professional reasons but usually their motivation to learn Spanish goes beyond just needing enough to ace a job interview or to take a test. They want to get down and dirty and get beyond a functional level of Spanish. They want nuance, they want colloquial expressions, they’re curious about the culture, they yearn to master the subjunctive, etc. Many aspire to reach a level of proficiency that is extremely high.

    @Paul: Don’t have an answer to your question about lighter prison sentences but I can tell you that the idea of personal responsibility in Spain is different from America. In America, we generally believe that one person can make a difference. That is instilled in us from when we are kids. In Spain, the attitude is the opposite, that individuals have no real power and that any responsibility lies with large entities (the government, business, schools, unions).

    Does language shape the way we think? You betcha. And it does so in the subtlest of ways.

    The aspects of Spanish that Erik brings up, about how it’s not one’s fault when something happens, is carried over to other aspects of Spanish/Hispanic society. The individual isn’t as important as the collective. In English, “people are…” (plural, group of individuals) but in Spanish, “la gente es…” (singular, one entity). In Spain, there’s less a sense of individualism and striking out on one’s own and more a sense of conformity and staying with the pack.

    Anyway, Erik, thanks again for a very insightful post.

    • Paul

      Does the individual being less important than the collective go on to affect other aspects of behavior? In America I see no real equivalent to the social clubs which are prevalent in Spain, although maybe the Moose or the Elks come close. In America I’ll make a martini at 5:00, and watch TV by myself. In Spain, except for wine with meals and an occasional beer on a hot afternoon, I only drink when partying with others. America’s so-called national pastime – despite being a “team” sport – revolves around an individual trying to throw a ball past another individual. Europe’s football instead seems to require much more teamwork, and most scores require the intricate placement and coordination of at least 3 or 4 teammates. In America, we have no equivalent to what happens in the streets at the Festival of San Fermin, where the mob resembles cells of a single organism.

  • Fascinating insight. I have always noticed it but the broad generalisation is roughly correct. It is very difficult to get Spanish people to take responsibility for their actions. Look at any civil servant or public servant. “Computer says no”. “I can’t do anything” “My hands are tied”

    • To be fair to the Spanish, though, there’s not a country on Earth where a civil servant is likely to do extra work to help a citizen.

  • Ines

    wow, how did I miss this one? First of all, I’m half spanish (can’t stand the term ‘spaniard’ )even though could be classed as 100% spanish by the ignorant spanish who refuse to accept that basque is a nationality… but have live in London for the last 19 years.
    I don’t agree with the view that you have to inmerse into the culture to learn a language. I’m not one bit english but I have not done too bad when it comes to acquiring the language. As much as I respect it, I have nothing in common with them apart from their language.
    When I first came to this country at the age of 18 I knew that for me to succeed in learning the language the first thing I had to do was cut myself off from any other language speakers and listen to english 24/7. Also after doing some research I opted for the Callam method of learning english which in my experience translates into …don’t think just repeat after the teacher. repetition repetition repetition and whatever you do , do not translate anything into your language. Do not think, do not translate just say it like you’ve heard others say it. Only when you start thinking in your new language you have succeeded. A bit like when babies first learn a language…
    Another example to illustrate my point, I spent a year in a North African country hoping to learn the Arabic language but the people around me were French speakers and you guessed right ,I ended up with very good french and very little arabic even though the arab culture was all around …
    On the American v the Spanish front… I don’t like generalization so I better not go there 😉
    Euskalduna in London

  • Spaniard30

    Dear Inés,

    I fully respect your point of view as a bask nationalist activist (really), but please do not take any chance you have to express your anger against most of the Spanish people.
    Since I am so ignorant, could you please tell me when the bask country was a nation as such? However, I feel the most important question here to answer would be: Who is more ignorant the Spaniard that does not recognise the bask nationality or the basks that kill, blackmail and continuosly threat other basks just for an ideology? Having many bask friends and therefore knowing the situation quite well, I just find it funny that almost all nationalist basks feel very upset about the former, but totally indifferent (or much much less troubled) about the latter. What world are we in?

