August 9th, 2005


Amigo falso

I must spend too much time awake at the wrong time of day, because I keep seeing ads for a course called "Amigo" that claims to teach Spanish via some cheesy transliteration that allegedly helps English speakers with pronunciation.

OK. I'm the first to say that a transliteration system is pointless if it doesn't aid the target audience with pronunciation. (That's why Japan's official transliteration scheme, kunrei-shiki, is a joke. Just try to tell someone that "Fujitsu" should really be spelled "Huzitu" with a straight face.) But Spanish is already phonetically spelled, dagnabit...and Spanish has phonemes not in English, so no transliteration scheme targeting English speakers can be correct. You'll end up speaking Spanish badly.

One can see that just from the commercial. (I'll be lazy and use upper case to mark accented syllables rather than look up the HTML to use color as they do.) For jardín they give the transliteration harDEEN. Sorry, Charlie; English "h" isn't Spanish "j". Close, but no cigarro.

Suppose we give them the benefit of the doubt on consonants. You typically get eased into using a dental "t" and pronouncing "d" as hard "th", and for "j", "r", and "rr", you just have to bite the bullet and practice until you can do it. How about vowels? Well, the commercial shows their transliteration of banco as "BANko". English speakers are going to use the flat English "short 'a'" for that first syllable. Diphthongs? Limpio comes out in their transliteration as "LEEMpeeo", which English speakers are going to render as three syllables, not two. If they were serious, they'd have gone for something like "LEEMpyo".

Speaking of diphthongs, English long "a" and "o" aren't pure. "Amigo" tells you to speak their funky transliteration as if it were English speakers will continue to use their impure long vowels under their system. They should include a big "GRINGO"—excuse me, "GREENgo"—sign with the course for their customers to tape on their backs.

The topper is the lady who they have pushing the course on the commercial, who keeps talking about correct "pronounciation" of words. She's a charming and attractive woman...but would you buy a language course from her?
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