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Spanish Dialects and the Foreign Language Textbook: A Sound Perspective

Joseph A. Wieczorek

Loyola College in Maryland

One philosophy held by many language teachers and authors of curriculum-oriented textbooks is that second language (L2) students should learn to speak an idealized form of the target language (TL) with native-like fluency, regardless of how native speakers actually communicate, and as if native speakers only spoke a textbook version of their language. A working definition of ‘language’ is a conglomeration of a series of (un)intelligible dialects, separated by elements of phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic differentiation and variation (cf. Montes Giraldo 1982:9, 27). The purpose of this article is to demonstrate (1) that textbooks used in the L2 Spanish classroom on both the high school and college level do not meet the criteria for the definition of language, that is, that they generally misrepresent the fundamental concept of dialects, and (2) that the textbooks ignore certain important elements of dialects that would be beneficial to the L2 classroom from the perspective of the L2 student as listener. The focus of this article does not encompass all possible elements that distinguish one dialect from another but rather centers on phonological/phonetic distinctions found in Spanish. The implicit claim that dialects have a place in the L2 classroom is supported independently by Wigdorsky, who states that the foreign language teacher’s job is difficult, as the

foreigner is not normally aware of the relevant features of the context of situation; the task implies exposing this student to several dialects (some of them apparently contradictory to the beginner) and motivating him to use some of them actively.

(1985: 331)                

Dialect exposure will be discussed here in light of the perspective of the Spanish sound system in the L2 classroom. It will be suggested that many current textbooks create false or misguided intuitions about the realities of Spanish (Gass 1983; O’ Connor 1989).


Perhaps the largest distinction one could make about the Spanish language is the division between Spain and Latin America (cf. da Silva 1983: 14). One immediate observation is that dialectologists (e.g., Fontanella de Weinberg 1976; Zamora-Munné and Guitart 1988) would contend that Spain and Spanish America are more than just two distinct dialect areas, differentiated by numerous geographic and linguistic factors. It is claimed by some textbooks, nevertheless, that the pronunciation students will produce is ‘Spanish’ (Center for Curriculum Development 1979; G. Jarvis et al. 1986, 1989; Neale Silva and Nicholas 1977; Terrell et al. 1990: TM-35), although no specific details are usually provided concerning which dialect is chosen for presentation. The concept of ‘Spanish’ as a language is therefore vague. Additionally, when one dialect is chosen for explanation, attention is often drawn to Spain for the norm. As Butt and Benjamin state,

the day is (or ought to be) long past when one could claim or imply that the only type of Spanish worthy of formal description and study is the dialect of Northern and Central Spain only eight percent of the Spanish-speaking world.

(1988: vii)                

Before entering into the discussion of the relative consistency of dialect teaching, our first concern should be the broad goals of a textbook. A goal establishes the framework for procedural presentation of grammar (cf. Wieczorek 1989: Chapter 6). If the goal of an L2 classroom is to promote speaking some form of Spanish without ever listening to native speakers who never deviate from the textbook norm, then current textbooks achieve that goal. If, on the other hand, speaking is to be integrated with listening, and by listening we assume a variety of dialects, then authors of textbooks cannot expect to accomplish what they intend. Chastain and Guntermann (1987) and Terrell et al. (1990) appear to support the position that listening is an important aspect of the language learning process. As Terrell et al.

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grammatical forms and strictures are acquired when the learner can comprehend, in natural speech [emphasis mine], utterances containing examples of those forms and structures. That is, acquisition takes place when learners are trying to understand and convey messages.

(1990: xv)                

The 1986 ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines suggest ‘integrated performance’ of the language, that is, incorporation of speaking, listening, reading, and writing into the L2 classroom. A noncontroversial assumption is that speaking is directly related to listening in the same way that reading is related to writing, though the four tasks are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, it is recognized that they are interactive, as implied by Knorre et al. (1989: xix).

Specific examples might help to clarify the discussion. The graphemes which traditionally represent variant pronunciations across dialects are c/z, g/j, ll, y, s, and x (cf. Wieczorek 1987:19). The phonemes corresponding to the graphemes are found in Table I.

In Table I, where more than one phoneme is found per grapheme, variant or dialect pronunciations are said to occur.


