Spanish Learning Scenario:
Proverbs and Sayings: Meaning, Ideas, and Language

Author: Aurora Hansis & Teresa Tattersall
Level: Novice


In this scenario, students learn about sayings and proverbs commonly used in Spanish-speaking cultures. English proverbs and sayings are included for comparison and to guide students as they learn new proverbs in Spanish. Through this unit, students discover the value of proverbs, and they see how culture is embedded in proverbs and sayings. Students develop an awareness of the intrinsic relationship between language and culture.

ACTIVITY SET 1: Comparing Familiar English and Spanish Proverbs
The class begins by brainstorming familiar English proverbs. They also discuss how they learned these proverbs: from a family member, in the community, in school, etc. Next, the class considers a group of “equivalent” proverbs in English and Spanish. The proverbs are selected because they use different images to express a similar idea. For example: “de tal palo, tal astilla” (“like father, like son” or “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”), or “El niño que no llora no mama” (“The squeaky wheel gets the grease”). The sayings are printed on note cards and placed in two columns on the chalkboard with Spanish on one side and English on the other—but not directly opposite their “mate.” The class’s task is to find the Spanish “match” for the English proverbs. This is a whole-class activity with the teacher guiding the students, directing their attention to key words, cognates, and roots of familiar words. Once teacher and students have matched the pairs of proverbs, students separate into small groups where they are assigned one of the “pairs” of proverbs. The teacher provides some questions for the groups so that learners begin to think about how culture is reflected in the proverbs. For example: What is the main idea of the proverbs? How do the two proverbs express that idea differently? Why do you think the idea is expressed differently in English and Spanish? (Why does Spanish use “this” image and English “that” one?) Even though the proverbs are in different languages, do they achieve the same results? After their discussion, groups share information with their classmates.

ACTIVITY SET 2: Learning New Spanish Sayings
In this activity set, students learn more Spanish proverbs and sayings and complete two tasks to demonstrate their understanding of the ones they choose to work with. First, they receive a new list of proverbs in Spanish. Individually or in pairs, students choose a proverb from the list to illustrate (e.g., El que se fue a Sevilla, perdió su silla). The teacher discusses with students both the literal and figurative meanings of the proverbs, and they decide whether to illustrate what the proverb says (“The one who goes to Sevilla loses his seat/chair.”), what it means (“Possession is nine-tenths of the law”), or both. Student illustrations are displayed in the classroom.

Next, working with the same list of proverbs, student groups create skits using pantomime to demonstrate the meaning of their chosen proverb. As a vocabulary review, the class is asked, with the teacher’s prompting, to provide vocabulary words or make short statements using learned material as the pantomime is occurring. Students have a list of the proverbs, and after the pantomime is complete, the “audience” guesses which proverb has been presented; they also share (in English) their understanding of the meaning of the skit. Finally, the class evaluates the skits as to whether or not the figurative meaning of the proverb has been captured.

ACTIVITY SET 3: Creating New Proverbs
Students enjoy the vivid images of proverbs, and they now have an opportunity to use their creativity to come up with some images of their own. For this activity, the sayings have again been written on note cards, but this time each student receives only the first half of a proverb in Spanish (Cuando hay hambre… / Panza llena… ). The students’ job, working either in pairs or individually, is to create a new ending to the proverb. Novice-level students are encouraged to use familiar vocabulary, and the teacher supplies new words as needed. (It may be helpful to brainstorm useful nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. with which students are familiar and to write them on the board.) Next, each student or pair presents the “new” proverb to classmates. Once all students have presented their new sayings, the teacher shows them the ending to the original proverbs (…no hay pan duro / …corazón contento). Students and teacher discuss (in English) how learners came up with their original endings and how the meaning of the proverb changed with a different ending. (This is also a good opportunity to reflect again on how culture might have influenced the two versions.) After the discussion, the original and rewritten proverbs are displayed in the classroom.

ACTIVITY SET 4: Connecting Proverbs and Culture
Now that students have learned several Spanish-language sayings and demonstrated their understanding of them, they undertake tasks that allow them to explore further the relationship between proverbs and culture. First, students choose two proverbs, one in English and one in Spanish. Their task is to research the history behind each proverb using the Internet, books, family, friends and any other available resource to gather information. They look for answers to questions such as: Where did the proverb come from? In what contexts is it used? In addition to their research, students also reflect on ways that the Spanish- and English-language proverbs differ. For example, students might notice the use of infinitives in Spanish where English tends to use gerunds, etc. They consider how relevant the proverb is to the present day and whether it presents an idea or uses images peculiar to American or Hispanic cultures. The latter are abstract issues, so students present their research findings and conduct discussions in English and with the teacher’s guidance.

