Customer Reviews: Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish
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on December 4, 1999
As a Spanish major who has also spent several summers in Mexico, I have read pretty much every Spanish text I have come across. In all that reading, I have never found another Spanish book that even comes close to this one (in accuracy, helpfulness, readability, and other key areas).
Keenan does an excellent job of picking out the specific Spanish words and phrases that cause English speakers the most problems. I have several friends who are also studying Spanish. It seems like 9 times out of 10 when they ask me a question, it is an issue that was covered in "Breaking out.."
This book was written with the reader's attention span in mind. Imagine: a Spanish text that is actually enjoyable to read! I read this book cover-to-cover at least once a year. Every time I glean some new pointer that I can implement in my constant quest to sound like less of a gringa.
Sections include a discussion of the subjunctive, a chapter on cursing (!), cultural info, general language learning tips, useful verbs to add to your repertoire, and discussion of the evolution of the Spanish language. To me, the most helpful sections were those dealing with word choice: a couple of chapters that deal with stuff like "what is the difference between regresar, volver, devolver, etc.?"
If you have a general grasp of the basics in Spanish but feel like your learning has kind of reached a plateau, this book is an excellent resource for learning how to get your Spanish to the next level.
The only negative I can think of is that the book is not indexed. As a result, after reading the book initially, when you find yourself with a question that you know was answered somewhere in the book (a frequent ocurrence), it sometimes takes a moment to flip through the book and find the exact paragraph where he talked about it.
If I could only have one Spanish book, it would be this one. I would even choose it over 501 verbs and probably even my dictionary.
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on April 1, 1999
You may as well be trying to learn Latin with most Spanish books. Not only are they dry and boring, they are absolutely lifeless! Keenan presents Spanish as a living language, full of real life examples and situations (and I don't mean asking the maid in your hotel room for more towels!) I have read this book until the pages have fallen out. Take it from someone who followed Keenan's advice, went to Mexico, and started talking to the locals - you will never find a more helpful resource for your sojourn. The section on invectives and obcenities is worth the price of admission. You may never have an inclination to use any of these words, but I guarantee you it is very, very useful knowing when they are being used toward you. Finally, never have I encountered a Spanish language book which enlightens one as to why everything in Spanish is reversed, e.g. blanca y negra for black and white. Keenan's wonderful book helps you get inside the Spanish speaker's mind and world to the extent that you might just realize it is the English speaker that has everything backwards.
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on January 16, 2002
I moved to Mexico two years ago and enrolled in a language school right off the bat. I also bought this book. After reading it, I thought it was helpful, but not excessively so because I didn't quite "get" everything it was trying to tell me. I stuck it on the bookshelf.

Now, two years later, I'm going through it again and discovering a virtual gold mine of information. My point being: Take the book's title seriously. It is a book for people firmly at the intermediate level or above. For these people, it answers a ton of things that have proved baffling. For these people, the book is a gem. If you are departing the beginner stage, this stupendous book will answer lots of those things you've been scratching your head over. Immensely valuable.

