Archive for the ‘Spanish Anyone?’ Category

By Dr. Lee Dubs

Note: Lee has a B.A. in Modern Languages from Carthage College, an M.A. in Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. in Spanish Language and Literature from the University of Kentucky. He has taught Spanish and English since 1965 to age groups from two to eighty-two, and he spent a summer studying “Foreign Language Acquisition and Teaching Methodology” under the internationally known Dr. John Rassius at Dartmouth College. Lee is a certified EFL (English as a Foreign Language) instructor. His frequent work with the University of Cuenca began in 1990; he and his wife Carol have lived in Cuenca since 2003.

One of many issues that often face immigrants in a foreign country is what to do about a language difference. There are three basic choices: 1. Set out to acquire basic communication skills in the language of the country; 2. Hope to “pick it up” through daily exposure; 3. Minimize contact with native speakers and stick with people who speak your language. In Cuenca, we see all three reactions.

The best option for useful communication and good relations is to learn at least some of the new language. People who decide to live in another country need to adjust as well as possible to the new land, both for their own satisfactory living and for their acceptance by the locals. Without debating the issue, let us focus on the first option, learning the language of the country.

As a new expat who has decided to study the local language, how do you know which are good language schools in your area and which are less satisfactory? Below are some criteria that are meant to help you select a school, but first I want to answer a frequently asked question: “Do I really need to study grammar?” People often tell me they just want to be able to speak and understand Spanish and do not want to study grammar. In many cases, they had a bad experience with “grammar” years ago, and they still dislike the word itself. So, do they really need to study it now?

During puberty, the brain sort of “locks in” your first language (L1) and thereafter compares it to any second language (L2) that you are trying to acquire. Without specifically studying the syntax and basic structure of the L2, most post-pubescent learners tend to use the structure of their first language and “stick in” foreign words as they acquire them. The ability to “pick it up” through nothing more than daily contact tends to lessen with age, and, without an understanding of the structure of the L2, your communication may consist of some memorized, possibly badly pronounced phrases plus a quasi-intelligible version of your own language. I always tell my adult students that “Spanish is not English with different words.” If you want to communicate well, you should learn the basic grammar.

There are some very good interactive computer-based language programs out there, but they are best used as a complement to being in a language class. I am only going to address the selection of a language school. What should you look for when selecting such a school? The following comments are directed at older learners.

  • Beware of the schools that boast that they utilize the “IMMERSION METHOD” (Using only the target language) from Day 1. The problem is that as we get older our brain learns a new language differently than when we were young. The Immersion Method can be an excellent system for prepubescent learners but not for most seniors at the beginning level of study. They easily become confused and frustrated. Many retired expats come to me for help because they cannot understand what is going on in their Immersion Spanish class. I like immersion with adult learners only at advanced levels of study. If you are sixty years old and trying to acquire skills in a new language, immersion is unlikely to work well for you.
  • Look for qualified and experienced BILINGUAL TEACHERS who can explain things to you in your own language if you are a beginner. One reason some schools use the Immersion Method (besides ignorance of how seniors acquire an L2) is simply because their teachers are basically monolingual and cannot explain anything clearly in the language of the students; or they may not be qualified language teachers and do not know how to explain the “rules” of the language they speak. Speaking a language and teaching a language are quite different skills.
  • Choose a language school that sets REALISTIC GOALS and PACES its classes according to the progress of the students, not a pre-set schedule. As for goals, I once saw a Spanish language school advertise that beginning students would study (they did not say “learn”) the present, past, conditional, future, present perfect, and past perfect verb tenses, as well as the subjunctive mood, all in the first course. Were they kidding? I do not doubt that their adult students ended up with no self-confidence in any of those verb tenses and a lot of confusion. The ability to talk about the present and past is what one first needs. You can study the advanced verb forms later, after you build some self-confidence communicating in the present and the past. Your first goal should be to communicate in the new language, not to conjugate a lot of verbs in as many ways as possible.
  • A good language CLASS SIZE for younger learners is about 12-15, but it is less for older students. It is a matter of how much practice and individual attention you want. Although some students prefer private tutoring, most benefit from interaction with others. Inquire about class size when checking out language schools. An ideal L2 learning environment for seniors is 2-6 students. Large classes benefit the school more than the learners.
  • CLASS LENGTH. Everyone has a limited attention span, after which learning is minimal or even gone. Any intensive study, such as learning a foreign language, loses its effectiveness if classes are too long. Some schools have 4-hour language classes, which are too long for the average senior learner, even with short breaks. I have found that even two continuous hours are too much for most students. Learning and retention wane as class time is lengthened.
  • CULTURE. Research first done at the University of Kentucky and later verified by others has shown that your attitude (the Affective Domain of the brain) toward the people who speak a language affects your ability to learn their language. Therefore, good language teachers incorporate a flow of positive information about the culture where that language is spoken. Schools that only teach the language – even if they throw in a salsa lesson or two — short-change their students. Keep in mind that if you resent people who do not speak your language, you will have a tough time learning theirs.
  • MIX OF AGES. Some schools blend high school or college students with older learners in classes. That mix does not optimize L2 acquisition for either group. You will feel more at ease and learn much better in a class of peers who share your ability with the language.