Fifteen foreign-language textbooks for high school and college were chosen at random, representing various authors, levels, and publishers, and in which a primary focus was on language skills and practice; a list of these textbooks is found in Table II below. Although morphological, lexical and semantic items are equally important for second language activities, they lie beyond the scope of primary interest here.

A comparison was made among the texts concerning the presentation of variant pronunciations as well as the structural layout of textbook exercises for pronunciation. A common trait of the texts studied was the absence of clear prefacing remarks about the dialect of Spanish students will learn. Even though some authors deal with the geographic distribution of ‘Spanish’ (Hansen and Wilkens 1978: i; Terrell et al. 1990: 316; Valette and Valette 1989), none that the researcher perused discussed the validity or concept of ‘dialect’ in other than a cursory manner.

Presentation of the graphemes described in Table I was compared among dialects of Spanish to determine the perceptual distinctive features. Some texts (e.g., Brett 1988; Center for Curriculum Development 1979; G. Jarvis et al. 1986, 1989; Neale-Silva et al. 1987; Schmitt and Woodford 1988) did not offer guidance on pronunciation at all, spurred either by the belief that formal study of pronunciation does not lead to any perceivable difference in performance (G. Jarvis et al. 1986: 29; see also Schnitzer 1974: 289) or by the tacit opinion that beyond beginning levels of study the L2 student has already formed adequate control of pronunciation. The following pattern appeared for the phonemes represented in the textbooks (see Table II).

The largest inconsistency found was that of those texts offering some indication of pronunciation [⊘] was distinguished from [s] in more cases than [] was distinguished from [j], although the relative distribution of these phonemes is clearly along dialect lines (i.e., Castilian vs. Latin American, respectively). EV (seventh edition) suggested only [s] as representative of the graphemes c or z, a change from earlier editions (although vosotros was still found in verb paradigms). An equitable distinction would be one similar to the proposals made by da Silva (1983, 1987), Terrell et al. (1990), or Valette and Valette (1989), who expose language learners to both Latin American and Castilian forms.

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Only one text surveyed (BS) mentioned the various contextual and morphological allophones of the grapheme s, such as aspiration before another consonant at a syllable boundary, in plural formation, and as the second person singular marker of all but the preterit paradigm (cf. Hooper 1976: 36; Poplack 1980; Terrell 1977). Although it is highly speculative at this point, it would not be unreasonable to say that there are no tape or video programs accompanying textbooks that would delve into coastal variants of the s either within the same dialect or across all dialects of Spanish (cf. Zarabanda or Adelante), much less focus on the speaking or listening aspect of the [⊘]-[s] opposition.

Other dialect information was found lacking in all texts. No mention was made of zeísmo, characteristic of the Rioplatense speech (Cotton and Sharp 1988: 242), the variants of r (cf. Cotton and Sharp 1988: 207), or r/1 confusion (cf. Castellanos 1978: 69). Missing also was the topic of the realizations of [], especially useful in past participle formation and recognition (cf. Westmoreland 1988: 379).

Although perhaps less perceptively different than the other cases described here, no evidence could be found for a distinction between [x] and [h] (cf. Cressey 1978: 40), represented by the graphemes g and j. Some contradictory evidence was also provided for the sounds represented by the grapheme x (da Silva 1983: 33; Neale-Silva and Nicholas 1977: 74; see Table I).

Use of media materials

The role of accompanying media, specifically, of video materials, has yet to be explored from a dialect perspective. Two representative programs, Zarabanda (henceforth, Z; EMC 1972) and ¡Adelante! (henceforth, A; Valetteand Valette 1989), demonstrate a visual component of ‘natural’ communication. They provide some contextual realia, and allow students to see as well as hear speakers of Spanish. They even allow the students an opportunity to interact with the program.

Z consistently used Castilian pronunciation and verb forms in both the text and video. This practice provides intuitions about just one of many dialects, considering that Spain itself has many different dialects. However, Castilian pronunciation is used when a Latin American dialect is supposedly represented, supporting the notion advanced here that misleading intuitions are provided about Spanish as a language.

The newer A demonstrates a varied exposure

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to Castilian and American Spanish, concentrating on Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida. Above all, students are exposed to a variety of pronunciations, namely, to the []-[s] distinction.