But don't buy it for Spanish 101.
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on February 17, 2002
I would have given this book 4 stars, but with all the 5-star reviews one needs to take another off to get across the point that this book is not perfect. Given all the justifiable good things everyone says about this book, it's worth mentioning a shortcoming and making some contrarian points.
First, the LACK OF AN INDEX is a BIG SHORTCOMING. This is a reference book written by a journalist, with an entertaining style and interesting anecdotes and verbal illustrations. It's therefore easy to forget that it is, first and foremost, a reference book. After my first quick read through this book I recall wanting to check back on a fine distinction between a couple of similar verbs (I don't remember now which ones). They might have been in chapter 7, "Sixty-four Verbs", or in chapter 11, "Which is Which". I couldn't find what I was looking for by skimming, and an index would have been greatly appreciated.
Second, a number of reviewers keep emphasizing that this book is for intermediate or advanced speakers. If you're interested in this book, I wouldn't let that stop you from getting it. I've been seriously attempting to learn Spanish for about a year and a half. From my perspective, that of having been a university student a long time ago in a place far, far away, terms like "beginner" and "intermediate" are of more use to academic bureaucrats than to teachers and learners. I consider the community college courses I've taken have been auxiliary rather than primary means of learning Spanish. A few months ago I was in Bogota for a week and surprised myself with how well I was able to communicate with the locals. More recently here at home in California I sat in on a reading course in which most of the students were, to some extent, native speakers. I had the realization that I still sound VERY awkward trying to speak Spanish (or more accurately, trying to read it aloud to a group at conversational speed), and that there's a reason that bilingual speaker (there are more of them in California than Colombia) tend to switch me back to English. From this perspective, some of the items in this book struck me as useful. My reaction to other items was "well, duh!" This book could have been quite useful to me 6 months or even a year ago. And the nice thing about a reference book is that it can sit on your shelf, ready for when the need for it arises.
The third "yeah, but..." this book does not offer magical solutions. Of course no reasonable person expects magical solutions, and the blurbs for this book do not explicitly promise them. Still, all hyper-positive reviews for this book could create very high expectations. In the introduction Keenan offers a few suggestions on picking up the language, but precedes this section with the warning: "...there's no magic formula or secret recipe to speed you on your way to fluency." That might be as good as any piece of advice in this book. It is, nonetheless, well worth having.
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on June 7, 1999
If you've been studying Spanish courses and feel confident that you could ask where a hotel or restuarant is but do not feel that you could get into a real conversation with a native speaker, this book will help. It gives you a good way of looking at the subjunctive verb that other books would only confuse you with. Lots of everyday ways of saying things where conventional teaching aids give you ridged ways saying the same thing. If you want to sound like you know what you are saying then this book will help. It will help you stop saying "um" & "uh", and show you spanish stuble-words cause let's face we are all going to stammer reaching for the right word so why not sound a little more fluent doing so. The obscenity section is helpful, even if you don't want to curse(I don't) it is good to know if someone says something to you and there are words that are harmless in some Spanish speaking countries that are dangerous in other and you'd be wise to know the difference as to not offend anyone or embarrass yourself.
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on June 9, 1999
This is the best book I have ever read for learning Spanish. I have almost a whole "libary" full of useless theoretical Spanish books that I bought hoping to increase my skills. This is the first (and really the ONLY) book that I have read that takes a whole new approach to teaching Spanish--a PRACTICAL approach.
I have even felt like writing the author to congradulate him on such a well-written book, but I haven't had the time. (How many people feel like writting the author of Spanish books?)
If you're Spanish skills are just a bit above beginner, then I recomend this book. This is one of the only books in my whole "collection" that I have read over 5-6 times. I have lived in Mexico for more than 2 years now, and I owe much of my language mastery to this book. 5-Star without a doubt!
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on August 6, 2000
...tells how to hem and haw in a foreign tongue?
I am a serious student of Spanish. I own more text books and grammar reviews than any of the professors I know. This book taught me more about *speaking* the language than all the others combined. It is unique and indespensible. I have recommended it and continue to recommend it to anyone I meet who is studying or has studied Spanish. No matter your level of linguistic competency, if you are not a native speaker of Spanish, this book will help you.
You simply must have this book.
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on May 12, 2002
I am a 52 year old spanish student. I began my spanish education in the summer of 2002 with a two week stint at a language school in Oaxaca,Oaxaca,MX. I have followed that up with the Pimsleur Speak and Read CD set and a private tutor once a week. I have purchased Dorothy Devney Richmond's excellent books on spanish verbs and suffixes. BUT the book that is providing me with the most fun and an indepth insight into the spanish mind as expressed in the spanish language is Joseph J.Keenan's " Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish". My biggest coup to date was when I used an spanish expression that I had learned from the book and immediately was "corrected" by a more "knowledgeable and fluent" student of spanish. Happily, when the more "accomplished" student of spanish had finished telling me how wrong I was... a native spanish speaker quietly and graciously stated that my expression was absolutely correct. As I read through this book and practice my ever growing spanish language skills, I am deeply grateful to Mr.Keenan for having paved the way and assisting us all in avoiding some of the potholes and gaining important new insights into the age old question.."But why is it like that?" Muchas Gracias a Senor Keenan.
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on September 7, 2004
This is a great book. Among the chapter highlights are:

- Ten Ways to Avoid Being Taken for a Gringo: Excellent things to think about if you want to fit in and not insult people by your actions.

