Now that Halloween is upon us, I thought I would make the 2005 cortometraje “La leyenda del espantapájaros (The Legend of the Scarecrow)” the topic of my next post. This animated short is very much in the Halloween spirit, with an eerie soundtrack overlaid with the constant wind blowing across the plains of Castile, a dark and brooding color scheme, and images that evoke both recent Hollywood pop culture phenomena and classic Spanish art. However, amid the dark and spooky elements, it also weaves in an uplifting moral about friendship.
This short offers language learners and educators a variety of options. At just over 10 minutes long, it is brief enough to be viewed in its entirety, possibly twice, in a single class meeting with time for discussion and activities. The original narration is in Castilian Spanish by Sancho Gracia, whose deep, almost growly voice is iconic, although students may need some time to get accustomed to his strong Castilian accent. In addition to the original corto, versions are available online with English subtitles, with Spanish subtitles and this version includes the music and sound effects, but the narrator track has been removed. This allows for multiple approaches to the material: learners can familiarize themselves with the story, using subtitles as necessary, and then practice retelling it on their own with the visual and sound-effect support of the version without the narration track.
For learners viewing “La leyenda del espantapájaros” on their own:
One of the more subtle challenges all language learners face is learning how to deal with unfamiliar prosody in the target language. Without getting too technical, prosody basically refers to the “sound contours” of the language – the way things like pitch and rhythm, rising and falling intonation and pauses all give us cues that help us interpret both the meaning of what we’re hearing and how to interact with other speakers. When we learn a language, we tend to focus a lot on things like vocabulary and grammar; it’s easy to take prosody for granted because most of it is subconscious, and we tend to assume that it will work the same way in the target language as it does in our native language.
However, some of the details of prosody can vary a great deal with culture. Even when the language is the same, there can be regional differences in prosody – it’s a big part of what makes unfamiliar accents challenging to understand sometimes. I remember being very surprised when I was traveling in Ireland and I realized that in some Irish varieties of English, questions can be asked with a falling intonation. In Standard American English, questions are almost always marked with a rising intonation – it’s the thing that makes a question sound like a question to English speakers across the US, and it requires some adjustment to figure out that questions sound different in other dialects. In many parts of the Spanish-speaking world, questions may indeed be phrased with a falling intonation, and at first it may take you a split-second too long to realize when you’ve been asked a question and someone is waiting for you to answer them.
“La leyenda del espantapájaros” offers some nice opportunities to practice getting used to unfamiliar prosody. I mentioned above that the narrator has a deep, gravelly voice and a strong Castilian accent that may take some getting used to. (For people preparing to travel to or study in Spain, this is great practice!) Fortunately, though, in this corto his delivery is relatively slow-paced, with nice, long pauses that give listeners a chance to catch up (and you can always pause if you need to). At approximately 3:05 you can hear an example of a question that has different intonation from how it might sound in American English.
If you listen closely to this narrator, you can also hear how sounds flow together in Spanish, a little differently from how you might expect. Those of us who do a lot of reading as part of learning a language sometimes need a little help with remembering that the spaces between words are artificial: they are a convention of written language, but they aren’t really there in the sound stream that we hear. Many years ago, I read an excellent book by the linguist Steven Pinker, and the part where he described this really stood out to me:
In the speech sound wave, one word runs into the next seamlessly; there are no little silences between spoken words the way there are white spaces between written words. We simply hallucinate word boundaries when we reach the end of a stretch of sound that matches some entry in our mental dictionary. (The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, New York: Harper, 1994)
In another language, it can be a challenge to figure out where those word boundaries are, especially when vowel sounds flow together or a letter represents a different sound from what our native language might lead us to expect. For example, in the first few lines of the corto, the narrator says “No era un trabajo difícil” (~0:32), but with the elision of the vowel sounds, it might sound more like “Nuerun trabajo difícil”. Sometimes the shortest words are the trickiest to parse because they come at you fast and flow together. Another example occurs around the 1:00 mark when the narrator says “Cada vez”: the “d” sound in Castilian is much softer than in American English, more like what we think of as a “th”, just a very quick flap behind the teeth, and it goes by so quickly here that it might sound almost like only two syllables, “caavez”. Part of learning how to speak another language is learning how to hear it and training yourself to catch those subtle phonetic differences.
For language educators:
I find “La leyenda del espantapájaros” to be very versatile for use in class. In addition to its language content, there are a lot of opportunities to use this corto to talk about story structure, literary interpretation, Spanish culture and even intertextuality, depending on the level of your students and the focus of your course. In terms of age appropriateness, it may be a little scary for younger learners, so educators should use their judgement about their students’ maturity level and, where relevant, parents’ feelings about Halloween and scary stories (particularly since Halloween is not traditionally a part of Spanish or Latino culture, and this corto isn’t even explicitly about Halloween, though it aligns very well with it thematically.)
The visual aesthetic of “La leyenda del espantapájaros” will remind many viewers of Tim Burton’s films, with details such as the angular spirals of the tree branches and the elongated form of the scarecrow with the oversized round head, huge hollow eyes and long, flapping scarf. The corto also uses a limited color scheme dominated by black, white, gray, purple, rusty brown, ochre, and dark blue. The allusions to The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Jack Skellington and other Burton characters are unmistakable, but there are plenty of other visual references with deep associations to Spanish culture that can be explored in the classroom.