    Yours sincerely,


  • Steve

    Well, i must beg to differ.

    I have lived in Spain for almost 20 years and i must disagree about the assumption of spaniards don´t taking their blame in the same way that another europeans or even americans do, just because some semantic or gramatic divergence in their language with the “germanic” languages shape their minds in that way.

    Just think about. With all respect, its ridiculous, and i found it even a bit offensive. Do you really think every common spaniard who breaks a dish by accident, just freeze for a while and thinks: “hey, i´m not a subject in this sentence, therefore that wouldnt be my blame at all”? They are not unconscious savages. Even in an unconscious mental process is highly unlikely to happen. Such a society would be unsustainable. They are, generally, perfectly conscious of which part they took in every mistake they commit, atleast in the same proportion every civilizated western country is.

    What they “literally” say doesn´t determine the meaning they give to it. Which, in this particular case isn´t different that the meaning that any other european citizen could´ve bring. Theres no relation here between pure semantic and perception of reality.

    Spain, like the rest of europe and western world has been irradiated by the american culture for atleast the last 5 decades , therefore theyre not so different to us “anglos” in most of their mannerisms and in the way they manage their everyday matters -just they are regarding their social life which is a world appart, but that´s beside the point.

    If there´s a extended sense of self-gratification in spanish society i would more rather to blame their catholic background in opposition to our “protestant” culture which, tradititionally doesnt let us forgive our faults so easily. Though due to the cold and inexorable advance of globalization this seems to be changing gradually, for everyone.

  • Hej this is interesting!
    Do you think this way of not being responsibe for things happening around you could have a bearing on corruption? In the Nordic countries objectively corruption in public affairs is a lot less frequent than in southern Europe. Maybe it has to do with knowing you in fact are responsible for breaking the plate or letting the plant die?

    • erik

      Perhaps. That’s pretty speculative, but it sounds good enough for use in a novel.

      Maria, you have the most interesting biography of any of my commenters. 70s fashion model, actress, tv producer, international legal translator and novelist? Wow!

  • Nomad Spaniard

    I think you are missing the point when talking about “responsibility”
    Maybe when saying “He roto un plato” or “se me ha roto un plato” the difference come with the intention of doing something. In the first case it is clear you break a plate and that you had the intention of breaking it, in the second and more frequently used expression there is no such intention to break nothing…
    …nothing to do with playing “the victim” role; remove\’s ones responsibility for one\’s actions, attitudes and so on…
    So, when you all agree about the need to change the way to see the world as a key factor when learning a foreign language, it seems that at the end of the process we are unable to do it so as we keep trying to “MEASURE-UNDERSTAND” the new language from our own native language structure. Maybe is that why childhood is the best time to learn foreign languages, as children do not make the mistake of doing so deep and mistaken analysis…

  • Sara

    This has had me giggling for the last few hours since I ran across it. As much as I’d like to defend the subconscious way this verbiage influences a culture, I simply cannot. I’m half&half (spaniard/american), went to school in USA but in a Spanish church/community with the majority of my Spanish relatives in the same city (a few still live in Spain). I must say that the community-ness (lol!) is a unique an lovable part of the culture but guilt does pass much faster. As does, as noted, excessive pride… In personal issues, but don’t get between them on team/national pride or u will lose a much used limb. If u read literature in both languages (I’m sure I could find an example if I wanted to waste a day reading side by side Don Quijote or the Bible or Reader’s Digest), u see this stepping back from individual to community constantly, even when reflexive verbs are not involved. The phrasing of self-improvement articles in English are: “Do your kids think you’re a cool parent?” In Spanish the exact same article will be titled, “Successful parents spend time communicating with their children”. I’m not kidding.

  • Oooohh, very good informative post that you have shared.