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Spanish speakers and the use of ‘will’ – or the question on expressing the future

April 4, 2013

“Spanish speakers and the use of ‘will’ – or the question on expressing the future” by michelle ford[1] (talkingpeople.net, 2013 – copyleft, just quote this line: authorship and website project)

This article is meant to be one in a series intended to explain why Spanish-speakers, particularly Spanish people, may sound impolite in English, particularly in Britain or Ireland – my explanation being it’s a language (& culture) problem. For EFL Spanish-speaking learners this article will help them improve their use of English and overcome this communication problem.

One thing is certain: English speakers, especially British speakers, have a way of approaching the notion of future action that is completely different to the Spanish-speaking way of approaching the future! For one thing, English speakers do not have future tenses (except the “Future Simple” or “Will” future), just different ways – based on verbal and prepositional phrases – to indicate – mark my words here – the degree of likelihood of occurrence of a future event. In other words, whether we can expect an event to happen and to which point. This entails a kind of commitment, too – when expressing plans or intentions, English speakers indicate a commitment to that happening. And that is actually why English speakers have this sophisticated system of expressing things about future events.

For the Spanish-speaking mind, none of this applies. In Spanish grammar, there exists a complete set of future tenses, but Spanish speakers do not feel committed to the future happening or not for their choice of tense! The use of a tense doesn’t mean anything in terms of how likely it is for the action to happen – at least as if compared to the case in English. The use of futures in Spanish is similar to the use of prepositions in Spanish: we have a great deal of prepositions, but manage with a few, which means, we’re not particularly concerned with accuracy. And this is something that relates to culture: if English-speakers rely on language uses and structures to mean a great number of things, Spanish-speakers rely on paralinguistic features (stress, rhythm, pitch, intonation) and body language including facial expressions. To illustrate this, in Spanish we can use the imperative with social relationships (the woman working in the neighborhood/neighbourhood bakery) and be perfectly polite, even affectionate.

So let us now consider what happens when Spanish speakers confront the task of having to express a future event. Even if their teachers explain how the “system” works for the futures (see my notes for Elementary/Pre-Intermediate students at http://www.talkingpeople.net/tp/func_gram/gramwebs/future01.htm), it will take them time to assimilate the information, time and practice! – which is understandable, because the frame of mind in terms of understanding “the future” is completely different in both languages. Until they reach the stage of deep understanding, they will tend to use “will” for expressing any kind of future. This puts them in awkward situations:

British host family: “Would you like to visit the British Library tomorrow?”

Spanish reply: “Yes, I will go.”

This is puzzling to hear for a number of different reasons. First, the way to reply to Invitations/Offerings (this is the language function that we need to consider) is not correct. For “Would you like…?” questions we can use “I’d love to,” “I’m terribly sorry. I can’t,” “Yes, please,” “No, thank you,” but not “Yes, I will.”

Then – what does this “Yes, I will go” mean? Is it indicating a spontaneous decision? The context is not quite right, so that’s not what would be understood in a first impression.  Is it indicating a promise? “Yes, I promise to go.” It doesn’t sound right either! It’s kind of extremely dramatic! For the Spanish-speaking mind this is the future tense, just indicating a future, but for the English-speaking mind this, if sorted out it must be a future, is a future for predictions, and replying with a prediction on your involvement in the action when you are invited or offered something sounds awkward, or impolite.

Spanish student in Britain, to British host family: “What will you do tomorrow?”

This can be puzzling to hear, because it could be interpreted as connoting things the Spanish speaker doesn’t really want to mean! The unmarked question for adults about their future actions is always with “going to” because we know that adults have plans and intentions. If we use “will” this could feel like we think those adults are incapable of having plans or intentions! These are OK sentences:

To a child: “What will you be when you grow up?” (here, “will” is not exactly about a future very much ahead, as Spanish speakers tend to interpret when they manage considering proximity in time, but as a future we know is just wishful thinking! (Actually I think adults should never ask this question to children!)

To a teenager in her/his last year of secondary education: “What are you going to do when you finish your studies here?” If you ask them, “What will you do when you finish here?” it’s because you know the person has no plans and intentions and you just want to know about her/his predictions!

To an adult: “What are you doing tomorrow?” or “What are you going to do tomorrow,” never “What will you do tomorrow?” if we’re thinking of ordinary life situations.

My mother to me when I told her I was going to travel the world when I was in my twenties: “Where will you sleep?” etc. This meant she knew I did not travel like tourists do, but like wanderers do!!

Well, I’ll stop here. Please post your comments, especially if you disagree with any of this, or you wish to add to it in some way, and feel free to post your questions, too!


[1] I am an EFL teacher in Spain, in public/state-run adult language education, and although I’m a Spanish/US American English speaker, as a I live in Europe, I have to include British English in my curricula.

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