Archives for the month of: March, 2014


by Wendy V. Ash

I enter a class and write on the board:

Spanish Teacher

I needed to take a moment in class to define each of the terms listed above because I have so many students ask me daily “How to you say (insert word) in Spanish?”. I have been asked how to say “dolphin”, “blink”, “root beer”, even “Cheez-It®”, and silly idioms that would never translate literally. I will never deny a child a translation if I am asked, but it is important for me to have the students, and teachers, understand our method and how we apply it.

I begin with “Spanish Teacher” and ask “Can everybody that SPEAKS Spanish be a Spanish teacher?”. Of course not. If that were the case, we would all be English teachers. There is a reason WHY teachers can teach, and it doesn’t always come down to a degree, especially when teaching a second language. I could come in and speak nothing but Spanish for an hour to the class, and I doubt they would retain very little of it, if any at all. I could also drill vocabulary for every animal in a zoo, but if you aren’t a zookeeper, it would be of little value in every day life.

I move on to the word “Interpreter”. I state that myself, and my teachers are NOT interpreters. I explain what an interpreter is and the skill you would need to acquire to become one. Could myself and my teachers become interpreters if we chose to do so? Absolutely. It would simply be a matter of time, dedication, practice and passing tests, but the foundation would be there to build upon.

Lastly I talk about the word “Dictionary”. We are not walking dictionaries. We do not know every word in the dictionary, just like every English speaker does not know every word in the English dictionary. I then get a dictionary and ask the class what percentage of that dictionary do they believe we use on a daily basis with our friends, families, and teachers in conversation. The answer might surprise you. Their common answer is usually 50% and then they incrementally go down in number as the guessing continues.

The answer, that I was told, is approximately 6%.

We then hold a sliver of pages up to demonstrate that 6%. This is the Spanish they need to learn to be understood and this small fraction is where their efforts should be focused initially. There will be plenty of time to add on conjugation and vocabulary lists in their secondary education. For the time being, they need to be understood and have basic needs met when they are in a Spanish country or encounter a native speaker. They also should be able to enunciate in a proper accent to be easily understood.

One of my teachers had an excellent visual and created a “teachable moment” from this. She grabbed some popsicle sticks in a nearby cup and started building a log cabin style house. While she was building it, she was pointing out how necessary the foundation is before building any kind of house. All houses start with a strong foundation, then the aesthetics and additions are added on to the structure.

Start with a solid foundation in Spanish by speaking and learning the high frequency vocabulary you need to be understood, and then you can build your own future in Spanish whether that be a Spanish teacher, interpreter… or even a walking dictionary. • • like us • follow us


by Wendy V. Ash

One of my biggest frustrations is when parents allow an opportunity to teach their child a second language, slip past them. They may feel that it is an overwhelming task in addition to their busy work week. They may set the bar too high and decide if they can not raise a fully bilingual child, they have failed. Others just don’t know where to start or encourage their child to speak it. Let me relate three examples, out of many, that I have encountered in my career.

I met a high school Spanish teacher once at a playground. My daughter was playing with her children, so I encouraged my daughter to speak Spanish with them. She stopped me and said “Oh, they don’t speak Spanish. The last thing I feel like doing when I come home is teach my children how to speak Spanish.” I was stunned. One would wonder how this woman could have her kind of resources and not apply them to her own children. I did not. I knew she had become accustomed to traditional methods of teaching, and she felt overwhelmed to use the same formula at home. The thought of this process exhausted her before even attempting to undertake it.

I had a father, from Ethiopia, who was very concerned that his children were not speaking their native language at home. He said “They hear us, they understand us, but they refuse to speak it. How do I get them to speak it?”. My answer was: “Do they have things they want from you? Well, if they don’t ask for it in your language, they don’t get it.” He looked surprised. Yes, it can be that simple. It’s called bribery, and I’m not above using it. One of the most valuable early phrases my daughter learned was “puedo tener…” which means “Can I have…”. It worked surprisingly well for movies, candy, toys, TV, and any of the other one hundred things they want when they are young. When she got the movie, it was in Spanish. The beauty of it is they continually ask for things, so they must continuously repeat it, and therefore not only retain it, but become more comfortable while speaking it.

This last instance is the most common one. A parent (or are parents) speak Spanish and are bilingual. I’m not quite certain for the reason of this expectation, but they feel that their children will adopt the language seamlessly through exposure. Sometimes, they are not even speaking the language actively at home, but assume that they are being infused passively with the sound waves  from relatives. They are astounded when the child is 10 years old and does not open his mouth and start spouting poetry like Don Quixote. I am here to tell you, from my observations, exposure and input has far less of an effect on the second language equation than we would like to believe. If a child is only listening to the target language being spoken, he is not conditioning the proper muscles to enunciate the language or feels comfortable with its enunciation. If he is just being exposed to the language, he is not engaging in dialogue, which causes him to lack interaction where we learn a language best.

What is the answer for these dilemmas? If I were to provide a few it would be the following:

  • Some is better than none. Don’t overwhelm yourself with needing to teach them every word and them becoming immediately bilingual. Concentrate on common phrases you say around the house daily. I find commands to be a great place to start (such as “come here”, “put this on”, “go there”, etc.)
  • Dangle the carrot. Figure out what your child’s motivators. Use them to encourage your child to speak the target language and have their wants and needs met.
  • Output is outstanding. The more they speak the target language, the more likely they are to retain what they speak and be more comfortable in a social situation speaking Spanish.

Bilingual parents, let’s start applying the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention.” liberally and we can start taking ownership of why our children are not adopting our native tongue. • • like us • follow us


by Wendy V. Ash

It’s that moment when I hold a blue object in front of the class and ask “Does anybody know how to say this color en Español?”. I wait, listen carefully and often I will hear it.


There it is. The rookie mistake and proof that Spanish has not been taught as it should have been.

Everybody who is a Spanish speaker knows that the “z” in Spanish is pronounced as an “s”. In my case, having been raised to speak castellano, you will catch me pronouncing the “z” as a “th”. However, it is never pronounced as “zzzzz”.

When a child has been taught Spanish, this phenomenon occurs for two reasons. One is that children are being taught to read and write Spanish before speaking it. In this case, they will take their rules of pronunciation for English, and apply it to Spanish. The second reason is when well-meaning, English-speaking teachers will fold Spanish into their curriculum without knowing how to properly pronounce it. In both cases, once children become accustomed to these types of pronunciation, it is a difficult habit to break.

I remember when I first spoke Spanish and then I tried to write it. I remember it well, because now I see my six year old daughter doing it with her notes she writes to me. I will see “Te qyedo” (I love you) when its proper spelling is “Te quiero“. I do not immediately point out that it is spelled incorrectly, in fact, I take joy in that she is spelling it phonetically and enjoys Spanish enough to write me love notes in the language. She will learn as she continues to read Spanish books how these words are spelled since a large portion of grammar is acquired from reading.

I had initially thought that this path of learning was exclusive to my daughter from having me as her mother. However, a boy in one of my classes, who comes from an English-speaking home and who is younger than my daughter, hit a home run with this:


What is astounding is that although these words were vocalized in class and the class is encouraged to repeat it, he took the initiative to try to sound out the words of the body parts and write them. This is how we learned our first language, and this is how we must learn our second language if we want to succeed.

I try to teach our children that if they learn to speak first and acquire native pronunciation, they will be batting a thousand later in their Spanish education. There will be so much time later for them to learn to spell and conjugate. For now, let’s teach them to speak for the love of the game.

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