Posts Tagged ‘Lee Dubs’

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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By Dr. Lee Dubs

Although the following is meant to describe North American expats in the city of Cuenca, Ecuador, most items can be applied to foreigners in almost any part of Latin America. Seven expats in Cuenca contributed to this list.

There are tell-tale signs that give away gringos who 1) have lived in Cuenca a long time, 2) have given up clinging to their own nationalism, and 3) are well on their way to being true Cuencanos.

You know you fit the above criteria when you…

  • refer to distances in kilometers, temperatures in Celsius, and weights in kilos. You might even say, “It feels like 25 today.” Of course, Canadians and Europeans are used to that.
  • do not spell Colombia with a “u” or “Carnaval” with an “i”.
  • say “el centro” instead of “downtown”.
  • use local terms like “apartamentos” instead of “condos.”
  • do not use the words “north”, “south”, “east”, or “west” when discussing locations. You use street names and landmarks.
  • say “rainy” or “dry” when someone asks you what season it is.
  • know that the Barranco is not one building.
  • do not expect Ecuadorians to speak English. You are proud of your ability to get around in your imperfect Spanish.
  • buy groceries at locations in addition to or instead of Supermaxi.
  • take a “walk” that includes Spanish class, paying utility bills, and picking up groceries.
  • know a lot of street dogs, and they recognize you, too.
  • toss toilet paper into a waste can, even when you are in countries that do not require it.
  • get most of your information from El Mercurio and other local media.
  • are not surprised when the cleaning lady brings her kids with her.
  • prefer small gatherings of close friends rather than “gringo events.”
  • do not wonder why you received a pack of taped pennies as change.
  • have many Ecuadorian friends, not just Ecuadorians you pay for services.
  • know that today’s regulations may not be the same as tomorrow’s.
  • do not anglicize the vowels in Spanish. For example, you correctly pronounce the phone company as Moh-vi-star (not Moo-vi-star).
  • know that “mañana” means “not right now” and may have nothing to do with tomorrow.
  • use the term “gringa” (not “gringo woman”) to mean a female North American.
  • know that after asking a local Cuencano for directions, you should keep asking others until two directions match.
  • know that when the plumber says he’ll be there at 10:00, you do not expect him before noon, if at all that day.
  • know that red traffic lights and stop signs are only suggestions.
  • know that the Latin Dr. Jekyll transforms into Mr. Hyde behind the wheel of a car.
  • are familiar with the word “cebra” (zebra), which refers to a crosswalk.
  • have learned that a cebra is a no-man’s land where drivers speed up.
  • barely notice public exposure of breasts, which have babies attached to them.
  • realize that the term “terrible twos” does not apply to children here.
  • are not overly troubled by the absence of Kraft mayonnaise, Pace sauces, Jif peanut butter, Friskies canned cat food, or other imports. You just shrug.
  • buy most of your clothes in Ecuador if they have your size.
  • carry a jacket or sweater, even on warm days.
  • do not wear shorts in public if you are a male.
  • are not uncomfortable using a public bathroom while a woman is cleaning around you.
  • no longer start statements with, “You would think…”
  • know that acquiescence and a smile get you further with officials.
  • do not fuss at locals over cultural differences. You accept the culture as is and appreciate its positive aspects.
  • say you are going back “home,” it means you are heading back to Ecuador.
  • return to Ecuador, you carry lots of small bills, not 50’s and 100’s.
  • stay calm when locals do not show up as promised, information is incorrect, home remedies do not work, events do not start on time, or utilities suddenly stop working. You don’t sweat the small stuff.

Lee Dubs first visited Cuenca in the early 1960s and has been a full-time resident for the past ten years. A retired language professor from North Carolina, he and his wife, Carol, are the owners of Carolina Bookstore on Calle Hermano Miguel at Calle Larga. Lee can be reached by email at cld941@yahoo.com.

Spanish-English Translation/PronunciationToday’s Weather in Ecuador
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