Gramática española: Variación social

cover photoGramática española: Variación social

Kim Potowski, University of Illinois at Chicago and Naomi L. Shin, University of New Mexico.

(c) Routledge. Click here to order. NOTE: All author royalties are donated to Latino organizations on our campuses.

This is a Spanish grammar textbook that focuses on structures that are subject to sociolinguistic variation, such as había ~ habían dos ranas ‘there was ~ were two frogs’. It highlights the sociopolitical factors that explain why some forms are deemed prestigious and others are stigmatized. This sociolinguistic approach to teaching grammar moves beyond presentations of structure and use and guides students in a real-life exploration of the ways each structure is used in different parts of the Spanish-speaking world, examining which speakers use which structures in which parts of the world, the value judgments levied against them, and why prescriptivist views are less useful than descriptivist ones when seeking to understand how language is used. The book is written in Spanish and is meant to be the main textbook for a grammar course.


Traditional Spanish grammar textbooks “cover” a long list of different structures (often ranging between 40-50 of them), typically presenting the terminology of a particular form followed by a description its use, and then practice exercises in which students mechanically produce it. Both authors have taught Spanish grammar courses for more than a decade using half a dozen such textbooks. We have observed the following:

  • Students are overwhelmed by the number of different structures presented. Both the quantity and the mechanical nature of the exercises result in very little true understanding of the material and often do not have long-lasting effects on the students’ use of the language.
  • Heritage speakers tend to struggle more with the material than do second language students of Spanish. This is because heritage speakers typically acquire Spanish in naturalistic contexts in which they do not learn to explicitly analyze grammatical structures and they do not learn the terminology associated with the structures.
  • To our knowledge, such courses present standardized grammar rules to students and never consider sociolinguistic variation. As a result, many native/heritage students determine that they speak “incorrectly”, and many second language learners do not get an accurate picture of the target language’s real-world grammar. That is, students leave such courses with the incorrect impression that grammar forms are used in a static, homogenous way throughout the world.

            Instead of going through a long list of grammatical structures, our book teaches about grammar in a way that emphasizes the social underpinnings of language. It guides students in an examination of how Spanish grammar varies depending on place, social group, and situation. Students examine why some varieties of Spanish are considered prestigious while others are not, drawing on current and historical sociopolitical contexts, all while learning grammatical terminology and how to identify categories and constructions in Spanish. A recurring theme throughout the book is an examination of the underlying social reasons that shape our language attitudes and prejudices towards particular ways of speaking.

     Why should teachers adopt a sociolinguistic approach to teaching grammar? Linguists have been arguing for such an approach for over a decade because traditional approaches tend to reinforce prescriptivist ideas and inadvertently trigger linguistic insecurity, especially among heritage speakers. Furthermore, students connect much more with grammar when it is taught in a way that highlights its relevance to humanity and society. Finally, by concentrating on fewer topics but doing so in a deep and engaging way, students gain a profound understanding of the grammatical concepts covered.

     Importantly, the success of a sociolinguistic approach finds empirical support in results from pre- and post-tests given to students who were taught using many of the materials that appear in our textbook (Shin & Hudgens Henderson, 2017):

“…sociolinguistic concepts help give students a deep understanding of grammar and an appreciation for language variation as a domain of human diversity that deserves to be accepted, celebrated, and studied. Acknowledging and building respect for different grammar patterns helps second language learners gain a broader understanding of the target language, and it helps native/heritage speakers feel confident in the language abilities they already have. Increasing awareness of language variation and reducing linguistic prejudice helps the individual student and the community as a whole. Understanding and appreciation of linguistic difference is critical in a world where education must be the vanguard in fighting extremism, xenophobia and prejudice.” 

Target audience

This textbook is intended for intermediate to advanced level Spanish grammar courses, most likely upper-division courses for Spanish majors and minors at colleges and universities. The book has been pilot tested by both authors with students at both of our campuses and is suitable for heritage speakers of Spanish and second language learners. It is primarily aimed at students in the United States, but might have appeal to other Spanish-speaking bilingual communities in Canada and various Latin American countries. 

Contents and organization

The book has five chapters. Chapter 1 introduces students to major topics in sociolinguistics that set the stage for studying grammar in a way that acknowledges the role that society plays in shaping language attitudes and determining which grammatical patterns are deemed legitimate and which are derided. Chapters 2 and 3 are organized according to type of linguistic structure: Chapter 2 focuses on nouns, pronouns, and prepositions, while Chapter 3 focuses on verbs. Chapter 4 also focuses on specific linguistic structures, but focuses on features frequently found when Spanish is in contact with another language. Each chapter is divided into one subsection for each specific structure, and each subsection is further divided into three parts:

a. Examples of the grammatical structures in variation, all from authentic materials;
b. Grammar explanations, terminology, and activities for practice in analyzing and using the structures.
c. Social judgments associated with structures in variation, which serves to highlight language attitudes and why they exist.

Chapter 5 concludes the book by reviewing general themes such as sociolinguistic concepts, language attitudes, and linguistic processes like regularization. All chapters include numerous activities that are conducive for active learning and hands-on explorations of linguistic structure and the sociopolitical contexts that shape the valuation of those structures.

