Grammar of the Spanish Language

Stephen F. Austin taught himself to speak and write Spanish

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When Stephen F. Austin fulfilled his dying father’s wish and took on the challenge of settling 300 Anglo families in the northern region of New Spain, he faced many obstacles including travel, negotiating with two different governments (first Spain and later Mexico), little knowledge of the territory where he was headed, and limited, if any, use of the Spanish language.

Austin puchased this book, Gramática de la Lengua Castellana Compuesta [Grammar of the Spanish Language], in 1822 and taught himself to speak and write Spanish.

“Before S. F. Austin first arrived in Mexico, he may have known a few words and expressions in Spanish, but not many more,” says Victoria Arbizu-Sabater, a senior lecturer in the Center for Languages and Intercultural Communications at Rice University who is working on her dissertation for the University of Seville, Spain, on a linguistic analysis of Austin’s Prison Journal which was written mostly in Spanish.

“Austin realized early that in his business as an empresario, he had to learn to speak and write Spanish to succeed in his enterprise,” noted Arbizu-Sabater. “I am going through all of his letters written in Spanish, and the way he transmits emotions, the way he expresses himself, is clearly of someone who is proficient in a language that is not his own.”

Austin worked hard to learn this new language and often apolgized for his errors. “I pray you to excuse my erasures and bad Spanish; but the person who will take this letter is about to leave, and will not wait until I can have a clean copy made,” he writes to José Antonio Saucedo, the political chief at Bexar, on April 20, 1824.

According to José Barragan, the Spanish translator at the Texas General Land Office, it is easier to learn how to speak Spanish than to learn how to write it. “If you mispronounce a word, people will get the general idea of what you are trying to say. If you use the wrong tense, or misspell a word, it can change the entire meaning of your message.”

The one subject that neither Barragan or Arbizu-Sabater can speak to is how well Austin spoke Spanish. “I wish that I could go back in time and have a conversation with him in Spanish,” Arbizu-Sabater admits. “I wonder if it was as fluent as his writing.”

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Grammar of the Spanish Language Artifact from Austin, Texas
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