Some concerns still exist about this practice. The first is that although Spain is to be represented, as we have mentioned above, Spain is more than just one dialect area, and [] does not functionally represent all of Spain. The second concern is that not all representative pronunciations are found in A. For example, in the roll of countries provided with the videoscript, some countries are not mentioned at all, and the Castilian accent is still used when introducing other realia from Latin America.

What is interesting (and most promising) about A is that forms of United States Spanish are mentioned. Although the geographic distribution of US Spanish did not include the Northeast and the western states, we are encouraged by this trend.

In brief, media materials available for the television and/or classroom use do assist in the listening component of language learning. A reasonable next step in language learning is the ability to integrate speaking practice with a listening component. In this way, these two skills are given appropriate interactive attention (cf. Rivers 1989).

Implications and suggestions

Implications for presentation of phonetics are clear. While it may be true that one text cannot assume to teach the L2 student everything about Spanish, it is presumptive not to expose the student to a variety of situations and speech patterns, and as Wigdorsky (1985: 331) indicates, also not to allow the student to choose among the options.

As far as the texts are concerned, some indication of their curricular philosophy may appear in the presentation of pronunciation. For example, it appears that the concept of ‘pronunciation’ has been limited to what is difficult to native English speakers (cf. A. Jarvis et al. 1990: vii; G. Jarvis et al. 1986: 29; Knorre et al.1989: xix). For those texts that provided guidance and practice for pronunciation within the structure of the textbook itself, the following commonalities were found, as in Table III:

One of the first observations that can be made about the data in Table III is that there is no pattern other than commonly introducing Spanish sounds at the beginning of language study. For BS and EC, pronunciation practice was concentrated in the first quarter of the text, while practice was available in the first half of CSD. The authors of BC and Z chose to provide an extensive albeit Castilian-centered introduction to pronunciation; no further mention was made afterwards. It is interesting to note that both EV and MG contain the notion of the spiral syllabus (Bruner 1959: 52), but the latter work chooses a non-conventional approach to pronunciation practice. Additionally, EV notes an opposition Spain/Hispanic America, but only uses [s] in the textbook when pronunciation exercises are provided.

What, then, are the suggestions offered for the lack of regard for consistency about dialects? One observation in the reality of Spanish as spoken throughout the world is that it may be viewed as anything but what the textbooks lead students to believe it to be. If just one dialect is chosen to represent Spanish, then textbooks and instructors must be explicit about the use and limitation of that dialect; they must also be consistent within that dialect about the choices made so that selective phonetics are not offered. While it may be true that direct exposure does not always aid significantly in producing Spanish sounds according to a standard, no implication can be made concerning the possibility of sharpening a student’s listening skills. It is doubtless that the optimal situation is one in which the student receives maximum exposure to a variety of target language forms.

One implication of the ACTFL guidelines is that activities and processes occurring in the L2 classroom must relate both speaking (by the L2 student) and listening (to either L2 or native speakers). If this integrated performance is indeed

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a goal of the foreign-language classroom, then some consistency must exist in tape manuals and the dialect each textbook chooses to present (e.g., among the nine textbooks surveyed for which Castilian verb forms were used, only Zarabanda consistently used the Castilian dialect for pronunciation).

Keeping in mind the many needs of teachers and students, some cursory suggestions are offered here for developing or modifying L2 Spanish materials.

(1). It would be beneficial for the students not only to have pronunciation exercises that are troublesome, but also those that are indicative of variants of Spanish (cf. Table I). In this manner, both input and output could be patterned to include a concept of Spanish that supercedes the textbook variety.

(2). As Terrell et al. (1990: 8, 10) note, the classroom is the likely and most practical place for acquisition. As such, L2 activities might include a modification to the existing syllabus, especially where listening activities might differ radically from speaking processes. That is, the classroom is the proper forum for practice in the realizations of [s, ⊘, , , z, ], and the zero realization of [].

(3). Consonant with Wigdorsky’s comments on language learning, one could proceed by motivating the students to actively use dialect pronunciation in the classroom so that language peers could participate in dialect speech.

(4). In that pronunciation/listening are integral parts of the four skills, it is suggested that pronunciation exercises be included not only in the beginning chapters of introductory texts, but as the notion of the spiral syllabus suggests, all throughout the language-learning career. The repetition and variation is especially important as students progress toward more target language utterances and structures, and as his/her accessibility to native speakers and realia increases.

