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9 Hardest Parts About Learning Spanish For Students

Sonrisas Spanish and Language Acquisition

Central to teaching elementary Spanish, and the central philosophy around which the Sonrisas Spanish curriculum is designed, is the desire to offer young learners two things: The first is a positive world language experience for each student. The second, wholly dependent on the first, is language acquisition.

Many people believe that children are “like sponges” and can just absorb a second language with no effort. This is not really true. It is true that children can acquire language easily, but the right conditions and the right planning must be in place. With a knowledge of how children acquire language and with intentional planning and execution, you can create an environment in which acquisition thrives.

How Children Acquire Language

Mother’s Method

Dr. Wilder Penfield’s groundbreaking research in the 1960s revealed that a significant portion of a child’s brain cortex is uncommitted at birth, allowing for the flexible development of language and perception. He discovered that this uncommitted cortex acts as a blank slate, particularly effective for language acquisition until around age 10 to 12. After this age, the brain’s language centers become more fixed, making it harder to learn new languages.

Penfield advocated for the “mother’s method” for teaching second languages to children, which involves natural, immersive experiences rather than formal grammar lessons. He found that early exposure to even a few hundred words in a second language helps condition the brain to continue learning that language into adulthood. This method capitalizes on the brain’s natural development, allowing children to learn languages as they would their mother tongue.

Research supports Penfield’s findings. Bilingual children have been shown to develop a “switch mechanism” that enhances their ability to learn additional languages. Studies also indicate that bilingual individuals score higher on intelligence tests compared to monolingual peers. Modern brain imaging techniques have further confirmed that early language learning influences how languages are stored in the brain.

Patricia Kuhl’s 2010 research aligns with Penfield’s theories, demonstrating that infants learn languages through live social interactions, rather than through audio or video recordings. This emphasizes the importance of human interaction in effective language acquisition.

At Sonrisas Spanish, we employ methods similar to Penfield’s, focusing on immersive, human-to-human interactions to teach Spanish to young children. Our curriculum integrates songs, games, stories, and art projects, creating a natural and engaging learning environment. By starting language education early, we give children a significant advantage in developing lifelong language skills.

Krashen’s Acquisition Model

Dr. Steven Krashen’s acquisition model of language learning centers around several key hypotheses that emphasize the importance of natural, immersive, and meaningful language experiences. Here are the main points:

  1. Acquisition vs. Learning:
    • Acquisition is a subconscious process similar to how children learn their first language. It happens naturally through meaningful communication.
    • Learning is a conscious process involving formal instruction and the explicit knowledge of grammatical rules.
  2. Input Hypothesis:
    • Learners acquire language best through comprehensible input—language that is slightly above their current level of proficiency (i+1). This input should be understandable but still challenge the learner to advance their language skills.
  3. Monitor Hypothesis:
    • The “monitor” is a mental mechanism that uses learned grammar rules to edit and correct language output. It can only function when there is enough time, focus on form, and knowledge of the rules. However, over-reliance on the monitor can impede natural communication.
  4. Natural Order Hypothesis:
    • Language acquisition follows a predictable order, regardless of the learner’s first language or formal instruction. Some grammatical structures are acquired earlier than others in a consistent sequence.
  5. Affective Filter Hypothesis:
    • Emotional factors such as motivation, anxiety, and self-confidence can influence language acquisition. A low affective filter (i.e., a positive emotional state) facilitates better language acquisition by allowing more input to reach the language processing parts of the brain.

Krashen emphasizes that meaningful interaction in the target language, rather than rote learning and grammar drills, is the most effective way to acquire a new language. He advocates for immersive, communicative approaches that provide rich, comprehensible input in a low-stress, supportive environment.

Plan for Acquisition

Establish a Structure and Routine

Having structure and routine in your Spanish class is essential to student’s language learning. Learning a second language can be intimidating and scary. When we provide a consistent routine and structure for our students, we essentially make them feel safe and comfortable. This in turn puts their brains in a receptive state for learning.

