Friday, June 29, 2007

El segúrometro

WARNING: oddly idiosyncratic rant ahead.

I assume that one purpose of a blog is to function as a useful channel for venting. So that's what this post is about. Something I need to get off my chest. Something unashamedly geekish, I might add. So don't say you weren't warned.

Here's the thing. Every language has its peculiarities, and Spanish is no exception. For anyone trying to learn Spanish, one striking and frustrating feature of the language is its apparent obsession with the speaker's degree of certainty. Of course, it is possible in Spanish to utter a simple declarative statement: "Begoña wore a blue dress", for instance. As a general rule, such simple declarations of fact pose no particular problem.

Should you, however, depart from the realm of objectively ascertainable facts, then - to put it mildly - all hell breaks loose. For now you have entered into the shadowy world of opinion, conjecture, and supposition, a morass from which you cannot hope to emerge unscathed. For some odd reason, should you depart, even in the slightest degree, from a state of absolute certainty, a huge spectrum of expressions and idioms opens up before you, ranging from the mildest conjecture ("Maybe Begoña was wearing a dress. It could have been blue. I really couldn't say for sure") to a high degree of confidence ("I'm pretty sure Begoña was wearing that blue dress she wore at her sister's wedding") to near-certainty. Or anything along the continuum of probability from complete ignorance to absolute certainty. Here is a small sampling:
  • Creo que
  • Me parece que

  • Supongo que

  • Se supone que

  • Me imagino
  • Seguro que
  • Estoy seguro de que
  • Es seguro

  • Para mí

  • Yo diría

  • Eso es

  • Es probable que

  • Es posible que

  • Puede ser

  • Puede
  • Quizás

  • Tal vez

  • Probablamente

  • Posiblemente

  • A lo mejor

  • Igual

  • Lo mismo

and whatever you're having yourself.

What's the problem? Well, for one thing, some of these expressions are followed by the indicative, some by the subjunctive, some by either indicative or subjunctive (depending on, you've guessed it, the teachers' favorite copout, "the context"). And you'd better get it right, because if you don't you will immediately mark yourself as an ignorant foreigner, whose command of the language is surpassed by any Spanish ten-year old. Furthermore - and this is the kernel of my rant - apparently, each of the expressions above represents an exquisitely calibrated tick-mark along the spectrum of certainty. Even worse, there is complete unanimity among all teachers of Spanish that it is the responsibility of every educated person to be able to associate each expression with its corresponding degree of certainty, whether one is using such an expression oneself, or trying to understand what someone else is saying.


if we think of "F" a representing a state of complete certainty, and "E" that of total ignorance, or sheer conjecture, then apparently, it matters - a lot - to your average Spanish speaker, just where one's opinion lies along the spectrum in between. Hence the bewildering plethora of expressions, not to mention the hideous indicative-subjunctive wrinkle.

Gentle readers, I don't wish to brag. But I do have a Ph.D. in statistics, so it's fair to say that I know a thing or two about probability. When this odd Spanish fascination with specifying the exact nuances of a speaker's degree of certainty was explained to me, my immediate thought (after "you've got to be kidding me!") was how inefficient the whole system was. All those phrases, and still no guarantee that each speaker is measuring by the same yardstick: Jose's "me parece que" may or not correspond to the same degree of belief as Maria's, leading to confusion all around. So my INTJ brain immediately came up with a brilliant alternative - namely that everyone could carry a little calibrated semicircular disc, with a movable arrow, along the lines of the fuel gauge pictured above, simply move the arrow along the continuum until the desired certainty point is reached, and Bob's your uncle. Thus, if I am 71% sure that Begoña was wearing that damned blue dress, I can indicate as much with a simple flick of the wrist. No fuss, no muss, no confusion.

Yes, yes - of course I understand the potential pitfalls. Before long the cool kids will be less than satisfied with the cumbersome, manually operated analog display. Inevitably, the gizmo will undergo the same kinds of developments as the wristwatch - digital displays, accessorization in different colors, use as a status symbol. Divers will want their instruments depth-proofed. But we know that these technological challenges can be met. And if the society cares so deeply about communicating the exactly nuanced shade of belief, then this solution seems like a bold, crisp, new alternative to the ambiguous thicket of phrases, moods, and tenses that currently ensnares the learner. ¡Hola, Juan! estoy 83.456% seguro de que Begoña ..... Of course, you'd still have the indicative/subjunctive choice to make. But a simple default rule (e.g. less than 50% - subjunctive, otherwise indicative) would work well.

Sadly, I regret to say that, when I have presented my proposal in class, it has been met with eye-rolling disapproval and dismissive contempt by sundry teachers. I can only conclude that the sheer genius-like simplicity of the proposal makes them nervous by threatening their job security.

Until this week, that is. We were (yet again!) reviewing the hideous list of phrases above and (yet again!) trying to figure out which took the indicative form of the verb, which the subjunctive. When suddenly, in the margin of the text, I noticed what - at first glance - appeared to be a thermometer:

Oddly enough, a thermometer that appeared to be graded from 0 to 100%. Then I read the word next to it. Sure enough, gentle readers, it said "segúrometro", and was being used to locate each of the phrases above along a spectrum of probability from 0 to 100%.

So here is the essence of my rant. For proposing a device already used in their own pedagogical materials I was subjected to mockery and abuse by my teachers. When (after all, I am an INTJ) I pointed out the injustice of this (in a good-natured way) - stares of bovine incomprehension. The complete isomorphism between the fuel gauge display and the thermometer display was apparently too much to grasp.

If you've read this far, thank you for your indulgence. I feel much better now that I've gotten that off my chest. Next post will be back to our regularly scheduled blogging, with some useful information about the wines of Spain.

1 comment:

amenidad said...

This completely made my day...As a guiri tonta viviendo en Espana - supongo que (87.24%) te entiendo...