For instance, the opening scene of creaky windmills slowly turning on a windswept landscape is an iconic image of rural Castilla-La Mancha, and can open up a discussion of geography, traditional lifestyles and even el Quijote, depending on the focus of the course. In some ways, the aforementioned limited color scheme is reminiscent of the palette favored by Diego Velázquez in the majority of his paintings. Later in the film, we see images of the farmer and the other villagers that very clearly evoke Goya’s pinturas negras, in particular La romería de San Isidro and El aquelarre. “La leyenda del espantapájaros” seems to be borrowing a page from Carlos Saura’s Goya en Burdeos (Goya in Bordeaux; 1999) in creating a scene that looks like a Goya painting brought to life (~4:50-5:05), and the overall theme of the corto resonates with the critique of violence, ignorance, superstition, backwardness and susceptibility to a mob mentality that characterizes so much of Goya’s late artistic production. In contemporary classrooms, “La leyenda del espantapájaros” can serve equally well to frame a conversation about art history and to lay the groundwork for a discussion of racism and intolerance.
“La leyenda del espantapájaros” also lends itself to a discussion of literary structure and organization. It is useful for helping students to define and understand literary categories such as cuento, mito, leyenda, and fábula. The title includes the word “leyenda”, opening up an opportunity to define what a leyenda is and whether or not this narrative meets that definition. It purports to be an origin story that explains a natural phenomenon, partially fitting within the definition of myth; although it is not a sacred story, it does include supernatural elements. It also displays some of the characteristics of a fable in that it features anthropomorphized animals and inanimate objects and purports to teach a moral lesson.
This corto also makes use of a film editing technique, the fade-to-black, that functions as a visual divider between scenes. Fades are the film equivalent of a blink of the viewer’s eye, and they are frequently used to mark “beats” or transition points in the film’s narrative. For learners, the fades in the corto demarcate the different sections of the story, and instructors can use them to help illustrate concepts such as the planteamiento (from the beginning to the first fade at 1:29, when the narrator relates the background information to introduce the story, the enredos (complications or rising action, encompassing the sections preceding the fades at 2:49, 3:51, 4:49 and 5:05 as the tension is heightened), the clímax (between 5:05 and 7:30, including a long stretch with no dialogue, only images), and the desenlace or resolución between 7:30 and 9:04.
The organization of the story into scenes divided by fades also provides a nice illustration of the functions of preterite and imperfect in organizing a narrative. The entire first minute and a half of planteamiento uses verbs in the imperfect to establish the background of the story. After the first fade, when the new segment begins at 1:30, we see our first preterite verb as the narrator begins to describe the rising action and the enredos that drive the plot forward.
“La leyenda del espantapájaros” also offers a nice example for helping students to understand the so-called “meaning-changers”, i.e. the verbs that have different English translations (not actually differences in meaning!) depending on whether they are used in the preterite or the imperfect. At approximately 7:15, the narrator says, “Conmocionados por la historia, los cuervos quisieron salvar al espantapájaros, pero era demasiado tarde, y ya no podían hacer nada.” Instructors might invite learners to consider the implications of preterite and imperfect by giving them the sentence with blank spaces followed by infinitives and inviting them to predict (or recall) the forms that best suit the narrative:
Conmocionados por la historia, los cuervos __________ (querer) salvar al espantapájaros, pero era demasiado tarde, y ya no ________ (poder) hacer nada.
Instructors and learners can discuss whether the crows harbored an existing desire to save the scarecrow or whether they turned that desire into a specific, concrete action by making an attempt to save him, and whether they lacked the ability to do anything or whether they tried and failed, debating the implications of the various combinations. Instructors can point out that even though in English we use different vocabulary, in Spanish this difference can be expressed with aspectual distinctions on the same verb. (Some excellent resources on this topic include Whitley & González’ Gramática para la composición [2015; Georgetown University Press], p. 164 and Lunn & DeCesaris’ Investigación de gramática [2007; Thomson-Heinle], pp. 20-27. Other good resources include Diana Frantzen’s Lazos: Gramática y vocabulario a través de la literatura [2008; Pearson] and her 2013 article in Foreign Language Annals, “Using Literary Texts to Reveal Problematic Rules of Usage” [Vol. 48, Iss. 4, pp. 628-645].)
One other linguistic detail that this corto sets up nicely is compound word formation in Spanish. Instructors can point out that one of the key words in this corto, “espantapájaros”, is clearly derived from the combination of two other words:
espantar + pájaros = espantapájaros
Even though “pájaros” is plural and ends in an s, the scarecrow itself is a single object and is grammatically singular: el espantapájaros.
One final pedagogical idea is to take advantage of the multiple available versions mentioned in the second paragraph of this post and to invite students to practice re-telling the story to one another in small groups (possibly section-by-section, following the fades) using the version with the narrator’s track removed, after having them view one of the narrated versions (with or without subtitles as appropriate to your students and course). Check out Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell’s post on her Musicuentos blog for additional implementation ideas for this (or similar) activities. If you teach another language (or want to share this post with colleagues who teach other languages), the English-subtitled version could be an opportunity to familiarize learners with the story and then they can try to recount it in other target languages using the version without the narrator track.
Have you engaged with “La leyenda del espantapájaros”? Share your ideas, experiences and suggestions in the comments!
Title: La leyenda del espantapájaros (The Legend of the Scarecrow)
Director: Marco Besas
Genre: Animated short; Horror
Duration: 10 min.
Publication Date: 2005
Company: Elemental Films