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6 Tips To Help Students Improve Their Conversational Spanish

You know in your heart that video and computer-based language programs don’t work. Here’s why.

Feeling Unsettled About a Trend

When I was in high school I placed third in a state-wide essay contest by writing a paper that argued all the reasons why two years in French or Spanish was not an adequate foreign language offering at our high school. I argued that students should be able to take at least three years of Spanish or French. Now, at the same high school, students can take as many years as they want of various world languages through an online program. And yet, if they want to study a second language with a fluent, living, human teacher, their only choice is Spanish for two years—less than they offered twenty-eight years ago when I wrote my essay. This seems to represent a trend in second language instruction.

It’s easy to see why this trend is happening. Now students can go to a computer lab and take an “interactive” video or computer-based course for literally pennies on the dollar that it would take to hire a qualified teacher. These programs advertise well. Administrators at schools K-12 are presented with advertising materials that sound amazing: “innovative,” “immerse students in language and culture,” “language-learning anywhere, anytime, from any device,” “you don’t need any prior Spanish knowledge for your students to effectively use the program,” and my personal favorite, “A name you know, a brand you trust.”

It occurred to me more than once that this unsettled feeling this trend gave me may indeed be sour grapes. As an elementary Spanish teacher for 20+ years, perhaps I am obsolete. My confidence was further compromised because I am not a native speaker, and indeed, most of the videos available use the voices of native speakers. Maybe students can learn better from a computer or a video. Or maybe I could improve the quality of my teaching by creating a “blended learning environment” for my students. I decided to sit down at my computer and “try a sample lesson.” I was met with a two-dimensional cartoon animal floating in a two-dimensional world, speaking in stilted “comprehensible input.” This was the “engaging, immersion in foreign language” that was advertised on the company’s website.

Without being able to put my finger on why, I decided not to incorporate video or interactive computer programming into my teaching. After all, my students were already engaged in an immersion environment. I knew they loved Spanish class, and most important, they were understanding and speaking Spanish. No, they weren’t learning from a native speaker, but nevertheless, they were learning Spanish.

Recently, I was hit with an “aha” moment. All of the sudden I had the answer to why my gut told me not to shift into a “blended learning” model as a teacher. It went deeper than everything I had read and learned at conferences about immersion, native speakers, comprehensible input, foreign language standards, and all the research-based lingo about effective foreign language teaching. It dug down deeper than all of this into the nature of language itself. What is language? I realized that every human being has an innate understanding of what language is— even if they speak only one language—and, the fundamental qualities of language that we all understand innately, are truths.

A Living, Dynamic Exchange

The first Merriam-Webster definition of language is: “the system of words and signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other.” In order for language to have meaning, it must have a receptive audience. When human beings communicate, we accompany words with gesture, animation, tone, facial expression, and eye-contact. The quality of these characteristics all shift depending on our audience. Our tone changes dramatically when we speak to an acquaintance as opposed to a family member. If you listen to two teenagers speak to each other, the vocabulary and gesture of speech are radically different than a student-to-teacher exchange. As speakers of language, we constantly scan the body language of our audience and adjust the quality of our communication to match our audience. When we sense an engaged, eager listener, we forge ahead confidently. When we see a skeptical frown, we may pause and ask for input from the listener to make sure that our communication is effective.

We have created all kinds of fillers that we put in our language to check the quality of our exchange. As someone tells a story or explains something to us we show that we are following them by interjecting: “mm-hmm,” “yeah,” “sure,” “right.” These all affirm our understanding and encourage the speaker to continue. If we are speaking, and we aren’t sure how effective our communication is we might say, “you know what I mean?” or “does that make sense?” or simply, “you know?” These are all phrases built into our exchange that cue the other party in the exchange to the effectiveness of communication. We have just as many cues that we give each other to convey when communication is not effective. For example, we might furrow our brow in confusion or interject, “wait, what?” or “would you repeat that?” In this way we cue each other to the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness in our linguistic exchange of information.

In fall 2014 I attended the ACTFL conference in San Antonio, TX. I went to several workshops, many very useful and educational. One workshop, however, stood well above and beyond every other experience I had at the conference. It was led by a woman named Darcy Rogers who founded an organization called OWL (Organic World Languages). After a short presentation she asked all of the attendees to join a breakout session with an OWL-trained teacher. She encouraged everyone to join a workshop in a language they had never studied. I ended up in a Swedish workshop. Through a series of dynamic activities, the teacher quickly observed what language exchanging opportunities were alive in this group of 30+ strangers. In less than twenty minutes, I had shared greetings with several strangers. When we exchanged names, the workshop leader seized upon the fact that my name is also a color to engage us all in a conversation about “what items are blue in our circle?” Sooner than later, in Swedish, I was telling my neighbor to my left that the woman to my right was named Edith, and she was wearing a blue scarf. This entire process happened without a single word of English spoken between anyone.

