"In a Nutshell" provides brief, non-technical presentations of some aspect of Spanish and issues in its acquisition. Accompanied by references, the section is great for individual professional development and/or discussion starters with colleagues!
SER AND ESTAR
For over three decades, researchers have been looking at the acquisition of the two verbs ser and estar in Spanish. Did you know that the productive use of the two verbs is acquired slowly over time in a stage-like manner? Here is what the research has shown based on spontaneous and semi-spontaneous speech (not paper and pencil tests).
Stage 1: Learners omit the verb. They say things like *Juan, uh, alto and *Paco no aquí.
Stage 2: Learners pick up ser and use it for almost all the functions of both verbs. They say such things as Juan es alto, but also *Paco no es aquí, *El estudiante es enfermo, and *La chica es correr.
Stage 3: Learners pick up estar as an auxiliary verb to use with verbs ending in –ndo. They say such things as La chica está corriendo with the occasional *La chica está corre/correr.
Stage 4: Learners extend estar to expressing location and states of being. This is when they begin to say such things as Paco no está aquí and El estudiante está enfermo.
It takes some students many years to get to stage 4. Along the way they may also demonstrate what looks like productive use of some things, but they are actually using chunks of language. For example, they might be able to say ¿Cómo está Ud.? early on, but have learned this as a chunk. They have no “productive rule” for using estar with states of being.
If you look at the stages carefully, you will see that ser comes in early. What this means, then, is that the real problem is not ser versus estar as presented in many textbooks, but the gradual acquisition of estar. One implication is not to worry about ser as it will take care of itself and that any focus on grammar should focus on estar over time. However, teachers should not expect miracles; the research on the explicit teaching and practice of grammar is not particularly suggestive of any real benefits. But focusing on the uses of estar now and then without worrying about ser may be more useful in the long run.
For more information, this research is summarized in:
B. VanPatten. (2010). Some verbs are more perfect than others: Why learners have difficulty with ser and estar and what it means for instruction. Hispania, 93, 29–38.