Sonrisas Levels I and II employ the consistent structure of Circle Time, Story Time, and Art Time. Students know what to expect with each class. Within this structure, the instructor is able to introduce new activities, new vocabulary, and new language concepts. The consistency of the structure gives students a platform within which they feel comfortable taking risks with language and engaging in meaningful communication.

Sonrisas Level III utilizes a consistent structure through thematic units in which lessons follow the same progression. Just like younger students, older ones benefit from the consistency of structure. This is important as they take on higher level language concepts.

Anything else that you can make consistent and routine in your Spanish class—your transitions, your classroom management, your greetings and goodbyes—will help establish a supportive environment for acquisition.

Do Age-Appropriate Activities

As both Wilder and Krashen point out, it is not appropriate for young learners to do formal grammar lessons or rote learning with drills. What’s more is that these types of activities are not fun for young students, so they do not connect with the content or stay engaged. This is why Sonrisas Levels I and II do not include any explicit grammar instruction. When older elementary and middle school students are developmentally ready for it, Sonrisas Level III introduces grammar lessons.

The Sonrisas Levels I and II lessons are based in activities that young children love: music and verse, games, role-play, stories, and art projects. Students have fun with these activities. In turn, they don’t even realize they are learning a second language. These types of activities are very physical and take advantage of young learner’s active bodies and kinesthetic intelligence.

For Sonrisas Level III, the mode of instruction changes as older students no longer connect with the young learner activities from Levels I and II. These are replaced with more age-appropriate activities such as whole-group discussions, grammar lessons, collaborative activities, whole-group readings, and partner activities.

Use Effective Language Learning Methodologies

Effective language learning methodologies are essential to creating an environment in which acquisition thrives. Many different methodologies influenced and informed the Sonrisas Spanish curriculum. We have written about them extensively in the Sonrisas blog. Here are a few:

  1. TPR emphasizes comprehension through actions rather than translation, making language learning a natural and intuitive process. By engaging children kinesthetically, TPR makes language learning fun and effective, as students can express their understanding through gestures long before they are comfortable speaking the language. This approach ensures that language learning is an embodied experience, enhancing retention and making it an enjoyable activity for young learners.
  2. The Natural Approach (NA), developed by Dr. Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell, emphasizes language acquisition over formal learning. It focuses on meaningful communication and comprehensible input, where learners understand language before producing it. This method allows students to use language in low-anxiety environments without pressure to speak prematurely or face frequent error correction.
  3. The Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum incorporates many elements of the Waldorf approach, emphasizing songs, poems, games, and drama in lessons, and maintaining a focus on rhythm and engaging oral activities. However, Sonrisas also integrates well-illustrated books and hands-on projects to introduce and reinforce new material, providing a comprehensive and immersive language learning experience.
  4. Reading children’s Spanish literature is a cornerstone of the Sonrisas approach due to its effectiveness as a teaching tool. At Sonrisas Spanish, significant effort is dedicated to finding high-quality children’s books in Spanish, as these books can create engaging and effective lessons. The belief is that a great book leads to a great lesson, fostering a connection between students and the lesson content, which is crucial for engagement and learning. Children are naturally drawn to books, particularly those with compelling illustrations, allowing them to connect with the story and immerse in an authentic Spanish experience.
  5. Engaging the imagination through the senses is a powerful teaching methodology that makes learning almost effortless. At Sonrisas Spanish, we value the depth of human-to-human communication in language learning, believing it to be more effective than media-based programs. The “language-body conversations” described by Dr. Asher require two-way communication that can’t be replicated through screens or audio recordings. By guiding students through a linguistic journey that involves all senses, teachers can create a more immersive and engaging language experience.


Central to the philosophy of teaching elementary Spanish, as embodied by the Sonrisas Spanish curriculum, is the aim to provide young learners with a positive language experience that facilitates effective language acquisition. This philosophy is grounded in the understanding that while children have a natural propensity to learn languages, this process requires knowledge and intentional planning. When these are in place, you ensure that young learners not only have fun, but also acquire lots of Spanish.

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