Students continue their investigation of how proverbs reflect aspects of the micro- (e.g., family) and macro-culture (e.g., ethnic group) by talking with their relatives about any common family sayings or proverbs. They interview family members and friends about proverbs that have been passed down through generations (e.g., “Grandpa always used to say…”). Students tape (video or cassette) the interviews, and as they share them in class, they consider several questions: Are there common themes or images by language group and/or across language groups? Are certain sayings special to a particular generation? etc. Once the research and discussion is complete, each student or group selects a way to graphically represent what they have discovered: art work, mind-map, collage, etc.

ACTIVITY SET 5: Creating Proverb Books
As a culminating activity, students create a book of ten sayings in Spanish with illustrations. Five of the proverbs are ones they have enjoyed and “collected” over the course of the unit that were not the object of class activities. The other five may be “half-original” proverbs created in Activity Set 3 by the class or totally new ones. Students bring their books to share with classmates, either reading their favorite “new” proverb aloud or passing the books around to be read. Students make comments and sign the back of their classmates’ books. Additionally, a class book of proverbs can be produced with students providing proverbs from their individual books. Students combine sayings and design the class book, and the teacher copies and distributes one to each learner.

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Targeted Standards

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  • Refranero (book of sayings and proverbs in Spanish and English)
  • Computer with Internet access, floppy disks
  • Art supplies, including paper, markers, etc.
  • Videotapes, video camera
  • Props for students’ presentations

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Reflections on How the Standards Are Met

Communication: The interpersonal mode is used when students work in pairs or small groups and when they create skits. Students use the interpretive mode to read and match English and Spanish proverbs and to listen to classmates’ presentations. The presentational mode is used when students perform skits and present their books.

: Students learn about a cultural product (proverbs) and the perspectives of the culture through the use of proverbs/sayings.

: Students access information in Spanish about proverbs through the Internet, books and personal interviews.

: Students compare proverbs in English and Spanish to understand how one idea may be represented differently in two languages and cultures. They understand how cultural perspectives are implicit in the choice of images used in the sayings.

: Students use Spanish with and beyond the school as they talk with Spanish-speaking family and friends to find out about the use of proverbs in the community.

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Expansion Ideas

  • Idiomatic expressions can also be used as the focus of the scenario.
  • Several tasks can be adapted to the intermediate level. In Activity Set 1, learners receive strips of paper each containing a proverb in Spanish or English. They work in pairs to complete the matching activity, then compare their conclusions with classmates. In Activity Set 2, students create skits to illustrate the proverbs rather than using pantomime. And in Activity Set 3, students may create their own proverbs.
  • Students look to popular music for examples of proverbs or themes reflected in proverbs. (The students can do this activity in English, and the teacher can provide examples for the same activity in Spanish.) The same task can be done using contemporary movies with the teacher again providing ideas in the target language.

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Arora, S. (1995). Proverbs in Mexican-American tradition. Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies. Vol. 1(2). Tasmania, Australia: University of Tasmania.

Cassagne, J. M. (1995). 101 Spanish idioms. Lincolnwood, IL: Passports Books.

Coll, J., Gelabert, M., & Martinell, E. (1998). Diccionario de gestos con sus giros más usuales. Madrid, Spain: Edelsa Grupodiscalia.

Flonta, T. (2001). A dictionary of English and Spanish equivalent proverbs. Tasmania, Australia: DeProverbio.

Giménez, E. (1996). Del dicho al hecho. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Bela Editores.

Mejia, J. M. (1997). Así habla el mexicano: Diccionario básico de mexicanismos. Tarzana, CA: Panorama Publishing.

Sellers, J. M. (1994). Folk wisdom of Mexico. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Taylor, A. (1996). The origins of the proverb. Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies. Volume 2(1). Tasmania, Australia: University of Tasmania.

Zarco, M. T. (1988). Refranero. Ciudad Real, Spain: Perea Ediciones.


NOTE: These Internet resources may have changed since publication or no longer be available. Active links should be carefully screened before recommending to students.

    This is the Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies.