Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish

11 January 2008
2:45 PM

Learning Spanish, like many subjects, is heavily affected by the teacher. Good teachers understand the material they teach; great teachers also remember what it was like not to understand. Good teachers know the destination; great teachers know the road, whether through their own experience or through years of observing students, and the pitfalls and stumbling blocks along the way. Without this, teachers are handicapped in helping students make their own transitions from confusion to eureka! Joseph Keenan remembers well what it was like not to understand Spanish, he knows the bumps on the road, and his book Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish is the work of a great teacher. It has been the most useful book I have had in speaking better Spanish.

Breaking Out is not a textbook. As the title suggests, it is directed at people who have already achieved some proficiency with the language. Instead, Keenan invites you into his classroom and picks up where textbooks and dictionaries leave off. Textbooks teach you how to conjugate verbs; in chapter five, “The Secret Life of Verbs,” Keenan explains when to use one tense instead of the other. His explanations, for example about when to use the preterit or imperfect, Spanish’s two past tenses, are better than any I have read in several textbooks. Spanish/English dictionaries exchange one word for another, but fluency often demands more than literal translation. Chapter seven, “Sixty-four verbs” gives nuanced definitions that illuminate more than a dictionary. Any dictionary will tell you that “think” is translated pensar, but you need a resource like this one to tell you that Spanish speakers prefer creer—to believe—where we Anglophones say “think.”

During the years I was living in South America I read through this book several times and I came away with new helpful tidbits each time. Once I started to use some of the phrases Keenan gives for linking phrases in conversation—like o sea, es que, la verdad es que, and others—I felt much more comfortable talking with people. And once I read these phrases in Keenan’s book and had them in mind, I started to hear native Spanish-speakers say them all the time, which is a vote for their authenticity. There are also invaluable chapters on how not to sound like a gringo, on tricky cognate words, and how to use (or at least recognize) profanity. The chapter on the subjunctive mood, an aspect of Spanish that always bedevils students, is appropriately titled “The Twilight Zone,” and it goes a long way towards explaining the subjunctive conceptually.

If I had to find fault with this gem, I’d say that the designer who assembled it wasn’t up to the task. The cover is hideous and the typesetting is mediocre. Apart from that, everyone who is learning Spanish should spent some time with this book. It might not do much for people who are still at a elementary level, but even advanced speakers will take away some useful tidbits from Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish.