My junior year of high school was exhilarating. The light at the end of the tunnel started to twinkle. Freedom seemed so near. The prospect of college was right on the horizon, and then, just as it seemed that I was ready to sail into the sunset of independence, I was hit with the sobering realization that I had to contend with the dreaded Scholastic Aptitude Test, more commonly known as the SAT. Suddenly, that light at the end of the tunnel started to look more like a train, and I was smack in the middle of the tracks.For decades, just the thought of the SAT has cast a looming cloud of academic despair for many a student. Not a good thing when it is test-taking time. Yes, there are all varieties of flashcards, tutoring courses, and online practice tests to help the process along. But, as a mami, have you considered that for Spanish-speaking students, sometimes the clues to comprehension are sitting right under their noses—literally, in the very words that they hear and use at home or with fellow Spanish-speakers.
This linguistic revelation hit me as I nervously stumbled through the vocabulary section of my first live practice SAT, in the pre-Internet reality of my adolescence. At first, all the words looked the same to me, and despite fancying myself a true vocab girl and all-around wordsmith, this time I was downright daunted. As I chewed on my Number Two pencil, I glanced at the series of words once again, one of which was “tardy.” Just then, I remembered the last thing my mother had said to me as I left the house that morning: ‘No llegues tarde!’ When I saw that ‘late’ was one of the multiple choice answers, I immediately knew that I was on to something.
David J. Silva, PhD, Professor of Linguistics and Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Arlington agrees—to a point.
“When learning a new language, one can often draw upon the resources made available by the languages that she already knows,” he explained. “This general process of applying one existing knowledge to new learning situations is called ‘transfer.’ So when a Spanish speaker looks at an English word such as ‘amicable’ and discerns something akin to the Spanish word ‘amigo’ inside of it, then it’s easy to make the connection.
“When applying your current knowledge to the new situation proves successful, the result is called facilitation,” he added, noting, “Hey, look, the Spanish word facil is lurking there! Given that facil means easy, then facilitation is all about making things easier!”
Many of those English words that may seem heady or lofty to a Spanish-speaking 17-year-old are actually quite similar to the Spanish words that they regularly speak at home. “Given Spanish’s linguistic roots as a Romance language, a direct descendant of Latin, there are clear connections between Spanish and those English vocabulary items that are etymologically rooted in French, also a Romance language, and Latin, the very source of the Romance languages,” said Silva.
Consider the words below, all of which appear on the current SAT word lists. Look at the root of the word, switch on your Spanish brain for a second, and then contemplate the multiple-choice options. If you see one that seems close to what the “Spanish radar” is detecting, you’ve at least made an educated and intuitive guess.
Here is how I dissected them:
Valiant—I knew this word meant courage because I grew up on fairy tales about principes valientes.
Plumage— From plumage to plumas it made sense to find ‘feathers’ as one of the choices.
Lance—It was obvious that this one meant to throw, because I remember my dad telling me to lancar the pebbles into the river a certain way.
Debility—This one was easy. I knew it meant delicate or weak, because how many times hadn’t I heard my grandmother say: Niña me siento un poco debil.
Timorous—This one had to mean terror or fear because I knew that my mother le tenia temor a las bicicletas, which means my mom is terrified of bicycles.
Laud—The word had something to do with praise, because I knew that aplaudir meant to clap ones hands.
Brusque—This one was also easy, as no seas tan brusco,was what my aunt always told my male cousins who liked to bully the girl cousins.
Exculpate—This one had to have something to do with blame, which I knew after an entire childhood of exclaiming: Que yo no tengo la culpa! Maybe you’re familiar with that one or its English cousins, “It’s not my fault!” or “I didn’t do it!” or “It wasn’t me”.