February 14, 2019
I always thought it interesting that Spanish textbooks focused so much on when to use “tú” versus “usted”, when in real life, I find it isn’t so cut-and-dry when I travel.
As a brief review, typically one says “tú” with someone of equal social status. Students learn that their siblings, cousins, classmates, and other children around their age or younger would perfectly fit in this category. Conversely, one says “usted” to someone else that holds authority over you, to demonstrate respect, such as a teacher, principal, police officer, elderly person, or anyone generally older than you. If someone is your age but they are your boss at work, that is a different social status, so-to-speak, so you would use “usted” with them. When in doubt, with strangers or if you are unsure, always start with “usted”. The person will let you know if you should speak more familiarly with them, and change it to “tú”.
Similar to how many people are taught to say “sir” and “ma’am” in the United States, to be polite, some people continue to use “usted” to demonstrate respect, even if they know the person very well. This is not how it is typically taught in textbooks, and is the exception to the rule. I have seen adults talk to each other this way, even at a party at the other’s house or with friends that they have known for a long time. Not everyone is raised this way, and to not use “usted” with everyone does not mean that the speaker doesn’t know how to show respect—it is just demonstrative of a particular belief system. I had never heard of this type of dialogue, so I thought it interesting to share.
In Central American countries, south of Mexico, or in Honduras, at least, many people use “vos”. It is more familiar than “usted”, but the person who says it has categorized you into a new category. My family member only started consciously changing “vos” to “tú” when they were by someone (me) that was used to “tú” more. Otherwise, he always just used the “vos” conjugation. It sounds similar to the “tú” conjugation, but with an –s sound at the end. There are some irregular conjugations, altogether, such as “vos sos”, instead of “tú eres”.
I have heard “vos” in movies from Argentina, but not Mexico nor Colombia. I think it is worth introducing this to advanced students after they are exposed to it in a movie, article, or book, but no further than a brief explanation of when they would hear or see it, not how to produce it. That said, if students are curious, it would be a fun research activity.
Most textbook series have all but completely dropped teaching “vosotros”, yet, most of the trips my students and I have taken were to Spain and most people I have interacted with are from Spain—coincidentally. Therefore, I always at least mention it, but never test on it.
If you take students abroad or you, yourself, are a voracious traveler, it would be worth the while to introduce the various ways to address someone. Knowing the nuance of word changes from country to country may enable the traveler to fit in better and aid the overall travel experience.
Posted By Audrey Yates Irias | Teacher’s Discovery
Audrey Yates Irias started learning Spanish at age 10 in a FLEX program in her elementary school, because her aunt lived in Puerto Rico. She was so enamored with learning languages that she dove in head first, and took multiple years of French and Spanish in high school. Following her passion, she was a double major in Spanish and French Education and a TESOL minor, at Illinois State University—during which time she studied in Spain and France. She taught for 11 years in both traditional as well as virtual classrooms. In 2016, she earned her master’s in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Illinois.
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