(5). Pronunciation spirals may reinforce grammatical exercises. In the simple sentence Yo me llamo Concepción, different pronunciations may obtain. The variation may raise the consciousness of the student concerning intuitions about the Spanish language as a conglomeration of dialects. As such, ‘dialect listening’ might also be included in the tape programs since no educator can predict with certainty which dialects students will need to use, if any at all (but see Terrell and Salgués de Cargill 1979: 24).

(6). Variation and personal options for language pronunciation should be encouraged as part of natural acquisition (Krashen and Terrell 1983). Thus, it is not necessary that all the members of a given class pronounce the same word in the same way, just as the tenets for second language acquisition indicate that linguistic structures may also vary (Wieczorek 1989: Chapters 4 and 5).

(7). With the increasing availability of Spanish videos, cable TV programs, etc., the students might have the opportunity to apply their passive knowledge about Spanish. It is safe to assume that not all Spanish language programs would use norm-oriented pronunciation, but one of the broad goals of language learning is to create an interlanguage that produces and comprehends the maximum amount of target language data. Pronunciation exercises would thus complement innovative programs that rely on rhythm, intonation, and phrasing (Chastain and Guntermann 1987: iv).

(8). Classroom activities might be structured to reflect real language change (e.g., the current devoicing of [z] to [s]) (Cotton and Sharp 1988: 242), pragmatic use, and variation as a dynamic process of language learning.

(9). The basal texts for Spanish need not be severely affected by lexical choice, but a futuristic tendency might be to include a different sort of variety (i.e., auditory and articulatory) in the curriculum, along the lines of Valette and Valette (1989), where the student is not only listener but also participant in dialect variation. In the later stages of vocabulary building, such as intermediate and advanced levels, morphological, lexical, and semantic varieties could enhance the divergent phonetic systems.

The question of where to introduce these forms is of equal if not greater importance to the L2 classroom. Can the textbook address the notion of change and variation in the classroom? Given that teachers may not be well versed in dialects, it might be beneficial to confine these variants to annotations, appendices, and tape manuals, as suggested by Terrell et al. (1990). One outcome is that a greater amount of time would be spent reinforcing variation within the framework of skill and knowledge that the L2 student already possesses. One other implication is that teachers/curricula would have to confront the hybrid speech of the individual class members, in addition to the IL speech common to all L2 classrooms.

As always, there are limitations to proposals of this type. The greatest caveat is that if the

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classroom is the major input in Spanish, then the teacher/text will have to become the source of that input. Formal decisions will thus be made concerning which situation (text, auditory, etc.) of transmitting Spanish is of more value to the students, raising in turn more questions. What decisions will be made with regard to which lexical/semantic items appear so that the text is consistent within a given dialect, especially if many dialects are allowed? More important, after such decisions are made, what will be excluded from the L2 class to accommodate the increased emphasis on phonetics?

Future research

If some of the above-mentioned proposals are explored, the level of introduction may affect dialect choice, and thus have implications for several avenues of future research. The first is investigation of which forum best enhances foreign language education-the classroom or the laboratory? The second is research into the feasibility of the teaching of phonetic variants. The third avenue is acknowledgement of varieties of American Spanish, and investigation into possible additions to the Spanish phonemic inventory (viz., [v] or [z]). In this vein, acceptance of these phonemes will greatly increase the options available to students. A fourth possibility of research is the interaction of computer-assisted instruction with phonetics (cf. Reid 1989: 24; Stairs 1990). It would be interesting to determine if phonetics might play a role in CAI input. For example, we could foresee the possibility of a ‘spell check’ that would offer alternatives to learners of Spanish, based on the correspondence between what L2 learners may write and what they pronounce.

While some educators might feel overwhelmed by their various textbook curricula, especially in the first year of language study, there are advantages to attention to diverse pronunciation patterns, since the L2 student is not only speaker but listener (cf. Valette and Valette 1989). This listener would be accountable for comprehension of textbook and non-textbook Spanish at some point in his/her language career. It would, nevertheless, be difficult to test specific forms if we allow all dialects to be used in the classroom, but we as foreign-language educators should ask ourselves: Is the L2 for our benefit or for the benefit of our students?

Notes114, 115, 116, 117, 118

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