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Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish

Review by Carl Franz

Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish by Joseph J. Keenan, 1994, University of Texas Press

Several years back, journalist Joe Keenan contributed a wonderful series of articles on speaking Spanish to the equally wonderful (but now-defunct) Mexico Journal news magazine. A long-time resident of Mexico, Keenan confesses that he learned Spanish just like the rest of us, by studying, practicising and trial-and-error. An accomplished writer, he shrugs off his lack of academic credentials and uses Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish to turn an often dry and deadly serious topic onto its head. In a style that is both instructive and a delight to read, the author shares hundreds of hard-earned tips on correcting grammatical errors, improving fluency and understanding the subtleties of spoken Spanish.

One of his best chapters, "64 Verbs, Up Close and Personal", explains how common and essential verbs are best used, and how to avoid their misuse. (Did you know that repetir means both 'to repeat' and 'to burp slightly'?) In "Cranking Up Your Spanish" the author introduces the reader to "sentence starters", those vital but elusive filler words that smooth over conversational gaps as effectively as a decorative coat of stucco. After all, what would a conversation in Mexico be if it weren't for "pues," "luego," and "la verdad es que?"

Standard texts teach us that polite people say, "No, gracias" when we don't want something. What does it mean, however, if someone snaps irritably, "¿Eso si que no?" As Keenan explains, "it's a little stronger than just plain no and comes closer to, 'That's out of the question' or 'Forget it!'"

"Which Is Which?" goes to the heart of the matter: when using Spanish words that don't have exact English equivalents, which form do we use, the subjunctive or indicative? Imperfect or preterit? Again, Keenan identifies and clarifies some of the most useful -- but confusing -- everyday terms.

Spanish as it is spoken in Mexico is especially rich with slang and colloquialisms. Slang is very tricky, however, and is often used inappropriately by beginners. In an easy, conversational style, Keenan shows us how to use slang safely in realistic situations.

Last but not least, Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish stands out for its generous use of true-to-life examples. Virtually every word and phrase that Keenan discusses is shown in the context of a realistic sentence. Simply open the book to any page and you'll be drawn into a very interesting and useful 'conversation'.

Whether you're a traveler or business person who wishes to tune your Spanish to Latin American ears, or a student working toward genuine fluency, I can think of no better tool than Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish . This book definitely goes to Mexico with me on my next trip!

(By the same publisher: Spanish Memory Book, A New Approach to Vocabulary Building. Catalogs on archaeology, anthropology and Maya studies.)

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