¡A colleague in the Spanish-teaching profession recently expressed shock - her new pupils didn't know how to form the upside-down question mark properly! 'It's supposed to sit under the line!' she said, in a tone of hushed horror. This struck me at the time (and still does) as almost comically trivial, and I felt for the children getting told off for putting the interrogative sign one millimetre too high.
And yet, while not wanting to inflate its importance unduly, the inverted 'punto de interrogación' is surely the jewel in the crown of Spanish punctuation (closely followed by the oh-so-expressively named 'punto de admiración'). It has so much to teach its disciples.
Take the exemplary word 'Vamos'. In dry grammatical terms it's the 1st-person plural present tense of the verb 'to go'. In the genealogy of cartoon discourse it's the progenitor of the colourful 'Vamoose!' Undoubtedly one of the most hard-working words in the language. So hard-working, in fact, that it serves as both statement and question. There's no ambiguity about this in speech, though the consequent reliance on intonation perhaps partly explains why Spanish is so emphatic. But the page has no voice. And suddenly punctuation matters, a lot.
English is remarkably forgiving of sloppy punctuation, anticipating and compensating for it with a riot of confusing possibilities. 'Do we/shall we/shan't we go?' 'Are we/aren't we/are we not going?' These question forms are recognisable - and meaningful - whether or not they are punctuated, in text or utterance. Spanish, by contrast, is rigorous and disciplinarian. Both languages use inversion, but there is an economy to the Hispanic convention that is elegant in its austerity.'Vamos.' 'No vamos.' '¿Vamos?' '¿No vamos?' Sometimes the hardest thing for English-speakers to accept is how easy this is: yes, you really have been released from the dark cave of complexity into the light of simplicity.
Children love this. Why wouldn't they? Apart from anything else, the learning it entails is led by their own natural curiosity. Once you've introduced this new, exotic punctuation, it's never long before one of them asks, 'Why?' The question I tend to pose in return: 'What is the difference between me, Dr Martin, and this piece of paper?' stirs them into action and generates some hilarious responses. But it also prompts them to reflect on the purpose of punctuation, the importance of tone of voice, and the philosophical distinction between (human) presence and absence that is inherent in the spoken and written variants of any language.
And that's even before we get on to the signposts. Pretty much all children can remember - some distantly and nostalgically, others more painfully and immediately - what it feels like to be caught out by a circuitous English sentence when reading aloud to parent or teacher. 'Oh,' you think, crestfallen, as you finally reach the end: 'that was supposed to be a question/exclamation; I got it all wrong.' So ¡gracias! Spanish. Thank you for that supportive helping hand, that timely warning: 'Watch out! Question coming up - you can get it right first time!' Cue a potentially digressive but definitely feel-good discussion of our favourite signposts, whether about frogs or kangaroos or surfers crossing the road, or even the mystical dangers of invisible Hawaiian cows (their favourites almost always involve animals).
This is the kind of discussion that makes language-learning so rewarding. By putting one seemingly insignificant hieroglyph under the microscope we have entered the magic kingdom of another language, like stepping through the wardrobe door into Narnia. But we have also become more acutely aware of our own. We have probably detected the presence of the word 'sign' in 'significant' (otherwise typically obscured by the vagaries of English pronunciation), learned the useful new verb 'to signify', and laid the foundation for future exploration of the nouns 'signifier' and 'signified' and the quintessentially conventional nature of language.
Children learning 'to read the signs' feel like skilled trackers, eagle-eyed detectives, or maybe just dogs happily following a scent. They are playing a game that engages both imagination and intellect, and even if it still feels like work, then at least it feels like a job worth doing.
Language teaching is about getting the maximum out of the minimum. It means ensuring that the incidental details - of syntax, conjugation, lexicon, punctuation - yield as much information as possible, and shine a light on lived as well as linguistic experience.
Dr Heather Martin is an MFL teacher in central London
Related TES resources
Spanish Correction grids (AfL)
New curriculum 2014: Secondary Spanish