Capítulo 1: La lengua como significador social

            This chapter introduces students to the notion that the way we talk carries social meaning. Definitions of the term ‘dialect’ are reviewed, highlighting the crucial point that all varieties of Spanish (and any language) are patterned and systematic. But if all dialects are systematic and follow grammatical rules, why is it that only some ways of talking are accepted in grammar books? An answer to this question requires an understanding of what is meant by ‘grammar’ and the differences between descriptive and prescriptive grammars. Once it is established that all natural grammars are correct, but only some are legitimatized in prescriptive grammars, we turn to the concept of registers in order to differentiate between ‘appropriate’ and ‘correct’ language use (we have found over the years that students tend to confuse appropriateness and correctness).  The next subsection of the chapter focuses on language attitudes and linguistic prestige, linking these notions to the general tendency to categorize people and to negatively judge groups who hold little power in society. The chapter is structured as follows:

1.1 La lengua como significador social

1.2 Los dialectos

1.3 El prestigio lingüístico

1.4 Resumen

1.5 Referencias

Capítulo 2: Sustantivos, pronombres y preposiciones

            This chapter focuses on linguistic variation found in the use of nouns, pronouns, and prepositions. Specific topics include the sexism underlying the 'generic masculine' form, subject-verb word order, highlighting the lack of inversion in interrogatives in the Caribbean (e.g. ¿Cómo tú estás?), the use of voseo, the omission of direct objects, leísmo, double possessives, and dequeísmo. The social judgment sections demonstrate that racism and classism underlie linguistic prejudice. Also highlighted is the privileging of monolingual varieties as the standard or the norm and the concomitant bias against bilingual varieties. The chapter is structured as follows:

2.1 Los sustantivos

2.2 El número y género de los sustantivos

2.3 Los pronombres sujeto

2.4 El voseo

2.5 Los pronombres objeto y el leísmo

2.6 Las preposiciones y el dequeísmo

2.7 Resumen

2.8 Referencias

Capítulo 3. Verbos

            This chapter focuses on linguistic variation as it pertains to verbs. Specific topics include the widespread use of second-person singular –s (comiste ~ comistes), archaic verb forms that are still used in rural dialects (and by speakers from such locations who immigrate to urban areas); a comparison of the present perfect and preterit tenses; the pluralization of haber as a presentative verb (habían dos ranas) and variation in subjunctive mood forms (haya ~ haiga and podamos ~ puédamos). The social valuation sections establish clear links between education and social class and linguistic prejudice, and the section on the present perfect provides evidence of the privileging of the Spanish spoken in Spain. The chapter is structured as follows:

3.1 Los verbos

3.2 Formas del pretérito

3.3 El pretérito y el presente perfecto

3.4 La pluralización de haber

3.5 El presente del subjuntivo

3.6 El imperfecto del subjuntivo

3.7 Oraciones con si con condiciones hipotéticas

3.8 ser y estar

3.9 Resumen

3.10 Referencias

4. Caractéristicas del español en contacto con otras lenguas

            This chapter focuses on grammatical topics that are particularly relevant to Spanish as it is spoken in contact situations. A major goal of the chapter is to demonstrate the systematicity of bilingual varietys and to dispel common misconceptions that lead to its denigration. Specific topics include regularization of verb forms, as in yo ha, yo andé, yo poní, etc; the increasing use of the indicative instead of the subjunctive; the use of the gerund/progressive where the present simple or the infinitive is expected, as in mi mamá usualmente está haciendo la cena and recibí una carta conteniendo un cheque de quinientos dólares. We also have a detailed section on common bilingual phenomena, including code-switching, loan extensions, and loanwords. The social valuation sections serve to underscore the legitimacy of bilingual varieties, including Spanish in the U.S., by showing that the same linguistic processes that shape all languages also shape these varieties. The chapter is structured as follows:

4.1 El pronombre objeto directo

4.2 a personal

4.3 Posesivos dobles

4.4 La regularización verbal

4.5 El gerundio y el infinitivo

4.6 El subjuntivo y el indicativo

4.7 El imperfecto vs. el pretérito

4.8 La alternancia de códigos

4.9 Las extensiones y los préstamos

4.10 Resumen

4.11 Referencias

Capítulo 5. Conclusiones

Chapter 5 serves as a conclusion that weaves together the major themes of the book, including core sociolinguistic concepts, a review of grammar points and common linguistic processes, and activities that prompt discussion about language attitudes and why it’s important to recognize and combat linguistic prejudice.

5.1 Lo social y lo lingüístico

5.2 El clasismo

5.3 El sexismo

5.4 El racismo

5.5 El “monolingüicismo”

5.6 Para combatir la discriminación lingüística

Additional resources

            The book includes suggestions for additional activities and websites, including:

  • Websites that offer free access to Spanish corpora, where students can search for particular phenomena.
  • Ideas for course projects.
  • “Schoolhouse Rock” grammar videos, which help U.S.-raised students learn about basic elements of grammar (conjunctions; subjects and predicates; etc.).


Naomi photo

Dr. Naomi Shin, hard at work on the book proposal in Dr. Kim Potowski's dining room