Afterwards, the workshop leader took questions is English. She had been teaching college Spanish in this method for several years, and she was getting measurable results. Her students were outperforming their peers on standardized language tests, and she wasn’t using a Spanish college textbook. The key, she said, “was recognizing what language was alive in the group.” In a group of strangers, the natural starting point was greetings and names, easily communicated through gesture. From there she was able to follow the natural progression of communication by tapping into what was alive in our conversation. In this case, it was a name that was also a color that provided the springboard for her communication. You certainly couldn’t write that into a textbook lesson.

Remembering the quality of this experience was a part of my “aha” moment. It was part of my affirmation to myself that my role mattered in my Spanish class. Curriculum is of course still important, and for my elementary Spanish curriculum, I use Sonrisas Spanish (I am the co-author). It systematically works through useful language concepts and provides opportunities for meaningful exchange of language. There is nothing stagnant, two-dimensional, one-sided, or stilted about the quality of language exchange in my classroom. The curriculum is a framework; not a script. I understand now that the effectiveness of my teaching relies most heavily on my very human engagement in the process of communicating with my students.

Another resource that contributed to my “aha” moment was a video (that I highly recommend) that I watched in a Ted Talk from 2010 by Patricia Kuhl, entitled “The Linguistic Genius of Babies.” It’s a fascinating study in baby brain development. In summary, researchers take babies and expose them to a second language (in the study, the babies are from English-speaking families, exposed over the course of six months to twelve sessions with a Taiwanese woman who interacts with the babies solely in Taiwanese.) At the end of the six months they test the babies’ brain activity to determine if the babies’ brains are taking language statistics in Taiwanese as effectively as English. The answer was yes. Then they conducted the same study, exposing the babies to the same woman’s voice, the same number of sessions, over the same period of time. The only difference is that in the second study the voice is coming through a television screen, and in the third, the voice is recorded and played in earphones. When they test the babies at the end of six months, these babies had no ability whatsoever to take language statistics in Taiwanese. They draw the conclusion that it takes interaction with a human being for the baby to take language statistics in a new language. This study affirms the nature of language being inherently connected to the living, dynamic exchange between human beings. The woman, who was physically and emotionally present with the babies, was able to make eye contact and to adjust her body language, her tone, and her gestures to engage with the babies. Something in the woman’s physical engagement lit up the region for sound development in the babies’ brains. I have seen this happen again and again with my students who have ranged in ages between two and fourteen. This living, dynamic exchange must be present for effective communication.

Choosing Effective Materials

I have decided to stop doubting that feeling in my gut that tells me that the role of live human beings in second language acquisition can’t be conveniently replace with a video or a computer program. With clarity and confidence, I share what aspects of second language-teaching materials provide the most effective learning experience for students. If you find yourself in a school that is being seduced into the money-saving world of online language learning, and you feel in your gut that this is a step backwards, I feel your pain! I encourage you to share the Ted Talk, the OWL Languages website, and this blog with your administrator. If you have been put in charge of creating or purchasing curriculum materials for your school, choose a curriculum with components and resources that provide a catalyst for allowing communication to take the form that is alive in your students. These can include:

●       rich, well-written, beautifully illustrated books. I have always used children’s literature to teach Spanish. One may argue that reading a book to students is no different in the quality of linguistic experience than students would receive from watching a video. I argue to the contrary. I choose books that I love—books that invite the reader into another world. As I read, I use gesture and tone to bring life to the author’s words. I watch my students, and I know immediately from the looks on their faces if they are feeling the same delight that I feel. If I sense confusion, or disengagement, I can adjust my communication on the spot to meet their needs. A video does not provide this kind of engagement, but rather it provides an opportunity for students and teacher to disengage. There is no opportunity for a living, dynamic exchange of language in a video.

●       images, paintings, drawings, and photographs that invite dialogue, opinions, sympathies, and antipathies. These can include storybook illustrations, art projects, and classroom posters. I avoid graphics that appear as if an illustrator was hired to create a cartoon image that one imagines will appeal to a child. I think we all know the stock style to which I am referring. These images lack gesture, tone, or depth of interpretation. When an artist creates something from the heart, we feel it. It doesn’t have to be complex to provide this quality. These images provide the student with a rich context for language, and their open-ended quality provides teachers with an opportunity for a living, dynamic exchange.

●       games and activities that have infinite possibilities to evolve, twist, and turn into living, dynamic exchanges of language.

●       student-created art projects that provide students with a creative, hands-on connection to language concepts and that invite a living, dynamic exchange of language.

Part of what makes the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum so effective is that it includes all of these components. My word of caution in evaluating elementary school and preschool Spanish curriculum materials is to avoid materials that claim to provide a platform to teach language effectively “without any prior knowledge of the target language.”  These materials lack the open-ended opportunity for a living, dynamic exchange of language. Look for materials that provide a framework for you to bring out the language that is already alive in your classroom. Unfortunately for the students currently enrolled in my high school, they find themselves in a predicament where they have less effective second language-learning opportunities than I had twenty-eight years ago. I hope that this trend reverses and that someday my argument for three years of Spanish and French seems inadequate because the school district has implemented a teacher-led, K-12 world language or immersion program which provides for a living, dynamic exchange—because that is in fact how students acquire a second language.

Blue Lindner is co-founder of Sonrisas Spanish and co-author of the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum. She has been a Spanish teacher for twenty years.

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