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An Anecdote From the Tutor

I have found that many traditional Spanish language books, and the tutors who follow their prescriptions to the letter, become too fixated on some rules that are frankly superficial and rather misleading. I prefer to focus on what really comes across to the students to be sure they have a better understanding of Spanish as a living language, not as a set of memorized, and often oversimplified, rules.

To illustrate this point, here is an example regarding the difference between the verbs ser and estar.

Maybe you know that the verb “to be” can be translated as ser or estar. While these are basic Spanish verbs, Understanding their differences is perhaps one of the more difficult challenges for students of Spanish as a Second Language. I frequently hear Americans, many of whom speak Spanish quite well, making repeated mistakes on this particular point.

Spanish books and Spanish teachers often oversimplify the difference, stating that ser is identified with the idea of permanence, and estar with the idea of temporary state. For instance, “You are American.” would be “Tu eres americano.” because you are American forever. On the other hand, “The coffee is hot” would be “El café está caliente” because within 10 minutes it will be cold.

When I was a novice teacher I would use this same explanation, until one day a student told me that under this criterion, permanent for ser and temporary for estar, “Madrid is in Spain” should translate into Spanish as “Madrid es en España”, since the city obviously wasn’t going to move. I told her that the correct way was, “Madrid está en España.” I explained to her that this was an exception because when you speak about location you must always use estar. A few days later this student asked me, “¿Dónde está la reunión?” (Where is the meeting?). I corrected her, “¿Dónde es la reunión?” She protested because we were speaking about location (the exception noted earlier), and yet I was telling her that she had to use the verb ser. “What is that?” she asked, “The exception of the exception?”

I thought, “Good question.”

A few days later, another student stated, “Yo estoy estudiante.” (I am a student.). I corrected him – “Yo soy estudiante.” The pupil asked why, if he would be a student for only a couple of weeks more, he shouldn’t use the temporary verb estar. I thought, “One more good question.”

Shortly afterwards another student was telling me about her little son who had been born four months before. She told me, “My son is a baby, but within a few months he won’t be a baby anymore.” So she thought she had to say, “Ethan está un bebé” because of the temporality. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Even as I told her that the correct way was “Ethan es un bebé” in spite of the temporality, I also recognized that the old criteria of permanent for ser versus temporary for estar simply didn’t work.

I began to take another, broader point of view and found a way for students to conceptualize the meaning and be able to anticipate the differences between ser and estar rather than simply memorize an interminable list of cases and exceptions.

But the important point is that I had learned something even more valuable than how to explain the difference between these two essential Spanish verbs. I had learned that a good teacher must keep his ears and his mind open to the real challenges that students face, in order to sharpen his teaching skills and provide his students with the best tools to learn the language.

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