Archives for the month of: February, 2014


by Wendy V. Ash

Bilingual. Fluent. Proficient. Native Speaker.

I’ve heard all of those terms used loosely when defining the level of someone speaking Spanish. I have been all of those labels at some point in my life. One of those I am, and will be, my entire life. What is my description I use whenever I am asked? It is simply “I speak Spanish.”

When I ask others if they speak Spanish, I usually get two replies: “I speak enough to get by” or “I took four years in high school but…”. They also seem overly concerned with the level of Spanish they currently speak. That concern will inhibit you from doing the most important thing you can do: speak Spanish. ALL Spanish speakers are works in progress, just like all English speakers.

I watched my own mother’s labels change over the years. She is a native speaker from Madrid. When she met my father, Spanish was her primary language, and she had learned English in school. Once she moved to the U.S. her fluency increased, due to being totally immersed in the target language. By the time I was in my teens, she had reached what I consider full bilingual and proficiency status as an interpreter for the court system and a written and oral test was presented (where one language is being input into your ears and you are to output the target language at almost an equal rate of speed). However, now that she has retired from that industry, I can see that her bilingualism is affected depending on which country she is currently residing. I believe it is very difficult to maintain a consistent 50/50 level of bilingualism, but that’s a post for another time.

My point is that people tend to assign more value to labels of language proficiency and forget that the basic purpose of language is to be understood. If you can make that happen and believe in it, you’re Golden Delicious.

I often compare my method of teaching to going into a store and buying an apple. One of the very first verbs I teach is “quiero“. This, means “I want” or “I love” (depending on its context), and is a very important verb in Spanish. Imagine entering a store. You see a grocer and point to an apple and say “Quiero”. You will most likely be able to obtain the apple with one word and one gesture. If you say nothing, you will be getting nothing.

Now imagine the bin to which you point has apples and oranges. You then point and say “Quiero una manzana.” (“I want an apple”). Finally, there is a bin which contains red apples, green apples, and oranges. In which case you will point and say “Quiero una manzana roja.” (“I want a red apple”).

This is an analogy of the layers I try to teach. For the limited time I have in class, and the children that come and go, I concentrate on the high frequency vocabulary that they need in their toolbox. I don’t have any expectations that my children will be bilingual upon leaving my class, but they will be able to ask for food (albeit fruit) and water, which is essential in ANY language. Should they choose to continue their language journey in their elementary and secondary schools, they will have the added benefit of native pronunciation to help them BE understood and more comfortable to verbalize Spanish.

When the beauty of this happens, they will have the ability to go beyond asking for an apple. They will be able to discuss the nuances of flavor between a Gala and a Fuji with the grocer… and then read the recipe book to bake the pie.

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by Wendy V. Ash

I encounter this scenario often. I will be in conversation with a parent at a social gathering or at my child’s school. They will learn that I teach Spanish, after which they proclaim “Johnny took Spanish and he can count to 20. Count to 20 Johnny!”. I will in turn listen to the child stumble through the numbers while their parent is beaming proudly. Then, they will go on to have him recite the colors. Of course, when I say to Johnny “¿Cómo estás?” or “¿Cómo te llamas?”, it is met with a blank stare and a look to their parent who proceeds to stammer or change the subject. Do not misunderstand me. I think it is admirable that some programs (and Dora) are at least attempting to incorporate what they believe to be the basics. Drilling children with numbers and colors will give parents bragging rights, but are not going to get a child far when it comes to communicating in the real world with any Spanish speaker.

Consider “the basics” per our early and elementary educational system when teaching a foreign language. They simply take what they teach in class and translate it into Spanish. Ergo, the process of children learning numbers, colors, seasons, days, months, etc. The problem is when teaching these concepts in English, the child, either already speaks or understands conversation and direction in English. These concepts and phrases being taught to them are secondary and tertiary in terms of basic communication, not primary. When we teach a foreign language as a second language, we need to teach how we converse and interact with others first.

I remember an instance when my daughter, at the age of 3, was sent home a coloring sheet during the Fall from her Spanish program and the word spelled above the image was “espantapajaros” (scarecrow). Try it. It simply rolls smoothly off the tongue, no? Imagine a 3 year old being taught this word, being expected to pronounce it AND retain it. Unfortunately, there are not many times in my daily life when I point to and reference “un espantapajaro”. In fact, being a native speaker, I can’t even recall the last time I’ve heard or used it until this instance. Yet, these are the words that are chosen to be taught. Words that are in line with English curriculum are being taught in class. These kinds of words are emphasized in a mere 1/2 hour of Spanish class per week. Is this how we are spending a majority of our time teaching a second language?

So I ask you: Have your child count from 1-20 and say “espantapajaros”? Or learn relevant vocabulary that will launch them towards their bilingual journey?

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by Wendy V. Ash

You will be hard pressed to find me doing direct translations in class. I liken this to some ESL methods. I go through gestures, facial expressions, try have it understood from context, virtually ANYTHING before I default to direct translation. Only when I am directly asked “What does [insert word] mean?” after all other tactics, will you catch me giving in.

Some adults argue “But… we HAVE to know what we are saying”. You may feel that you need to have it translated (which is not the case), but children, do not. We as adults are hardwired to think that is the logical way to learn a language as we were taught in our secondary education. Younger children tend not discriminate grammatically between words or languages. After all, they are just learning preliminary grammar rules about their own native language.

My mother related to me an amusing anecdote about my late father. He was American as American could be and in an effort to impress his Spanish mother-in-law, he decided to write her a letter. He headed to a Spanish dictionary to look up each word, in order, and wrote it down as he did so. After all, this was logical to him. Of course, while the gesture was appreciated, it was gibberish to my dear Abuelita when she attempted to make sense of it all.

This is one of the reasons why non-native speaking teachers who teach a Spanish curriculum, may cause more harm than good. I witnessed this first-hand with one teacher who was teaching a class “Me llamo [insert student name]”. This is a very common phrase when somebody asks for your name in Spanish (“¿Cómo te llamas?) and you respond “Me llamo…”.

The problem began when she started breaking the phrase down in direct translation repeating “Me llamo Jane. Your name is Jane.” to the child. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, what I feared may happen, did, when the child was asked “¿Cómo te llamas?” and she responded with:

“Me llamo ES Jane.”

If there was a record in my head, it would have skipped and stopped playing. I cringed. There it was. The seed had been planted with direct translation for this child to think:

ME llamo ES = MY name IS

Now it is embedded in this child’s memory banks that “llamo” = “name”. What’s worse, it can condition them to add an extra step in their thought process that native speakers do not have. Rarely do we think of a word in one language, think of the translation, and then speak it. It is this middle step that I try to diminish, and even possibly eliminate, when teaching our children.

For those who do not know Spanish, “Me llamo” literally means “I call myself”. Since modern-day conversation does not have us talking like The House of Tudor, it would make no sense to literally translate it. So why translate it at all? Well-meaning as we think we are being, it ultimately causes confusion.

Let’s give our children a little more credit. They (and we) are fully capable of understanding a concept of basic spoken words or phrases without literal translation. After all, isn’t that how we learned to speak anything in the first place?

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