- Minding Your Verbal Manners: Things Spanish-speakers would take for granted that any considerate, well-groomed person would know.

- The Secret Life of Verbs: Almost everything you need to know about verbs in general. (I like the summary of the future tense: for the most part, forget about it. But he does give a good summary on the use of the "Future of Uncertainty" construction.)

- The Twilight Zone: All about that beautiful, nasty subjunctive mood. Those who have studied Latin or Greek will not find the subjunctive terribly scary, but for everybody else... well, that's probably another story. I find Keenan's categorizations of the subjunctive usages very, very helpful. He does it differently than any grammar I've ever seen; taken together with a grammar, you have two different ways of looking at the same thing, which greatly helps you remember. For example, one of his categories is the "Traveler's Subjunctive"; when in Costa Rica, it was because of this book that I asked "¿Hay autobuses que vayan a Birri?" instead of the incorrect "... van a Birri?".

- Sixty-four Verbs: Better descriptions on their range of meaning and usages that the one-liners usually provided in dictionaries don't cover. Coverage varies from short to comprehensive. Has many good parts but some of the treatments are a bit weak. This is a common place for unexpected things to be thrown in due to his train-of-thought writing style (see below).

- Cranking Up Your Spanish: All those sentence starters ("En fin," "Es que," "A ver," etc.) that don't show up in grammars and can drive you crazy since they set the scene for the rest of the sentence.

- Snappy Answers: Quick responses to things that may catch you off-guard.

- Invective and Obscenity: Survey of forceful, rude, and obscene speech (with the obligatory warnings about things that may get you in a fight)

- Which is Which: Words that English speakers often confuse.

- Influences of Spanish on English and vice-versa

From my point of view, among the good points of the book are:

1. It helps with many problems the beginner is likely to have. Most language books are written by native speakers of the language. In this book, Keenan takes a different approach: he is going to explain all of the problems he had himself while learning the language and using it for many years among native Spanish-speakers. Since I expect I will have most of the same problems, having them laid out is very helpful.

2. It is extremely engaging. I have spent many nights up late reading it. Yes, you read that right. Don't think in terms of your typical grammar book: think in terms of an long article where a fellow Spanish learner says "Ok, here's everything I learned about the language."

3. It has filled in my experience with my other Spanish courses. Often, idiomatic words or phrases will come up in them that don't make a lot of sense. Keenan explains virtually all of them, including which sound stilted or odd to Spanish-speakers.

4. It has excellent sections on the difference between ser and estar, between the imperfect and the preterite, and the subjunctive. These are some of the bugaboos that traditionally plague us Spanish students. The ser/estar treatment in particular is better than any book I've used: he goes far beyond the typical "estar is for things that change" explanation - which is true but incomplete. I finally understand, for example, why you say "está muerto" instead of "es muerto."

5. It has good sections on how not to give offense to people from different cultures. In every culture, people do some things completely innocently that are interpreted in other cultures as aggressive or insulting. Although there is no single "Hispanic" culture, Keenan helps by pointing out some things that are commonly considered negative that I might not expect. I should note that Keenan's experience is primarily in Mexico, so most of the cultural and localized language usage tips are centered on Mexico.

