About Learning Spanish

We have more than 40 years of research that shows that we learn other languages in much the same way that we learned in our first language.  The research shows that we do not so much '"teach" second, third or even fourth languages as we facilitate students' acquisition of that tongue.  That means that world languages, and this case Spanish, has to be taught in a way that is different from other subject areas at Erwin.

These are not my ideas but a distillation of the work of people who know way more about second language acquisition than I do.  Chief among them are Bill VanPatten, now a retired professor of linguistics and Spanish at Michigan State University, Stephen Krashen, a former professor at the University of Southern California and Mike Peto, a retired California high school teacher.

VanPatten posits that language is too abstract and complex to teach and learn explicitly, as the in the case of math equations or important dates from history.  The goal of my classes is communication ability. The definition of communication to which I subscribe dates from the work of Sandra J, Savignon in the 1970s:

Communication is the expression, interpretation, and sometimes negotiation of meaning in a given context.  What is more, communication is purposeful.

As VanPatten so aptly puts it in his book "While We Are on the Topic", language acquisition is:
  • Constrained by internal and external factors and cannot be altered by explicit instruction and practice. In other words, what is on page 32 of the textbook is not necessarily what ends up in a student's head.
  • A rich, complex and dynamic process.
  • Slow and piecemeal.  The average 5-year-old arrives at kindergarten on the first day of school with more than 14,500 hours of "instruction" in English.  Each year, Spanish I students will receive 150 hours of exposure between August and June. 
  • Stage-like. Spanish speakers, for example, acquire the verb ser (to be) before they acquire the other verb which means to be -- estar, and this order CANNOT be changed.

The implications for the world language classroom is that we have to spend our time exposing students to whatever language we are teaching and in a way that is comprehensible to them.  Krashen theorized that we acquire languages when we comprehend messages in the target language.  When we acquire languages, we learn to listen first, we learn to read what we listened to, we learn to write what we listened to and read and, finally, we learn to speak what we heard, read and wrote.

Since 150 hours is not a lot of time, I focus on exposing beginning students to the 16 most frequently recurring verbs in Spanish and on the top 250 recurring words in the language.   I also try to teach students the skill of circumlocution -- in other words to use the language they know to talk their way around a subject when their limited vocabulary might hinder more eloquent and straight-forward communication.  As world language standards nationwide have evolved toward helping students to build proficiency, world language teachers have begun to fashion their lessons toward the goal.  And what is proficiency but demonstrating an ability to communicate.