English-speaking newcomers to Cuenca often ask me to recommend a place to learn Spanish. I discuss the above criteria with them and ask about their own learning style (Are they more visual or auditory, for example?). Although I am qualified, I tell them that I will not compare or rate the various schools because I do not know them all. (Would you designate some restaurant the best in a city if it was the only place you ever ate?) I name a few language schools about which I have heard good (or bad) reports, and I tell them they also can check with the Tourist Information Office (iTur) in Cuenca for the names of certified Spanish schools, if they want academic credit, which a few do.

All of the seven criteria that I have listed above are based on research and on my own lengthy experience. There are always exceptions to any rule, of course, and some elderly students may learn an L2 as exceptions to some of the above, but they are exceptions. I am currently trying to help a 77-year-old Ecuadorian orthodontist who is enrolled in an English class with a teacher who thinks that speaking only English and giving lots of homework and work sheets is the way to teach. The poor man is confused, discouraged, and wondering why he wasted his money. He is not an exception.

I may hear from some good, qualified, certified, experienced teachers who will tell me that they had success teaching English in Asia, for example, without their own ability to speak the local language. Notice the adjectives “good, qualified, certified, experienced.” Yes, it can be done, but I would ask how old the students were and how the teacher quantified “success.”

Choosing to live in a country where the language is not yours comes with responsibility. To avoid becoming one of the frustrated and unhappy foreigners who expect the people of their new country to change their language for them, you can be happier and simultaneously help spread good will. One way you can do that – in addition to smiling and nodding a lot — is to try to speak the language of their country with the locals. You will find it to be a very rewarding experience.

The following comes from Europe: “We call a person who speaks three languages trilingual. We call someone who speaks two languages bilingual. We call a person who speaks only one language an American.” Ouch!

Spanish-English Translation/PronunciationToday’s Weather in Ecuador
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Cynthia Goes to Ecuador – Cynthia brings us some videos of the Inti Raymi celebrations and a more peaceful slideshow of Cotacachi.

Ecuador George – George gives us some tips to start learning to speak Spanish; just practice a little each day and it starts to build on itself.

Ecuador Photos – Robert and Flor went through Tumbaco and Cumbayá on their way to Puembo; there’s been so much construction they hardly recognize the streets anymore. Here some photographs he took around Quito.

Eric & Katy in Ecuador – Eric’s been working with Oscar the architect figuring out how to open up the house to the interior courtyard. The construction crew came and demolished several walls and an outdoor laundry.

Finding our Paradise in Ecuador – Nan and Joe needed to have some papers notarized. The chaotic office provided yet another opportunity to practice patience.

Grimms’ Travel Tales – Patty instructs U.S. citizens on how to go about voting when you live overseas.

Gringos Abroad – If you’re a gringo living in Cuenca you’ll eventually figure out what the real taxi rate should be. If not, just ask the taxista how much to your location.

Living and Retiring in Ecuador – There are so many expat events in Cuenca the Pombos have trouble keeping up; on Saturday they attended a wine tasting a Mansion Alcazar. Connie couldn’t resist playing wedding photographer when a newlywed couple drove by in their antique convertible.

p.s. Check back on Sunday, we’ll be posting a selection from Steve’s favorite videos (not necessarily about Ecuador but fun anyway.) Have a great weekend!

Spanish-English Translation/PronunciationToday’s Weather in Ecuador
Metric Conversion Tool

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