I really, really, wanted to give this book 5 stars, but I can't. So what's not to like? Just two things, really:

1. It has no index. This makes it difficult to find words or phrases. I would expect this kind of book to have a fairly extensive index, but none is provided. As I use this book more and more, I find this to be a bigger and bigger problem. Often, I'll find I need to use some verb or construction and want to look it up. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to do because it could be in one of several chapters. Let's say I'm trying to remember something about a given verb: do I look in "Tricksters," "The Secret Life of Verbs," "The Twilight Zone," "Sixty-Four Verbs," or "Spanish Roots?" Or, let's say you are trying to remember a word or expression that you seem to recall is sometimes misused, and you want to use it right. Do you look in "Tricksters," "Invective and Obscenity," "Which is Which?", "Say it Right," or "The Big Mix?" I have spent more time than I like leafing through the various chapters looking for a word that could have been indexed.

This problem is made worse by Keenan's train-of-thought writing style. He introduces verbs and expressions in places where they don't at all fit, analytically speaking. Now, don't get me wrong - the writing style works, and very well. A more rigorously outlined writing style would not be nearly as easy and fun to read. But it makes it darn difficult to find what you're looking for. I have taken to writing cross-reference notes in my own copy.

2. Keenan uses obscenities more freely than I'd like (even outside the chapter specifically on obscenities). Now, I'm not a "schoolmarm" (Keenan's words); but I don't think this kind of language is really necessary. Not that the book is full of obscenities: it's not. But they pop up here and there (again, the train-of-thought style); it would have been fairly easy to substitute non-obscene language in most of these places, but he doesn't.

For these reasons, I could not give this book five stars. But, overall it is an excellent book, and one that will greatly enrich both your understanding and your fluency.

By the way, I've read other reviews and lists saying that this book is more for advanced students of Spanish. ¡No es verdad! While I'd agree that it's probably not for rank beginners, I believe one of the keys to really learning a language is to get out there and starting speaking to people as soon as you can. And this book gives you the tools to get out there, speak confidently and semi-fluently, and not give offence when you don't mean to.
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on August 21, 2002
I purchased this book 3 years ago and I clearly remember my first impressions. I thought to myself "how handy this is the first of its kind". This Spanish reference will definitely give you the finishing touches to your Spanish in terms of authenticity and helping your day to day Spanish sound natural and on the level of a native speaker.
I bought the book to find out the greatest challenges that students who are studying Spanish face outside of grammatical, pronunciation and phonetic issues. Although the title of the book is: Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish, the topics covered and the information offered is definitely beneficial to the advanced student and to those who have travelled around Latin America or Spain. Chances are these students will have heard the numerous verbs, phrases and expressions used and have had difficulty understanding the meaning, nuance and how to use the verb or expression correctly in everyday speech.
The book's intent is to clarify traditional errors that non-native Spanish speakers make and to offer an explanation and the logic behind the usage in Spanish. The book covers a broad range of topics such as: tricksters (also known as false cognates which are words that look similar to an English word but have a completely different meaning),verb usage and key exceptions, tips for correct usage of the subjunctive which always proves to be problematic for non-natives, a special look at sixty-four verbs with a complete analysis of proper usage, key phrases typically used by native speakers, making the right choice of words and anglicisms.
The book answers questions that grammar books and dictionaries don't offer. As an educator of the Spanish language I am familiar with and have read numerous reference material in English and Spanish and this is the first of it kind. Finally, a book that focuses on problematic concepts in Spanish that need to be addressed in order to speak correctly, avoid blunders, to know when you have been insulted, increase cultural awareness and to sound as authentic as possible when speaking Spanish.
The book is definitely beneficial to those who have advanced knowledge of Spanish and a solid command of its grammar, those who have travelled to several Latin American countries and those who have specific queries about an idiom, verbs, "must know" vocabulary and terms. I suggest reading the book thoroughly for understanding of the its objective and then re-reading the book with a focus on your own queries that need clarification. I think the book is great and true to its objective, unfortunately I have yet to use the concepts with my students because of their level but it has been put to good use thus far as I enjoy reading it from time to time because it has such a wealth of information beneficial to all. I strongly recommend this purchase to all students and those who have an interest in Spanish. This was a carefully compiled reference material.
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