Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A response to the high school student who implied no one learns Spanish from a classroom

The other day I was chatting with a high school student.  He said he was taking Spanish, and as I always do, I asked him how he felt about his foreign language classes.  He said they were ok, but that he has forgotten a lot over the summer.  Then he became thoughtful and asked me, “Who actually learns foreign language in a classroom, anyway?”  Well, I told him, I did… and then I taught high school Spanish for six years.  Obviously there’s some sort of disconnect here.

Later I thought about this topic more as I often do.  The student I talked to seem to disregard that high school foreign language classes had any purpose.  His attitude seemed so fixed that I wondered if it was possible for him to really develop any fluency at all. 

You can definitely choose to not get anything out of your high school foreign language classes.  I’ve noticed the following that can get in the way of high school students from getting the most out of their foreign language classes – both in my own teaching and in my experience as a foreign language student.

Many students assume that they will get everything they need to become bilingual through their Spanish classes, and they do not seek out other learning opportunities.  If the only place you have to learn the foreign language is in your classroom, you are at a disadvantage.  The more contexts that you hear and use Spanish, the better it is for your learning, and you are only with your Spanish teacher for so long.  If you want to get the most out of your learning experience, I suggest that you take initiative and look for some conversation partners, find a Spanish club, watch Spanish language youtube videos or TV, put a movie on with Spanish subtitles, listen to the radio, whatever you can find.  Ask your teacher for tips.  Ask other students what has worked for them.  Teach your family words some Spanish and ask them to help you, if they are willing.

That said, I know the above is hard.  High school students tend to be very busy with a wide variety of classes and activities.  Even if you can’t find those other learning opportunities, I encourage you to still focus and do the best you can in your class, because in the future those opportunities, whether professional or personal, might come to you.  And don’t make the following mistakes.

Some students push back against the teacher’s use of Spanish in the classroom.  They choose not to use Spanish, and respond in only minimal Spanish. The teacher asks them a question in Spanish and they understand the question, but respond back in English.  Part of this may be the teacher’s fault.  The teacher may not have clearly set the stage for when English is appropriate in the classroom and when it is not (a mistake that I have been guilty of in the past).  The teacher may have been using Spanish that was consistently incomprehensible to the student.  However, part of this may also be the student’s fault.  They may be adding to the difficulty by informally using English with their classmates while the teacher is trying to teach.  This means that any around that student will be paying attention to the English instead of the Spanish, because the brain likes easy.  The student may fall into this repeated phrase, “I understand more than I speak it.”  Of course you do!  Everyone does when they’re learning!  That’s not a bad thing.  You need to give your teacher your eyes and ears, and make an intentional effort to tune out the unnecessary English in the classroom if you truly want to learn Spanish.  I know, it may be awkward socially, but it’s up to you.  Just know that using excessive English in your class will keep you from learning the foreign language and will also keep others from learning it, too.  And they may be too embarrassed to ask you to stop.  Hopefully your teacher addresses stuff like this.  If you want to make the most out of your foreign language classroom, and ANY class that you’re taking, I suggest you take responsibility for your learning.

Many students assume that high school is too late for you to really get fluent in a foreign language anyway, because you’re too old.  I’m parenting two little kids at home, and there are several things I’ve noticed about my kiddos that I think makes them excellent little language learners.  Yes, they are quite good at it, but it doesn’t seem like they pick up language uber fast when my son will be 3 in November and he still can’t really hold a conversation.  I’ve spent almost 3 years loving a child that I can’t verbally communicate with very well right now.  Yikes.  You tell me that kids pick up language “like that” and right now I’m just going to give you this open eye stare.  Ask me again in a few years when my kids can talk and I think my eyes will be brighter, but right now I’m in the thick of this and I kind of miss adult conversations.

It’s not true that you’re too old to learn a foreign language.  From the research I’ve read, the evidence is that older students and adults can learn a language just as well and even faster as little kids, when it comes to words and structures.  However, a little kid has the advantage when it comes to native-like pronunciation.  Additionally, just watch a little kid for a while and you may learn a lot about learning.  What makes a little kid such a good learner, and what can WE, older learners, learn from THEM?  Here are some things they do, that I think we can do too if we let them teach us:

Their learning is focused on need.  A bilingual child who grows up speaking a minority language learns that language at home because of necessity.  Want to communicate with Mom?  Speak Spanish.  Want to communicate with your Korean grandparents?  Speak Korean.  OK, so maybe you want to learn a language that no one else in your family speaks.  HOPE IS NOT LOST.  The question to ask yourself is, what can you do to create that environment of need?  It goes back to trying to find situations where you need to use your Spanish (or whatever language you’re learning) in order to get by.  This is why having times where you commit to not using spoken English can be helpful.  It can backfire, though, if this is forced on you.  Feeling excessive frustration can shut you down and make you not able to learn.  That’s why the people that are teaching you Spanish should try not to frustrate you too much.  That said, a little frustration is necessary and good for you.  If you’re in a frustrating situation, make the best of it and do your part. 

Little kids have intense interests and learn from these, too.  A little kid who is interested in oceans will learn all sorts of crazy ocean animals that the adults in his or her life don’t even know.  A little kid who is interested in the alphabet and word patterns may be an early reader.  Some kids like math and it comes easier to them because they like it.  Some kids are super creative and are doing role plays and make believe, and they learn through that.  This is super helpful to think about because, if you just honestly don’t like Spanish, you have an extra hurdle to jump through.  But even then, HOPE IS NOT LOST!  The question for you, then, is, what can you do to enjoy Spanish a little more?  Maybe you can talk to your teacher and ask for support.  Maybe you can connect it to what you enjoy.  Like to draw?  Draw out your vocab words.  Like to write?  Keep a Spanish journal.  Like to watch Disney movies?  Put it on with the subtitles.  How would you answer this question, and actively try to enjoy Spanish a little more?  That will help your learning big time.

