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Exacto - to the point
on 21 August 2002
Exacto is a grammar book with a difference. There are conventional features such as verb tables that one would expect in any grammar, but there are also significant differences derived from the pedagogical approaches pioneered by the distance-teaching Open University in the United Kingdom that make this grammar book stand out from its rivals. The authors, who all work in the department of modern languages at the Open University, demonstrate the pedagogical skills that are so typical of many of this University’s materials, and which make its products so useful to learners.
As someone whose education was disrupted across three countries, I missed out on any understanding of formal grammar until I was in my 20s when I began to write seriously in English. It was then that I began to see how important having such structure was to expressing oneself clearly. Now, trying to write in Spanish, I am very conscious, as I struggle to express complex ideas and shades of meaning, my need to understand the structures of the language, from its basics to its more obscure points, is clear. So in approaching this book and deciding whether it was worth buying, I asked myself if it would help me.
I found its down-to-earth explanations of the structure of the grammar, spread throughout the book but brought together usefully in summary form in a glossary at the beginning, useful. Those whose understanding of the formal structure of grammar is strong will no doubt be able to skip quite a lot because this book starts with the very basics – assuming little formal knowledge of the language. On the other hand, the authors have usefully graded the points 1 (the most basic points, beginners to lower-intermediate level), 2 (towards intermediate level, covering the main exceptions to rules and some of the nuances of meaning that structural changes to expression give rise to), and 3 (more complex points). On the other hand, all of us who are approaching the task of learning a second language start from somewhere. In my case, this is English, so I found the way in which this book focused on explaining how Spanish grammar differs from English, and what points of Spanish grammar are particularly useful for English speakers, particularly useful.
Grammar usage in any language varies from place to place and across time. As one might expect of a book published in 2002, this book is bang up to date. Examples of contemporary usage are scattered throughout the text. Moreover, as someone who has lived or worked in every Spanish-speaking country of South America bar Bolivia and Paraguay, in Mexico, and in all the Central American republics excluding Honduras and El Salvador, the useful pointers to differences in usage across the Spanish speaking world, including differences affecting the Canaries and regions of Spain, are immensely useful. Not everything is covered, of course. For example, the discussion of the use of tu, vos, usted, ustedes is fine as far as it goes, but it does not cover the Costa Rican practice of using vos with the second person plural (as in vos quereis, vos teneis) with its conveyance of deep respect and an imbalanced power relationship. This form is, as I understand it derived from the now archaic Iberian practice of using vos when addressing the king.
This is not just a formal grammar book – it also aims to teach grammar. Throughout there are Self-Assessment Questions that will, if one is assiduous in working through them, will help one fix the point within one’s mind (and hopefully one’s usage), provided of course that one does not ‘cheat’ oneself by looking the answer up before one has thought about the answer. The latter approach may be easier, but one does not learn.
I liked the strong visual presentation of the text, its user-friendly examples and explanations, and its use of self-assessment questions – all derived from best practice in teaching students who are at a distance and who do not have access to a teacher who can help them. So it is a minor quibble that some tables were not wholly and instantly self-explanatory. For example, in the discussion of the Spanish American usage of tu, vos, usted, ustedes on p. 37, I puzzled over the tables because I read them horizontally – until I realised that of course the tables were in matrix form with an implied difference between the singular and plural usages. The lack of any column headings flummoxed me for longer than should have been the case, given my existing level of knowledge (in part because I wondered if there was some subtle point that I was missing). Real beginners might not get there at all. These however are points that a well-deserved second edition will no doubt iron out. Meanwhile, I can recommend this book – and I have now ordered it, as I want it to have a permanent place on my bookshelves. No doubt I no be turning to it again and again as I write more and more in Spanish.
Greville Rumble, Professor of Distance Education Management