Two For One!

Anyone who reads this knows I have two main skills: putting my foot in my mouth, and getting a bad idea in my head and (despite all evidence to the contrary) pursuing it.

I used to think, OK, when introducing adjectives & adverbs, best to introduce paired opposites, e.g. guapo<->feo (good-looking <-> ugly).

This year I played around with limiting vocab (even while switching to fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1). How do I cut the word-load down? I wondered.

So I tried the simplest thing: I just introduced one adjective at a time and used no+adj instead.

So where I used to say la chica era muy guapa, pero el chico era feo (the girl was good looking, but the boy was ugly), now I say la chica era guapa, pero el chico no era guapo (the girl was good-looking, but the boy was not) and I add a happy and then distasteful face when presenting it live.

(I do introduce the opposite word a day or two later.)

The effect was that the kids seemed to pick words up more quickly, and I got fewer errors like this: *el chico era no guapo.  I think this was because they got to use their mental bandwidth of fewer items so the input was more focused and their brains got the “rules” more easily.

I dunno what people think. But this was a major revelation for me, and in line with standard T.P.R.S. practice: limit vocab and recycle it as much as possible.



  1. Thanks for the post, Chris. As I have also decided to do this, I take it as a confirmation of my own practice. May I add a couple more considerations?
    1. This is not just a trick we teachers invent. It is how language itself works. My hunch is whenever you name a pair of opposites (whether adjectives or other parts of speech) one of the pair is ALWAYS much more frequent than the other. In Hungarian we say “nem szép” (not nice / pretty / beautiful) much more often than “csúnya” (ugly). Doesn’t the dominant member of the pair deserve our bias? Introducing its opposite later on may just be the the introduction of a less frequent synonym of “not (whatever)”.
    2. “Nem szép” (not nice) is often used as a simple phrase to express disapproval or even indignation. Expressing emotions, such phrases lend themselves to being used as rejoinders.

    1. Kacagva,
      Your hunch is confirmed by word counts, at least in Spanish. According to Davies’ “A Frequency Vocabulary of Spanish”, “in nearly every case, the positive term ([more, long full]) is more common than the “negative” term ([less, short, empty]). The two exceptions are difficult/easy and poor/rich.”

      Chris, Another great post. I did this last year, but I forgot about it this year. Last year I was under less pressure to “cover” every word in Avancemos 1. I was free to un-cover the language and work with a more sheltered vocabulary. For attendance, the question was “Is she here or isn’t she here?” followed by “Was she here yesterday or Wasn’t she here?” and “Will she be here tomorrow?” (So this year, I am so busy trying to cover everything for the common exam that it just gets jumbled together and students get everything mixed up. Textbooks and company written common exams have a way of bringing out the worst in us.)

      As you point out, the input for negation is much greater, thereby becoming part of the mental representation in the brain, instead of the rule-learning approach which leaves learners giving English word order (was not handsome).

      Do you think there are any studies about learning pairs of opposites together? My guess is that it would be profitable at the intermediate stage. But for beginners I think you are on the right track exploiting the single average for greater grammatical exposure (all the time focusing on meaning).

  2. there is research out there that supports opposite pairs of adjectives should not be introduced together – this actually IMPEDES acquisition….the same applies for vocabulary introduced in semantic sets (see tinkham, especially)

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