Little kids REPEAT EVERYTHING.  I watched one of my son’s friends push a train around a track about 10 or 15 times yesterday.  Imagine if you did that and the whole time were practicing your Spanish, repeating words and phrases related to trains.  You’d probably learn a lot.  This repetition is especially useful early on in your language learning.  At a certain point it might not be so needed because you’ll have other strategies to use with your larger vocabulary, but in the beginning – harness this little kid ability to repeat, repeat, repeat and mush those words around in your mouth awhile.  Say them out loud.  Are you embarrassed?  Look at that little kid rolling around on the floor as he watches his numbers video on youtube and sings along.  (Uh, yeah, that’s my son.)  He is not the least bit embarrassed.

Little kids MOVE.  They’re very kinesthetic learners.  I’m just gonna say that I think most people are more kinesthetic than they think.  I wonder how much more Spanish we’d learn if we made it a habit of doing something while we’re learning.  Take a walk and practice your Spanish.  Do an activity and use Spanish while you’re doing it.  Over mealtime, while you’re eating.  While you’re brushing your teeth or putting on your shoes. 

Little kids have a harder time differentiating between themselves and others, and themselves and the world.  They perhaps see themselves as more part of the world and community than we do, more connected, less individual.  Have you heard it said that an infant doesn’t see himself as apart from his mother?  I have a toddler and an infant and that makes sense to me.  That infant is attached to me.  When I leave the room, he cries.  He sees me as a part of him.  I think that as we get older, we come out of the world a little more.  It’s a little bit of a loss of connection.  And words – they connect us to real things.  You’ve already made connections of words to things – your native language words to whatever things it represents.  But do you really know all there is to know about that thing?  Different languages sometimes express different things to the same word.  The different perspective is different.  If you want to see things how a foreigner sees them, learning their language is a great way to do that.  Look at the daily patterns in your life as if you are experiencing them for the first time – as if they are new, and you are a part of them.  Don’t take them for granted.  This can be really hard, maybe.  But also very fun!

Little kids are constantly making mistakes.  I watch my little kids and I imagine if I were in their place, it would be so hard for me.  They are walking around in an adult’s world, and there are so many things they are just not good at, and can’t do by themselves.  Their daily experience is full of failures.  But they don’t see it that way.  They don’t see their frustrations as failures – they try, try, and try again – sometimes to a fault!  But we can give them credit where credit is deserved and acknowledge how hard they work.  And oh, when they succeed, it feels so good!  What if we were to see our mistakes like this, as experiences to even be savored sometimes.  Trying to build a block tower to the ceiling?  The process is fun even though it will fall down many times before you every make it – and you may not even make it – but oh how fun!

“No one really learns Spanish in a classroom, anyway, right?” I don’t think that’s the real question that you should be asking here.  The real question is, What can I do to learn the most that I can from my Spanish classroom?  You, your classmates, and your teacher have a little community there.  Participate in it, take responsibility for it and try to learn as much as you can and help others to learn. 

Have fun.

Make mistakes.


Show yourself and others grace.  Don’t make fun of people.  It just takes 1 time for you to say a negative word to color someone’s day.  Say lots of positive words. 

If you don’t like your Spanish class, instead of complaining, brainstorm what you could do to get more out of it.

Ask for help.


I love how so many life skills are tied up in learning language.  It’s so cool to me.  It makes me excited like a little child.  What makes you excited, like a little child?  I want you to do those things.  I know that maybe Spanish will not be that thing for you, but … if you are stuck in a Spanish class (or any other class) for however many minutes a day for however many years, wouldn’t it be awesome to get something out of it and help others get something out of it? 

I’m not always excited about teaching Spanish and using Spanish, by the way – and on those days, I choose to do it anyway, because I believe it’s what I’m supposed to be doing (outside of my first priority, which is being a good wife and mom).  But I’ve worked hard at it for many years, and thankfully most days I do enjoy it.

And don’t forget – create that element of need.  What was my element of need?  When I was in 8th grade I had a friend that didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak any Spanish.  We looked at picture books and drew on the chalkboard during recess.  I learned a few Spanish words, and she learned a few English words.  I think that this is what has been drawing me to Spanish for my whole life.  I needed some Spanish to communicate with my friend.  There are friends that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t speak Spanish.  I will meet people in the future that speak Spanish, and because I also speak Spanish, we can be friends.  My reasons for learning Spanish are personal and have become professional through teaching.  I created this sense of need for myself, and have found a lot of help in my teachers, friend, and now family.  Shout-out to my husband who this morning was trying to use his broken Spanish to tell me that he wanted to mow the lawn tonight.  “Yo cuarto… tonight…”  I thought he was talking about planning to fold laundry left in the bedroom because the word “cuarto” means room.  But then I realized he was talking about the lawn, because we talked about it yesterday.  Context is everything!  So I said, “¿Vas a cortar el zacate esta noche?  Grass is zacate.” He said, “Sí!” He also talked to the kids during breakfast in Spanish, and said goodbye in Spanish.  Whoooo!!!  He is sending a message to our kids that Spanish is important, and I love it.

I’m not by any means saying you should be as excited about Spanish as I am.  We all have different paths.  If learning Spanish is something that you want to do to be on your path, then …  MAKE IT SOMETHING YOU NEED AND ENJOY.
  • What will you do to create an element of need?
  • What will you do to connect Spanish to your interests?
  • What things that little kids do can you do more, to help you better learn Spanish?

Find your answers to these questions.  Your own answers.  Don’t use mine.

What else can you think of? 

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