Incidental Language Acquisition Update 3

A quick review of what I am doing: I am taking a novel written in English in the public domain, and selecting words to translate to Spanish (without offering an explanation or translation). The aim is to see whether readers can incidentally learn these Spanish words just through reading them, rather than having their English meaning explicitly taught. This is called incidental learning.

These past couple of weeks I have been working on Edition 2, which will translate the top 10% of Spanish types into English. This is twice as much vocabulary as was introduced in Edition 1. However, all of the words still occur at least 4 times. They’re just not quite as frequent as those appearing in Edition 1! The vocabulary introduction is not the problem, however. What I’ve been grappling with as I translate more Spanish words is how to reconcile the differences between English and Spanish grammar.

The goal is to make it so that the text does not violate the grammar of English or Spanish. Clearly, that’s impossible. What I have settled for is following the grammatical rules of English except for in a few cases, where I am introducing Spanish grammatical rules. This is done when at least part of the grammatical structure is in Spanish. Here are a few examples:

Using Spanish [possessed] de [possessor] instead of English [possessor]’s [possessed]

  • Alice’s manos <– INCORRECT
  • los manos de Alice <– CORRECT

Using Spanish no + VERB instead of English [to do] + not + VERB

  • I don’t sé <– INCORRECT
  • no sé <– CORRECT

I am also implementing Spanish rules regarding adjectives and nouns word order (when the adjective is Spanish), and am also trying to use definite determiners when called for in Spanish and use Spanish prepositions like en only where it would be appropriate in Spanish.

I have implemented a few rules for myself, but still feel that this grammar introduction is spotty at best, and does not do the best job of communicating Spanish grammar rules. This is something to continue working on in the next few weeks.

Here’s a sample of the first page of my text:

  • One thing was certain, that the white gatito had had nada to do with it:— it was the fault of the black gatito entirely. For the gatito blanco had been having its face washed by the old cat for the last quarter of an hour (and bearing it pretty well, considering); so you see that it couldn’t have had any hand in the mischief.

And the last page:

  • Su Majestad shouldn’t purr tan alta,’ dijo Alice, rubbing her ojos, and addressing el gatito, respectfully, yet with some severity. ‘You woke me out of oh! such a nice sueño! And you’ve been along with me, Kitty— all through the Looking-Glass world. Lo sabías , dear?’ It is un muy inconvenient habit de los gatitos (Alice had una vez made the remark) that, whatever you digas to them, they siempre purr.


Next Steps:

  1. Finish Edition 2, and caption the illustrations
  2. Finalize Editions 1 and 2 and make them readable
  3. Find out how to self-publish to produce the books in print form
  4. Get a recording of Edition 2
  5. Design the experimental portion of the project.



  1. acfarrell says:

    This idea is fascinating to me. As someone who knows essentially no Spanish but has read Alice in Wonderland many years ago, I could read your sample translations and figure out the vocuabulary. This could be such a helpful way to introduce younger children to a second language when vocuabulary would be much of the focus anyway. An extention I would be interested in is how effective this technique is across languages or for native speakers of a variety of languages.

  2. agdaggett says:

    I love the idea for this project! With increasing numbers of Spanish speakers living in the United States, knowing at least some Spanish can be very useful. Do you have a targeted age range you want to test this method on? Also, I would be curious know how much of a difference learning written Spanish in this fashion would make on the speed at which people can learn to speak language. Although people without instruction in the Spanish language may not always be able to derive pronunciations from the spellings, I assume knowing the written words would speed up the process of learning the spoken words.

  3. iawilliams says:

    Thanks for the comment!
    I will be testing this on college-aged students most likely, simply because this is a convenient population.
    Thanks for pointing out the relationship between spoken and written Spanish. Luckily, the Spanish writing system is very consistent with its pronunciation, and learning the spellings may help more visual learners remember vocabulary.
    In the first trial of these editions, I will simply put a pronunciation guide at the beginning of the novel. Once I find which level of acquisition is most effective, that’s when I’ll begin working on publishing with an audio component. Ideally, a reader would receive input both visually and with audio, but that is not always possible given the contexts in which people read or listen to audiobooks. The ultimate goal is to find the most efficient level of translation, and publish it in visual, visuo-audio, and audio formats!